Establishment of an ARFF Program


In 2003, the Lockport Township (IL) Fire PROTECtion District (LTFPD) assumed fire and EMS protection of Lewis University Airport, owned and operated by the Joliet Regional Port District, from the village of Romeoville through a 99-year intergovernmental agreement. Romeoville had covered the airport since the 1970s. This facility serves as a reliever airport for Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports, taking in numerous corporate and private aircraft from all over the country. Lewis is also home to a nationally renowned aviation training program that trains pilots and aviation maintenance personnel. Two active runways serve Lewis, 2-20 (6,500 feet) and 9-27 (5,697 feet) (Figure 1). As of 2008, Lewis Airport was listed by the Illinois Department of Transportation as the fourth busiest airport in Illinois (after O’Hare, Midway, and St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, Illinois), with approximately 120,000 takeoffs and landings annually.

Figure 1. Lewis University Airport

This is remarkable in that Lewis Airport does not have a control tower; all takeoffs and landings are done by visual flight rules (VFR). Under VFR, there is no air traffic control tower (ATCT); pilots of all aircraft with radios merely call out their flight intentions and hope that all other traffic in the area will hear their transmissions and see their aircraft. This gets interesting when the flight school is in operation and multiple planes are in the pattern doing regular takeoffs and landings and “touch and go’s” (when an aircraft just touches down on the runway and immediately takes off again without stopping).

Often, there is so much radio traffic that transmissions step on each other and are lost. This is not unique to our airport and occurs at any uncontrolled airport. Because there is no ATCT, we use our aviation radios to talk directly to stricken aircraft to determine the nature of the emergency so we can decide how we will respond. In a crash or a standby situation, the radio is used to continually alert incoming pilots of an on-field emergency. A standby is called when a plane experiences an in-flight emergency and requires fire and ARFF units to stand by until it makes a safe landing and the emergency is declared over.

Realizing the potential for accidents because of the volume of traffic the facility handles, Chief David Skoryi of the LTFPD saw to it that the district became knowledgeable in ARFF. All district members received basic, informal awareness training with help from Lieutenant Tom Wagner of the Chicago (IL) Fire Department (CFD). His class consisted of four hours of classroom training covering the general rules of the airfield and also basic tactics and strategy. Students received an additional eight hours of practical training using a simulator at O’Hare Airport.

Once all members had received the awareness training, I expressed an interest in ARFF and pursued avenues to start training firefighters in ARFF based on Illinois Office of State Fire Marshal’s (OSFM) and Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 139 guidelines. Part 139 is a document that covers all aspects of airport operations, including ARFF. In October 2006, with Wagner’s help, I joined three other LTFPD firefighters to attend a 40-hour OSFM ARFF course given at the Rockford (IL) Fire Department. Two more members were sent to the Waukegan (IL) Fire Department (WFD) for the 40-hour OSFM ARFF class in the spring of 2007.

That year, because of the specialized nature of ARFF operations, the LTFPD created a special ARFF operations team, appointing me coordinator in 2007. In 2008, four additional members were sent to Sugar Grove (IL) Fire Protection District (SGFPD) for training, and two more members received training in 2010. The team now has 12 members trained in ARFF to OSFM and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1003, Standard for Airport Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications.


In 2006, while starting our official program, we acquired two surplus 1992 Amertek crash trucks through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, agreeing not to sell or surplus the rigs ourselves. A local construction company transported the two rigs back to Illinois on a flatbed, and our maintenance division checked the vehicles’ operation and tuned them up (photo 1). Originally, we planned to use one for operations and keep the other for spare parts, but an inspection revealed that both rigs were functional and could be placed in service with minimal repairs. After minor repairs, we cleaned the units, added striping, and installed a new light package.

(1) Photos by author.

Rescue 5 and Rescue 6 were placed in service in spring 2007 as special operations vehicles that would be staffed as needed. In photo 2, Rescue 6 operates at the CFD’s O’Hare Airport ARFF response simulator for the first time in 2007. Rescue 5 has identical graphics and warning lights but no extension ladder. It is assigned with Engine 5 to Station 5, located outside of the northwest corner of the airport. Rescue 6 is assigned with Tower Ladder 6 at Station 6, across the street from the airport’s main entrance on the south side. Although not on airport property, the fire stations’ locations allow for a fast response to either side of the airport. Predetermined staging areas for ARFF, emergency medical services, and suppression companies further enhance a rapid response.



Three years after organizing the team, we continue to improve our program and have developed standard operating guidelines (SOGs), training guidelines, response (box) cards, and staging areas for companies to use when responding to aircraft and airport emergencies. The SOGs provide direction for responding to aircraft emergencies, to medical emergencies on aircraft and on airport property, and to structural fires on airport property. The response cards give a predetermined response of fire and EMS companies to the airport. The LTFPD also developed a regional training and networking group with other area ARFF providers, which include the SGFPD, the DeKalb (IL) Fire Department, the West Chicago Fire Protection District, and the WFD. Annual live fire training occurs at the CFD’s aircraft simulator at O’Hare Airport. This training has greatly enhanced all of our ARFF capabilities and knowledge and permitted critical hands-on training not available at our home departments. We’ve also developed a Web site to make photos, videos, and links to SOGs and ARFF incidents available to anyone interested in our regional ARFF program.

For in-house training, our district uses a school bus and an airplane fuselage. The bus interior closely matches the interior of some of the larger aircraft seen at the airport, with similar seating and aisle widths. Crews can practice hoseline and master stream water flow and perform simulated rescues on “victims” inside the “aircraft.” A local bus company donated the vehicle. In photo 3, crews have just finished making entry and removing five “victims” (hose dummies) from the prop.


The SGFPD donated the plane fuselage, but it has not been used yet for training. Plans call for setting up the fuselage with a forcible entry prop on the door so crews can practice forcing aircraft doors.

Also in progress is the creation of a regional foam task force response plan. Essentially, each ARFF department or department possessing bulk alcohol-resistant aqueous film-forming foam (AR-AFFF) would cover certain geographical areas and respond to incidents involving flammable or combustible materials that require deploying mass quantities of foam. Although this plan is still under development, several area departments have added our ARFF rigs to their hazardous materials response cards in the meantime.


Fortunately, crashes and standbys are rare. Several times a year, however, the airport hosts events that require us to stand by. The largest is NASCAR racing, which occurs at the ChicagoLand Speedway in Joliet in July. Because of the high volume of air traffic coming into Lewis Airport, the FAA sets up a mobile control tower (photo 4) on the airport’s north side, staffed by two air traffic controllers and one supervisor. While this tower is in operation over the four-day period (Wednesday through Saturday night), we set up a base of operations (BOO) on-site. Seven personnel are assigned: two to each ARFF unit, two on the ambulance, and one ARFF commander in a car. The Romeoville (IL) Fire Department provides and staffs the ambulance. The Will County (IL) Sheriff’s Department provides a trailer to serve as temporary personnel quarters, and an inflatable tent from the LTFPD technical rescue team provides a sheltered outdoor area for crews and our EMS utility vehicle (photo 5).


Crews assigned to the Lewis Airport detail start each day by checking out their assigned vehicles and then going through the day’s incident action plan (IAP), which is delivered to the regular fire department battalion chief, Stations 5 and 6 duty crews, the airport authority, the ATCT personnel, the Romeoville Emergency Management Agency, the Romeoville Police Department, WESCOM (our dispatch center), and all personnel assigned to the detail. It spells out responses, radio frequencies, and safety procedures to follow during the times the detail is staffed. After the IAP is reviewed and questions (if any) are answered, the ARFF commander reports to the ATCT supervisor to discuss the planned air traffic for the day, the runways that will be used, and any other relevant information. The NASCAR IAP is available HERE (PDF).

At some point during each day, the ATCT calls out the detail crews to respond to a simulated emergency somewhere on the airfield. This is a timed event required by FAA 139 guidelines and concludes when both rigs “show water” at the area to which they were told to respond. Per the guidelines, the ARFF crews must be able to make the center of the field in less than three minutes. The ATCT sends the crews to the farthest points of the field, and they are still able to make it within two to three minutes from time of call to “show water.” Crews also train at least two hours each day on topics including airfield and aircraft familiarization, fire extinguisher inspections (including a review of the operations of the wheeled units kept by each fueling area), run-outs, and communications with the ATCT. Crews are released when the tower shuts down for the day; they return the next morning when it reopens. All personnel are hired back on overtime or detailed from regular fire companies and are covered with overtime by nonARFF personnel to avoid short-staffing regular fire companies.

Other special events include a pancake breakfast in late May, hosted by the local Experimental Aircraft Association, to which we send two personnel and one ARFF rig for public relations. A semiannual four-day event features a World War II-era B-17 aircraft that offers rides to the public. Both events attract more than 1,000 attendees, which not only necessitates our presence but also allows us to let the public and the flying community know we provide a valuable service.


Immediate plans call for installing a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera on one ARFF unit. A grant allowed us to add mobile aviation frequency radios to both rescues, which has greatly improved our communication abilities with aircraft during regular times and also with the ATCT during the NASCAR weekend.

We will continue to work on the foam task force plan with Mutual Aid Box Alarm System Illinois and area fire departments.

Another large project is seeking funding for replacement of our ARFF vehicles. Although both vehicles perform well for their age and condition, the manufacturer is out of business, and parts are hard to come by. Although each rig carries 1,000 gallons of water and 130 gallons of AR-AFFF, they do not meet current FAA and NFPA specifications because they do not carry an onboard extinguishing agent.

Team members are researching grant options and other avenues of funding. Because our airport is not indexed and does not meet FAA 139 standards, we are not eligible for traditional FAA grant funding. We plan to acquire a full-sized ARFF vehicle (carrying a minimum of 1,500 gallons of water, 200 gallons of foam, and 500 pounds of dry chemical fire suppression agent) and a rapid intervention vehicle (RIV) once funding is secured. An RIV is typically on a pickup truck chassis and would carry extrication tools, 500 pounds of extinguishing agent, and a small quantity of water and foam.

The Joliet Regional Port District Regional Airport has plans for a major expansion and additional runways, but the economy has stalled those plans for now. The airport authority continues to buy land as it is able for these expansion projects and hopes to have a permanent ATCT in the near future.

The LTFPD ARFF Division will continue to work closely with the airport authority to provide the best service possible to those who use the airport and also continue to train our members in ARFF tactics and procedures. Our ARFF program is young, but we take pride in it and see no reason why it cannot be a model for other community-based (nonairport supported) ARFF protection.

MICHAEL J. LOPINA is a 21-year veteran of the fire service and a career lieutenant/paramedic with the Lockport Township (IL) Fire Protection District. He is the Section 4 manager of the Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting Working Group (ARFFWG), an international organization committed to improving ARFF operations around the world. He has a BA in fire administration from Lewis University and numerous Illinois fire certifications.

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