Basic Aircraft Firefighting Hazards


I have been responding to aircraft accidents and mishaps my entire career, and I have seen some of the amazing ways aircraft hazards can sneak up on you and challenge you to think outside the box. Have you heard that once an aircraft is on the ground, it’s no different from a structure fire? I don’t agree; I have been a part of multiple rotary wing and fixed wing aircraft crashes for military and civilian aircraft. In that time, only three have actually crashed on the airfield. Why is that important? Because mutual-aid partners of aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) response organizations typically arrive first and apply the same strategy and tactics that normally would apply at any other fire. This is not good because the chief or company officer is making decisions without knowing the hazards that threaten him and his firefighters. Too often, aircraft hazards are taken for granted or not even considered.

For years, my organization has pushed basic military and civilian aircraft hazard training delivery to our mutual-aid partners for just this type of scenario. If you have the potential to arrive on scene of a military or civilian aircraft incident in your jurisdiction before the local ARFF response, you should have, at least, a minimal understanding of how to recognize the type of aircraft involved, even if it’s as simple as knowing whether it is a military or civilian plane. You should begin by recognizing whether this type of scenario is possible in your response area. Typically, when you develop your scope of services or standard of response coverage, you won’t include aircraft response if you’re not at an airfield. Initially, viable options include something as simple as a mutual-aid aircraft book, an aircraft prefire plan book available for mutual-aid response, or providing relevant information to your dispatchers. This problem may arise more when the partnering agencies have different capabilities.

(1) A AH-1 attack helicopter with ordnance and defensive countermeasures, </i>
(1) A AH-1 attack helicopter with ordnance and defensive countermeasures

A good example of this occurred at a department I worked at four years ago. We were getting hit pretty hard by hiring freezes, and we were losing people to other job opportunities and attrition. The agency with which we partnered for mutual aid normally would respond to an aircraft incident and provide support by establishing a medical branch and providing staffing support. As our staffing became more and more affected, we started having to rely on our mutual-aid partners more; this meant that we would need more help that may directly involve them on a more tactical and task level for ARFF operations. This prompted both of our agencies to sit down and discuss our levels of involvement and the training that would need to take place to ensure firefighter safety and a basic knowledge of aircraft hazards.

(2) a V-22 Osprey</i>
(2) a V-22 Osprey

Unless you have had training on or exposure to military aircraft, you may not know that they have a wide range of hazards. Basic hazards include bombs, missiles, radiation, hazardous metals, composite fibers reinforced with boron tungsten and carbon graphite, fuel, hydraulic fluid, hydrazine, liquid oxygen, hypergolic fuels, lithium, chaff/flares, and so on. How often have you been in a structure fire that presents these hazards?

You will also need many basic strategic approaches to operate around these aircraft. Certain areas are no-go areas because of the hazards presented to firefighters such as aircraft intakes (if running), radar hazard areas, ordnance involved in fire, and so on.

(3) an AV-8B Harrier pose significant hazards to responders. <i>(Photos by author.)</i>
(3) an AV-8B Harrier pose significant hazards to responders. (Photos by author.)

Specific firefighting tactics involved with ARFF can include how to approach and attack wheel fires, engine fires, auxiliary power unit fires, tailpipe fires, and cabin fires. Ventilation in large-frame aircraft or helicopters can be tricky if you don’t know the location of the designated cut-out areas. Knowing the aircraft’s basic interior layout will assist you in ensuring that you don’t injure personnel inside or cut a hydraulic line pressurized with 3,000 to 4,000 pounds per square inch. Interior cabin fires typically have liquid oxygen supporting the flame spread, hidden hydraulic lines, limited floor space, and numerous people. If you respond to these types of incidents, equip yourself with the basic knowledge that enables you to make safe fireground decisions.

JACOB McAFEE is a 14-year fire and emergency services veteran who has served in a variety of capacities across the military and Department of Defense (DOD). He is the assistant chief of fire prevention and operations at USAF Plant 42 Fire Department in Palmdale, California. His career began with the United States Marine Corps as an aircraft rescue firefighter; he was honorably discharged in 2007. He acted as a captain and a division chief for personnel in Iraq and has worked in a number of capacities for the DOD. McAfee has master’s degrees in occupational safety and health and emergency management from Columbia Southern University. He is enrolled in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program.

Planning for ARFF and Mutual Aid
Establishment of an ARFF Program
Developing ARFF SOGs and Response Cards

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