Crash Course for the Airport Firefighter

Article and photos by Steven Cobb

When municipal firefighters step onto airport property, they step into a very specialized part of firefighting. Airports are very complex, and the firefighters seem to speak a different language. Municipal firefighters must be able to communicate properly with the air traffic controllers or “tower,” the dispatch or communication center, other responding vehicles, and incident commanders. On occasion, firefighters may have to talk to the pilots, usually on separate radios through one headset. The runways are identified by a compass heading.  Taxiways are identified by numeric or phonetic alphabet signs. There are no street lights–just red, blue, green, and white lights, typically on the ground.

When there is an incident, firefighters must be able to respond in highly specialized vehicles at speeds up to 60-plus miles per hour. The response is required to arrive on scene, ready for full combat, within three minutes.  When fire crews arrive on scene, they may be facing an aircraft incident with up to 400 passengers escaping at once through several doors or hatches.

Imagine that you are sent to the airport as a relief or an overtime firefighter. Is this a safe practice? Are you trained for airport operations? Does your department schedule regular training for working at the airport? When there is an incident at your airport, you will be there. Will you remember how to drive and operate the crash truck; operate the turret or the penetrating nozzle and the radios, cameras, infrared and recording system; and how to recharge the water and foam tanks? Just as important, can you navigate on the airfield and talk to the tower? Can you identify the aircraft and estimate the number of passengers?

That’s right, you’re a municipal firefighter, and the airport is not your thing! One of the statistics that you may not have been told or may not have realized is that approximately 80 percent of aircraft crashes occur away from the airport; therefore, municipal fire operations should include aircraft incident scenarios and training.  As a municipal firefighter, you have already accomplished many of the skills needed.

Now, put yourself into an aluminum confined space with narrow islets, with debris all around you and flammable liquids under and surrounding the airframe. Now you must triage and rescue the trapped or severely injured (there may be 50 or more), stabilize the aircraft, and ensure that the fire is out and the airfield is secured. All the injured will have to be transported to the hospitals, and someone will have to control the hazardous runoff.

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Did I mention that the newest aircraft are being constructed with up to 50-percent lightweight material, namely “carbon fibers”? If you become complacent during an aircraft fire and inhale the fibers, your lungs could be severely damaged and your career could be ended. You will be only one of the many firefighters on the accident scene.  Don’t you want to have the upper hand with the knowledge needed to combat an incident of such magnitude?

The Federal Aviation Administration has developed 11 training topics in which airport firefighters must become proficient to maintain airport status. You are responsible for ensuring your proficiency in these areas. How do you become proficient? There are dozens of books, training centers, and department training manuals, and your crew can also help to prepare you for your airport duties. There are several technical books written specifically for airport firefighters. There are Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) working groups and organizations that bring together airport firefighters from around the world, both online and at annual conferences, to discuss critical ARFF topics and training.  ARFF training centers across the United States offer classes from the basic-level ARFF classes to advanced command training. The training centers are also prepared to provide you with your required annual live-fire training. Currently, Fire Engineering University is developing an interactive classroom that will cover the 11 training topics for firefighters. Students can log into the specific subject and receive credit, including a printout and a certificate of completion, toward initial certification or maintaining skills.

You will need a lot of knowledge and many technical skills to safely participate in operations when an aircraft goes down. The ARFF industry needs more well-trained, physically fit firefighters to participate in airport rescue firefighting. Airport firefighters will need all the specialized training their departments can provide, and then some. Airport fire operations include specialized rescue, specialized vehicles, truck operations, EMS, high-rise, low-rise, large commercial occupancies (LCO), hazardous materials, fuel storage, and other hazardous occupancies.

There is much more to airport fire operations than is evident at first glance. When you are a dedicated airport firefighter, every person on every aircraft that takes off, lands, transitions, or crashes on or near your airport is depending on you. You have a huge responsibility to the flying public.

Click to EnlargeSteven Cobb is a retired battalion chief with the San Bernardino City (CA) Fire Department.  He spent 34 years in the fire service, starting in the U.S. Air Force (1975-1979) as an aircraft rescue firefighter at Norton AFB in San Bernardino. He joined the San Bernardino City Fire Department in 1980, retiring in 2009 as battalion chief. He graduated from Crafton Hills College and is a certified California chief officer. During his tenure with the city, he was the liaison to the San Bernardino International Airport and City management as the airport transitioned from military to civilian.  He was instrumental in obtaining the Federal Aviation Administration grant for development of the San Bernardino Regional Emergency Training Center. In April 1995, he partnered with Les Omans and Gunnar Kuepper for the Aircraft Rescue Research Project, which demonstrated various tools on the actual airframes for the first time.  He was the airport fire operations coordinator and California State senior instructor and trainer at the training center. He has trained several hundred firefighters on subjects ranging from basic firefighting to command-level aircraft rescue.

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