Tunnel Firefighting Operations


After several tunnel fires in Europe in the late 1990s that resulted in many casualties, trucking companies and the fire service were very uncertain about the best way to handle such incidents in road tunnels. Subsequently, the Swiss government gave the International Fire Academy (IFA) the tasks of developing a specific tunnel firefighting procedure, building tunnel training facilities, and training the Swiss fire service in the procedure. Today, fire service personnel from many countries come to the IFA to train on the Swiss tunnel firefighting procedure.

Tunnel Fires

On March 24, 1999, a truck fire burned for more than 50 hours within the 7.2-mile (11.6-kilometer) Mont-Blanc single-tube road tunnel connecting France and Italy, killing 39 people. As a result, the tunnel was closed for three years and traffic was rerouted over a much longer route. The entire ventilation system was replaced during this time.

(1) Photos courtesy of the International Fire Academy.
(1) Photos courtesy of the International Fire Academy.

At this fire, firefighters were also trapped in the smoke and could barely be rescued. Some experts were uncertain about the options for fire personnel during tunnel firefighting operations. Other incidents in the Alpine region followed. A 1999 fire in the Austrian Tauern road tunnel resulted in 12 deaths and 49 injuries; a fire in the Switzerland St. Gotthard road tunnel killed 11 people on October 24, 2001.

Increasing Tunnel Safety

Prior to the St. Gotthard tunnel fire, the foundation for increasing safety in European tunnels was already established. On September 12, 2001, the European Commission proposed a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council of the European Union for setting minimum safety requirements for tunnels in the Trans-European road network. The resulting directive 2004/541 was adopted on April 29, 2004, and has since been implemented throughout the European Union. The measures are intended to enhance the early recognition of hazards, support the tunnel users’ self-rescue, use technology to reduce the consequences of tunnel incidents, and develop appropriate tunnel operation training and drills for the emergency services. The directive did not specify training and operations preparation, but it was the starting point for the IFA’s development of a tunnel response procedure, which began in 2001.

Tunnel Response Training Center

On May 23, 2000, the Swiss Federal Road Office (FEDRO) Tunnel Task Force final report,2 among other safety measures, recommended the building of a tunnel not connected to the road network for training exercises and research. This resulted in the creation of a tunnel operations response training center. In 2001, the initial planning meeting began with a delay: One development team member was delayed in traffic related to the fire in the St. Gotthard road tunnel, mentioned above. In the aftermath, the IFA prepared a thorough case study of the incident, which has been intensively discussed with the firefighters during training ever since.

The FEDRO and the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) invested more than 45 million Swiss francs in the new tunnel training center. The two tunnel training facilities in Balsthal (near Basel) and Lungern (near Lucerne), Switzerland, offer more than 1,500 meters (m) of tunnel for creating realistic road and railway response training scenarios. The longest continuous tunnel segment is 1,968 feet (600 m) long.

Tunnel Firefighting Procedures

While the tunnel training facilities were under construction, the IFA was also developing its first tunnel firefighting procedure.3 The key difference between tunnel fire attack and other interior fire attack is the long distances required. Fire personnel may have to cover several hundred yards before they reach the scene of firefighting and search and rescue operations. The great depth of penetration that tunnel incidents may require strains all operation processes over time. Hence, tunnel operations necessitate specific operations training and special tactics and techniques to increase firefighter safety and ensure success.

Tactical Decisions

Extinguish fire to allow rescue. The basis for this tactic is that if the source of smoke in tunnels is eliminated as quickly as possible, it will substantially improve the conditions to allow victims to self-rescue and firefighters to rescue them (photo 1).

Attack from both tunnel openings. To advance as quickly as possible to the seat of the fire and to avoid traffic obstacles, a fire company is deployed from each end of the tunnel, even if the incident may involve only a small vehicle fire or an automatic fire detection system alarm. This way, the first unit to reach the seat of the fire can start the fire attack while the other can conduct search and rescue. To ensure operational success, deploy a large number of personnel at this critical initial phase.

Use breathing protection. Since smoke is the biggest operational hazard at tunnel incidents, firefighters entering the tunnel during a fire must have immediate access to self-contained breathing apparatus. This also applies to the uninvolved tunnels, if there are any; they may also quickly fill up with smoke because of the air circulation from the entrances at both ends.

Use familiar equipment and techniques. Training experts and the tunnel firefighter procedure development team discussed the necessary tunnel operation equipment and techniques extensively. Since the firefighters would have already exerted an effort in reaching the scene from a long distance, the recommended equipment for operations was eventually limited to the essentials. Furthermore, primarily using familiar equipment would simplify the training needed and permit firefighters to perform with familiar techniques and equipment at such infrequent incidents. With less technical equipment, firefighters can concentrate more on training and exercises.

The white canes with red tips used by the sight impaired provided the idea for an energy-saving solution for searching for victims over long distances. To perform a rapid, continuous search, firefighters use the canes to scan roadways and walkways (photo 2).

Because safety ropes presented an entanglement hazard during tunnel trials, they were considered too dangerous to use to maintain orientation, and teams using them moved much more slowly. Even in densest artificial smoke, firefighters had no trouble orienting themselves using the tunnel wall. Additionally, marking lights would indicate the location of exits, water supplies, victim locations, and searched areas.

Transporting victims over long distances is another consideration. For this, the IFA recommends using wheeled basket stretchers. If such equipment is not available, it will take four members, instead of two, to rescue a heavy victim.

IFA Training

At the IFA, the road and railway tunnel operation training lasts three to four days, and courses are available in German, English, French, and Italian. After a safety briefing, participants begin with focused training on scene reconnaissance, search and rescue, and firefighting. The instructors use the principles of experiential learning. At first, participants experience different operational situations and evaluate their actions’ effectiveness. Afterward, they discuss their experience, tactics, and techniques with the instructors. At the next exercise, they can immediately apply the results of this discussion and improve their performance significantly over a short time. The scenario in photo 3 with two burning trucks side by side is based on the 2001 St. Gotthard tunnel fire.

Tabletop exercises at the tactical center supplement training at the tunnel facility. Three separate rooms simulate the two portals and the interior of the tunnel, enabling highly efficient scenario exercises, even up to joint staff exercises for all emergency services (photo 4).

Many international fire services make use of the IFA’s train-the-trainer offerings for officers and instructors. It is also possible to take part in an intensive training course, where members of different fire services train together.

Tunnel-Specific Operations

One goal of the IFA’s training is for firefighters to develop an operation plan appropriate for the tunnel in their response area and to train their firefighters at home accordingly.

Fires in road tunnels are rare, but they can have major consequences. In addition to affecting the tunnel users, an incident can have economic and social consequences, especially if it involves an arterial traffic route. Protecting the users, the surroundings, and the infrastructure of these routes is the objective of the IFA. The academy offers advisory support for new major tunnel construction projects. The academy has also produced the Firefighting Operations in Road Tunnels textbook, which outlines the tunnel response procedure. To find out more about the IFA and the tunnel firefighting procedure, visit www.ifa-swiss.ch/en.


1. European Union Directive 2004/54 EC, “On Minimum Safety Requirements for Tunnels in the Trans-European Road Network.” http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/DE/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32004L0054.

2. Final report of the Swiss tunnel task force published 23.05.2000. www.tcs.ch/de/assets/testberichte/tunneltests/astra-bericht-tunnel-task-force.pdf.

3. Brauner, Christian, et al. Firefighting Operations in Road Tunnels: Tactics – Techniques – Background. (2016) International Fire Academy, Saulheim, Germany and Balsthal, Switzerland.

MARKUS VOGT has served since 2009 with the International Fire Academy (Balsthal, Switzerland), where he is an instructor and the head consultant. Previously, at Primus AG, he was responsible for new product development and fire extinguisher maintenance. Vogt served as head of safety and security for Allschwil, Switzerland, where he was responsible for fire brigade, civil defense, and military service administration.

Markus Vogt will present “Firefighting in Underground Transportation Facilities” on Monday, April 18, 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., at FDIC International 2016 in Indianapolis.

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