TRAINING FOR AIRPORT DISASTERS
For many airport fire agencies, providing APpropriate realistic training is a formidable challenge. Environmental mandates, federal aviation regulations, and economics pull at airport firerescue managers from three sides. From this position “in the middle,” airport departments must prepare as best they can for the unthinkable with what resources and physical training facilities they can muster.
Airport firefighter training the environmentally sound way is an expensive, tedious, and sometimes frustrating (and for some, a litigious) process. The days of the “light it up and circle the wagons” hydrocarbon burn have gone the way of the dinosaur. In many communities, airport live fire training with jet fuels is not on the list of permissible burns.
While the Federal Aviation Regulations address the initial training phase requirements for the airport firefighter, they do not cover continuing training, with the exception of requiring one live training burn every 12 months. It seems less than realistic to expect that this—plus a full mass casualty exercise required every three years—will keep airport responders in the state of readiness appropriate to the magnitude of air disaster response for which they are accountable.
Without specifics, the dilemma becomes where and how to accomplish the ongoing training. Some airport facilities see their way clear to training programs that satisfy or exceed minimum requirements, but in general, airport fire service managers are in scramble mode. Despite the need for more regular training, scheduling even one burn a year is difficult when training facilities are so few and far between. How can departments meet and exceed federal requirements while plans and construction for a compliant facility are underway? What’s the tangible incentive for airports to construct elaborate, environmentally friendly training systems when the law requires only one burn a year? These and other important questions must be resolved.
Attitudes about aircraft disaster response are changing. Airport industry personnel, based on historical analyses and investigations, are realizing that many victims survive crash impact only to succumb to the smoke and heat that penetrate the aircraft interior. This is a “radical” shift from the one-dimensional view of an air crash as a large flammable liquid fire. Traditional live fire training must give way to new approaches that account for victim survivability within the aircraft itself. Once knockdown of the exterior spill fire is accomplished—and with today’s tools and methods, that’s generally pretty quickly—the operation immediately must switch gears to a structural mode.
It is critical that airport fire officers take this progressive attitude with them into training sessions and the planning process—anything less would be shortchanging responder and victim. Pool resources: Form a coalition of airports that can share one training facility. Consider the Airport Improvement Planning (AIP) fund as an alternative capital resource. Meet regularly with FAA officials and representatives of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) and establish an open channel of communications— you’re all working toward the same goal. “Market” the urgent need for extensive training. Become involved with the Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) Working Group. Tap into existing facilities that traditionally have not offered airport training but may be capable of satisfying some of the components of such a program.
Recently I witnessed an unprecedented disaster exercise at the San Francisco Airport and also sat in on a meeting of regional/metro airport fire service officers, the FAA, and a representative of the AAAE to discuss the training dilemma. From these brief experiences and my conversations with individuals around the country, I can attest to the fact that airport fire-rescue training is an issue of national scope —and one that challenges the creativity and commitment of airport response leaders.