The Federal Aviation Administration requires all Part 139 airports, both municipal and private, to provide aircraft rescue and firefighting services. Those services are handled by the airport authority in larger cities, but smaller cities often rely on the local fire department to step up in cases of emergency.
Both large and small departments of fire and rescue responders are required by the FAA to have at least some members trained in aviation-specific fire and rescue situations. Specifically, departments must conduct a timed-response drill, review aircraft rescue and firefighting personnel training records, including annual livefire drill and documentation of basic emergency medical care training, and check equipment and protective clothing for operation, condition and availability.
Deputy Fire Chief Brian Colella of Pittsburgh International Airport Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Assistant Fire Chief Michael Foster of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport Fire Training Research Center agree that regardless of the size of a community and its airport, fire and rescue responders should have experience dealing with the unique challenges that aircraft accidents present.
“The likelihood of an aircraft crashing in your community might be very low, but having the right equipment and the ability to deal with it if it does is what I think everyone wants,” said Foster. “Even if it’s just a twin engine biplane that drops down, you want to have the tools to make a difference.”
Fires occur in eight percent of aircraft crashes. Once they do, the chance of fatalities rises dramatically. And the number of causes of aircraft fires seems to remain about constant, because as old fire hazards are corrected, new ones develop. In 2011, highly flammable lithium ion batteries became a concern for cargo aircraft after a UPS fire-related crash in Saudi Arabia. Lightweight composite materials that are increasingly used in aircraft construction are not always extinguishable by traditionally-employed methods.
One key to saving lives is just knowing what kind of aircraft are flying out there, Foster noted. That’s where the lesson begins at DFW’s training center.
“One thing we do is familiarize firefighters with the aircraft, the shutdown and safety features. There are innate risks of aircraft versus structure firefighting, so we talk, for one thing, about how to convert structural firefighting apparatus for use in those aircraft.”
DFW fire and rescue personnel will visit communities and tailor the required training accordingly. But more specific training can be done at DFW, which boasts a full-scale A830 aircraft mock-up capable of live burns, along with a hydrocarbon pit that mimics a jet fuel spill, narrow-body and cargo aircraft and other facilities — some with flashover capabilities. At DFW, a $20 million grant for a redesign and update will triple the available classroom space.
At PIT, the additional challenge of a cold climate adds another relevant aspect to the specialized training. The year-round training facility offers specialized sessions in cold climate training evolutions, with propane-fueled and computer-controlled burn scenarios.
Both chiefs applaud the forward thinking smaller communities who invest in advance aircraft rescue and fire training. Most will train only to the minimum standard, however, and have little practice adapting common municipal firefighting equipment for the narrow enclosed space of an aircraft, treating the higher combustibility of airplane fuel or efficiently removing passengers from a burning or disabled craft.
“Compounding the issue is that in small cities, often you only have one or two people who have to be trained on aircraft fire suppression, Colella said. “That’s why we do what we do. We want everyone to be ready.”