They happen rarely, but when they do, air accidents at or near airports present rescuers and firefighters with particular challenges which are quite different from those met daily by structural firefighters.
Despite the media coverage given to mid-air aircraft accidents, such as the Malaysian Airlines’ flight MH370 which disappeared over the Indian Ocean or MH17 which was shot down over Ukraine, such accidents are very rare but inevitably catastrophic.
Most aircraft accidents take place during take-off and landing and the level of a firefighter’s skill and equipment can, and does, play a major part in minimising injuries and loss of life in such situations. Airport firefighters in many countries are specially trained in hot fire emergency response in which increasingly sophisticated specialist training rigs are used. Given the nature of hot fires and the risk of explosion when take-off, landing and runway collisions are involved, the type, and level, of protection provided to firefighters should be selected on its performance, confronted with the particular hazards associated with a range of aircraft fires.
In recent years, international airports in the advanced economies of the world have invested substantially in upgrading their capability and preparedness for major incidents. This has included both the quality and performance of firefighting equipment and the level of firefighter training. As our understanding of the nature and behaviour of fires increases, so has the level of effectiveness in dealing with rapid evacuation and fire suppression. Aircraft fires require a combination of emergency services skills and close collaboration between the fire and rescue teams and ambulance paramedics. Clearly the first priority of the firefighters is to minimise the impact of the fire whilst at the same time extricating the injured from fire in the cabin areas. For the ambulance crews their priority is to assist with the extrication and provide on-the-spot medical assistance to stabilise the injured before getting them to hospital. Rapid transit to hospital will be by ambulance but, on occasion, may also call on the services of local air ambulances to fly casualties needing specialist treatment to specific hospitals where these facilities are available.
Airport firefighters encounter a variety of emergencies which range from a full blown runway disaster to smaller incidents, such as wheel, brake and undercarriage fires, as well as incidents involving airport buildings or vehicle fires anywhere on an airport site. A burning aircraft is a hot fire and presents special dangers of ignited aviation fuel, other inflammable liquids and the possibility of explosion requiring special firefighting equipment, foam suppressants and special clothing and training. Airport fire incidents involving buildings or vehicles require skills and equipment similar to those used by municipal firefighters whose assistance would often be called upon to deal with such incidents.
Training and special firefighting skills
Firefighters spend many hours honing new skills such as rescue techniques and may be part of special teams, such as rapid intervention or rescue teams. By necessity, airports store large amounts of hazardous materials, such as aviation fuels, and other flammable products which can burn at extremely high temperatures. Some may react adversely to water so chemical suppressants are frequently deployed. Airport firefighters must also be aware of the environmental impact of the chemicals stored at airports and, in the event of a spill, must know how to properly contain and control those chemicals and require their PPE to provide penetration protection. They must also re-qualify every four years to be deemed competent partly due to the fact that they do not respond to as many incidents as municipal firefighters whose competency can normally be demonstrated by the number of calls they deal with annually. Many are also trained emergency medical technicians to render medical care and first aid.
Protecting firefighters across the world
Bristol is a major supplier of firefighter personal protective equipment (PPE) to airport fire services across the world as well as to around half the major airports in the UK, including Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham. In Australia, Airservices is a government-owned organisation providing ARFF services at 22 of Australia’s busiest airports. It responds to some 8000 aircraft and airport emergency assistance requests nationally (2010 figures). Their ARFF service is one of the world’s largest providers of aviation rescue and firefighting services with more than 800 operational and support personnel based around Australia. Their 650 firefighters are equipped with Bristol PPE through a contract signed in 2010. Their largest ARFF stations are located at Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth airports. Airservices Australia chief executive Greg Russell commented at the time, “This equipment is the very latest, we looked long and hard around the world to find the right equipment,”
In Europe, Bristol’s kit is the protection of choice at European airports including Budapest, Oporto and Amsterdam Schiphol, a major intercontinental hub and Europe’s fourth busiest airport handling over 52 million passengers in 2013. Michel Wendel, Business Controller Operations at Schiphol Group, explained that his firefighters are called upon to deal not only with aviation related incidents but many others in and around the Schiphol area which are more closely related to normal fire duty callouts. On average there are in the region of 50 aviation related precautionary standbys with several hundred other callouts for various fire and other related hazards during the year around the large Schiphol site. Although the airport only has one terminal building this is split into three large departure halls which serve the 6 runways which range in length from over 2km to 3.8km. The most recent runway to be built was completed in 2003 and there are already plans to add a seventh in the near future. Schiphol is the world’s lowest major airport being 3 metres below sea level.
At Schiphol training is carried out on a daily basis. There are 125 full time firefighters on station who all work shifts of 3 teams over 24 hours. The size of the airport complex is such that the firefighters operate out of 3 fire stations, Rijk, Sloten and Vijfhuizen which are located around the site. The Fire Manager explained, “Fire training is carried out at the main station, Sloten, on a daily basis. Firefighters are on rotational duty and their training is undertaken when they are on main station duty. Normally, training sessions last about 4 hours. A range of training is carried out including simulated firefighting on a Boeing 747 test rig with a computer controlled gas fire”.
Schiphol has a very good air traffic accident record. There has only been one major aircraft incident involving loss of life over the past 20 years. In February 2009, a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul crashed on approach. The plane carried 128 passengers and seven crew on board. Nine people were killed and a further 86 were injured, including six with serious injuries. The crash was attributed to a malfunction in a radio altimeter which failed to provide the correct height above the ground. A non-aviation related incident occurred in 2005 when fire broke out at the airport’s detention centre, killing 11 people and injuring 15. The complex was holding 350 people at the time of the incident.
Most, if not all, airports use a selection procedure for purchasing firefighter PPE which routinely involves trialling samples of kit from several manufacturers. The alternatives are inspected and supplied to firefighters to carry out wearer trials. Selection is based on a number of criteria including wearer comfort, durability, price, sizing, availability of stock, and the provision of an efficient managed care service to ensure the cleanliness and protective integrity of the kit as well as its longevity. A garment construction able to meet the highest Level 2 performance rating to EN469:2005 is normally considered essential in Europe, whilst North American NFPA1971:2013 or other national standards apply elsewhere.
A number of airport fire teams are being, or have been in recent years, re-equipped giving them the opportunity to take advantage of the new lighter weight designs being introduced to the market and which provide greater wearer comfort with reduced heat stress associated with prolonged periods of wear.
Richard Cranham, Bristol Uniforms’ International Sales Manager, who is responsible for the company’s supply contracts with airports across Europe and South America has witnessed considerable change in the specification and purchasing of PPE in recent years. He commented, “The operational demands placed on airport firefighters may vary considerably from site to site, but many rely on Bristol Uniforms’ PPE to protect their firefighters. We have seen a steady move to replace traditional PPE designs with our XFlex™ lightweight jackets and trousers, introduced to the market in 2011, whilst also demonstrating a growing interest in adopting our integrated managed care services.”
For more information, go to www.bristoluniforms.com