One of the primary objectives in basic firefighter training is the development of knowledge and proficiencies associated with various types of forcible entry techniques and building access as well as search and rescue/victim removal techniques during a structure fire incident. In many fire schools, nearly half the allotted time is spent on these fire ground activities. In the structural firefighting world, one must continuously train to maintain proficiency in forcible entry, ladder deployment and search and rescue so that time is not lost during that critical period of survival.
Collectively, these skills are often brought together and help to make the difference in a successful or unsuccessful outcome of any incident.
When we switch gears and talk about Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF), these tasks (access to aircraft and search and rescue/victim removal) are also taught, but sometimes take a back seat to mass application of extinguishing agent activities from the foam units that are assigned to our airfields. Additionally, minimum staffing at many airfields may make entry into the aircraft during the initial minutes of the event impractical or impossible. The time prior to arrival of mutual aid assets will largely be consumed by extinguishing agent application and ensuring that a rescue path has been established and maintained until additional help arrives or all of the passengers have self-evacuated from the aircraft.
In recent years, newer versions of large frame aircraft have given rise to the concerns of the sheer size of aircraft and the quantities of passengers that are being carried on them. The ARFF world has not only embraced the modern marvels that these aircraft have brought to the world of air travel but also the potential ramifications that exist when one of these or any aircraft is involved in an accident. Additionally, the explosion of social media and a twenty-four hour real time news media cycle has on nearly a weekly basis demonstrated how frequent aircraft emergencies are becoming. It is expected that local airport fire departments be prepared to handle and successfully mitigate any aircraft emergency regardless of the size.
The best case scenario for passenger survival is for ARFF personnel to arrive immediately after the accident and begin critical functions that often do make the difference in the survivability. Gaining access to the aircraft cabin may be increasingly more difficult if passengers are already evacuating from the aircraft. This can be further complicated by the condition and position of the aircraft upon arrival at the scene. Aircraft accidents rarely occur in ideal conditions and it is incumbent upon first arriving ARFF personnel to adapt and overcome with the mindset of making the situation better than we found it. Evacuating passengers from an aircraft is certainly a good sign for us on the outside, but conversely creates access problems for us, as our entry points are now potentiallyeven more limited.
Gaining access and rescuing passengers from an aircraft is about attitude as much as it is about ability and skill. Certainly a risk management decision must take place before making the decision to enter an aircraft, but ultimately the will and desire to enter the aircraft wreckage is based upon “this risk management decision”? In aircraft rescue, we know the survival clock begins ticking the moment that fire breaks out or a crash occurs. Our mindset, our pre-plan and team training need to launch instantaneously upon notification of the event. This is where the attitude, ability and skill come together and the mindset of maximizing survival drives the end result.
Preparing for routine and difficult access scenarios is an essential element of emergency planning. Early on in my career, I was taught that the ideal place to access the aircraft is via an over wing exit or an exit near the wing, as this is pretty much the center point of the aircraft. I still believe in this tactic for obvious reasons but I also understand that it’s not an absolute and we need to train for every possibility. Once inside, we have the ability to go forward or aft and access almost the entire aircraft (regardless of size) to initiate an interior fire attack provided we have hose lines that are long enough. The final determination as to whether or not to make entry (and/or where to make entry) and initiate a fire attack will be made during size up and will be driven by a number of factors, including passenger evacuation routes and interior/exterior fires.
ARFF personnel need to have a thorough understanding of aircraft construction and be proficient in the operation of the various aircraft entry doors and over wing exits, as well as the “quirks” that are associated with them. From the perspective of gaining access to the aircraft, this knowledge base is essential, not just on the operation of the door, but also contributory factors, such as what happens if a particular door does not disarm from the outside and the slide deploys or if the door was damaged in the accident and thus inoperable. The slide deployment will not only cover the entire opening of the door, but also possibly 10” to 12” on either side of the door and puts advancing crews in harm’s way, as the slides deploy.
Victim Search and Rescue and Removal
One of the most challenging tasks performed by ARFF personnel is the search and rescue and ultimate removal of passengers that are trapped on a damaged aircraft. As the images from the Continental (Denver, Colorado-2008) and Asiana (San Francisco, California- 2013) accidents and countless others have demonstrated, making access to the aircraft may be the easy part of this process. One of the things that may be encountered on the interior of an aircraft accident is the possibility of passengers still buckled into their seats, or severely entangled with the remainder of the seats or components of the cabin. It is important for incident commanders to determine how many personnel will be needed for the tasks of interior rescue. These personnel are not included in any fire attack group that may be needed to extinguish an interior fire, or at least hold it in check long enough to get the aircraft evacuated. When deploying personnel to the interior, the incident commander must weigh heavily how many people may be needed to affect a rescue versus how much room is on the inside for rescue personnel and any tools that may be needed. Personnel must also keep in mind that moving wreckage on the inside of the aircraft is not considered destruction of evidence if it means getting to a viable victim.
Once victims are disentangled from the wreckage, they must be moved to the exits and removed from the aircraft. It is important for interior group or division supervisors to be communicating with the exterior supervision regarding status of the evacuation or rescue and location(s) to which victims are being transferred. Effective victim management is essential to ensure that all crew are on the same page so that rescued passengers are handed off in a safe and efficient manner. This hand off includes not only removing victims from the wreckage, but also getting them to the casualty collection point. A staffing task analysis should be conducted which identifies the critical tasks required for the worst case scenario, the number of personnel required to complete the task, and the number of minutes into the incident that crews should be available to execute it. If the staffing does not exist “on airport”, mutual aid must be trained and their efforts coordinated to understand the responsibilities.
It is not assumed that the tactics discussed will work for every airport. An airport fire department must establish plans that will work for them. If the resources at an airport do not include a readily available ladder truck or stair truck, the fire department should be training mutual aid personnel in these skills. Bringing them onto the airport during an emergency and asking them to complete a critical task, such as laddering an aircraft, may be disastrous without previous training. When mutual aid response is depended upon for gaining access or other tasks critical to survival, formal mutual aid agreements must include the expectations of the airport, as well as the capabilities of the mutual aid department. Preparation after the fact is not preparation at all.
For more information, go to www.arffwg.org