AFOA recently held a webinar on managing airport rescue and firefighting services through the Covid-19 pandemic, which was attended by over 100 delegates including airport fire officers and emergency planners from across the UK. The information-sharing exercise highlighted the importance of strong partnership working and communication with staff, training providers and other agencies including regulators, in order to adapt to the enormous challenges presented by the pandemic and inform future resilience planning.
Dublin Airport Fire & Rescue Service provides domestic fire and medical response to the airport facilities, including an operational emergency ambulance. Its crews comprise 100 staff on four watches, 25 of whom are fully trained paramedics. Gerry Keogh, Chief Fire Officer, Dublin Airport explained what procedures were put into place to keep Dublin airport open for essential travel and twice-daily deliveries of medical supplies during the pandemic:
When the Government advice changed to ‘Stay at Home’ all non-essential airport staff stayed at home. Health Service Information desks for passengers still travelling were set up in the airport. The staff manning these desks were not medical people so if passengers presented with symptoms of Covid-19, they were sent to an isolation room where airport ambulance crews attended to evaluate patients. Ambulance crews in full PPE responded to over 100 of these calls. After each call-out crews had a shower and a full change of uniform was required in a new decontamination room back at the fire station. The daily checks now required all appliances and the ambulance to be fogged and sanitised. Social-distancing measures were quickly put in place across the station. This new way of working created a significant amount of additional work.
At one critical stage between mid-March and mid-April a number of firefighters contracted Covid-19 and were out of work. Contingency plans had to be made for a scenario where an entire watch was out of action. Military resources were also put on standby and a call was nearly made to activate those resources.
A fire and rescue crew from Cork Airport was drafted in, based at a remote location airside, and worked very well for a number of weeks. The crew isolated in a hotel and did not come into the station. No switches or overtime were allowed. A series of 21 further health and safety measures were introduced at the station, which have proven successful in preventing the spread of the virus.
Fire training has since resumed with selected, risk-assessed drills. All paramedics have now been vaccinated and asymptomatic testing takes place for all staff every Thursday. There have been no further cases of Covid in the airport fire service since June 2020. Some staff have experienced issues with fatigue and a new medical term called long Covid, which have required some adjustments to working patterns.
BAE Systems (Operations) Ltd based at Warton Aerodrome operates civilian flights as well as being a designated base for the manufacture and testing of Hawk and Typhoon aircraft. Twenty-four fire and rescue staff there also provide the medical response for 7,500 onsite staff. Chief Fire Officer Kieran Merriman shared his key learnings from the past 12 months:
On 18 March 2020 BAE Systems suspended all corporate air travel and evacuated the site within three hours. Staff working on key government contracts were designated keyworkers and remained onsite.
An emergency planning centre was established comprising staff from the security team, fire and rescue service and senior managers. From a business continuity perspective, it was important to avoid cross-contamination between crews so a ban on covering holidays was introduced. BAE Systems consulted with its clinical governance provider who were very helpful regarding PPE advice. The workplace was made Covid-secure with new cleaning procedures and the disinfection of cabs. Much of this will now stay in place, playing a long-term role in infection control at the station, preventing the spread of seasonal flu, for example.
A major challenge to social distancing was the layout of the fire station with its common walkways, so a second fire station was set up. Carrying this out in the middle of a pandemic and ensuring it was both Covid-secure and met all operational requirements was an enormous amount of work.
Thermal image temperature screening and cleaning stations were introduced and guidance was issued to staff in digestible formats such as presentations, so they knew what to expect when coming onto site. Being ‘wrapped in cotton wool’ was a quite an alien experience to staff but ultimately resulted in some positive changes to workplace culture.
A Degradation Plan was devised to give clarity and confidence to staff on what to do if departmental managers became incapacitated. This now forms an important part of the Business Continuity Plan.
Recruiting staff in a pandemic also presented challenges. Selection testing could not be carried out onsite in the usual way. Instead online psychometric tests were used to rank candidates. This new approach represented an improved method of selection, whilst using remote interviews and evidence from training records proved a less-reliable means of assessing candidates’ physical and practical aptitude.
Training was adapted using the 20% easement guidance from the Civil Aviation Authority. External induction training was replaced with a local training course and all training was subject to risk assessments to limit exposure. Laptops were issued to enable individuals to complete e-learning and reduce the infection risk of shared IT. Training exercises took longer due to the additional PPE required (half facemask respirators are required for drivers spending time in appliance cabs for example). All of these changes required a good level of understanding and partnership working with the International Fire Training Centre as well as trade unions, BAE Systems health and safety consultants, management and regulators. There is now a rigorous four-stage process to approve anyone applying for a residential training course which creates additional workload. However, some of the changes made to training protocols have resulted in cost-efficiencies and will be taken forward post-pandemic.
During the pandemic BAE Systems supported the UK ventilator challenge, flying 3D-printed parts to engineers to manufacture. It kept open a vital airbridge and supported the defence of other nations, which gives the crew a real sense of pride and achievement.
Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)
Andy Fraser, Inspector, CAA reminded delegates that there is now a version 1.6 of Easements for Rescue and Fire Fighting Services at Licensed or Certified Aerodromes on the AFOA website. This document is a concession based on Covid-19 impacts and covers both financial and operational necessities; it is not a safety initiative.
Visits by the regulator will gradually be resuming. There are two types: Public Health Visits and Assurance Restart Visits, the latter of which will involve RFFS. He encouraged the continuation of emergency planning meetings and discussions in the meantime.
AFOA 2021 Events
AFOA is planning a further event on 29 June in West Yorkshire. It will comprise a morning of presentations at the Holiday Inn in Calderdale, followed by lunch and the unveiling of the new Z6 ARFF crash tender at Venari’s HQ in Brighouse. The day will conclude with an evening meal sponsored by Venari. Capacity will be limited but the event will also be live streamed.
The AFOA AGM will take place at the Emergency Services Show 2021 at the NEC in Birmingham on 7–8 September 2021, followed by a conference later in the year. More details will be published on www.afoa.org.uk/events
For more information, go to www.afoa.org.uk