Airport Firefighting – Structural fires, which the public are accustomed to seeing our fire and rescue services attend on a regular basis, frequently avoid fatalities. Aircraft fires are, thankfully, rare but when they do occur many lives are at stake in conditions where fire spreads rapidly and escape is often difficult. With the majority of structural fires occurring in our towns and cities, the incidents and the emergency services response is open to public gaze. The public witness at first hand the hazards and conditions our municipal firefighters are confronted with on a regular basis. This contrasts with aviation firefighting which, if not in a remote location, is within the confines of a large airport which the public only experience as a news picture on their TV screens – except, of course, for those caught up in the emergency or witnessing it from a terminal building.
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.
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.
In the UK, about 2000 retained and part-time firefighters are employed in the fire & rescue services of around 70 airports which range in size from some of the largest and busiest in the world, such as London’s Heathrow and Gatwick, to small island locations off Britain’s coasts. Serving remote areas, these smaller airports provide vital commercial links and access for local communities. By contrast, larger airports focus on national and international business and leisure travel, handle the world’s largest airliners and many thousands of passengers every day.
Aircraft accidents are fortunately rare and passengers have seen air travel become progressively safer over the last 30 years through a combination of improved aircraft design and resilience, better maintenance and improvements in air-to-ground communication. Since the start of 2009, 702 lives have been lost worldwide in the 19 recorded air accidents involving fatalities. Of these, 598 resulted from just 4 major disasters, all of which occurred away from airports. In the decade up to 2002, fatal accidents averaged 47 annually. In 2002 there were 37, in 2005 just 35 and numbers are expected to fall again this year. Airport firefighters are only on hand to deal with under a third of aircraft accidents as the majority occur away from airports. Statistics show that of all 37 recorded airliner accidents around the world so far this year only 10 have been at airports of which only 3 were in Europe and North America. In the Western world, it could be argued that terrorist activity now poses a greater threat to international airline safety than pilot error, weather conditions and mechanical failure. Since 9/11 this threat has had a major impact on airport security
At Manchester International Airport, which has two stations on site and 3 designated standby points around its 625 hectare complex, there have been major changes over the last 3 years including the installation of new training facilities. Training Officer, John Alldread, works regular day shifts and is responsible for all firefighter training. A new, full scale 747 fire test rig was commissioned in late 2006 which features a dual fuel facility allowing both LPG and aviation fuel fires to be used for training. Hot fire training is carried out at least once every 3 months although, in practice, it is more frequent. Full PPE, including breathing apparatus, is used in RTA and confined space activity, and is carried out daily in order to provide a broad emergency service for the entire airport complex which includes 3 terminals, 7 hotels, a rail station, 2 multi-storey car parks and access roads as well as the many businesses, including the World Cargo Centre. A comprehensive training plan for Manchester’s 104 firefighters links into their Maintenance of Competence for Firefighters framework which ensures the provision of adequate firefighting facilities and is audited regularly by the CAA.
Mark Lakin, Manchester’s Senior Airport Fire Officer (SAFO), illustrates the size of his operation. “We provide a fire service for around 20,000 people and, on average, deal with 500 aviation related incidents and over 900 domestic calls each year. The quality of our training facilities and the standard of our training are both vital to our ability to respond effectively to all incidents, however serious, and the performance of our PPE is a key factor in our being able to deliver the emergency services the public expect from us. We have recently reaffirmed our confidence in Bristol by placing an order for a further 54 sets of firefighter PPE which incorporates a Nomex® outershell and Gore Fireblocker™ combined thermal and moisture barrier”.
At some smaller locations around the country, such as Oxford Airport, the roles and routines of firefighters are very different from those at larger international airports. It has grown quite rapidly but remains a small regional operation which caters principally for private aircraft and corporate jets. Whilst the airport has one weekly charter service to Jersey, the majority of movements involve aircraft up to CAT4. Oxford now has on request permission for CAT5 and 6.
The airport’s 22 staff have wide ranging responsibilities across the whole site and, given the need for personal protection in many of their routine activities, tend to wear their PPE at all times to be prepared for any eventualities. Regular training is carried out on a small fire test rig on site whilst larger scale training is undertaken on larger training equipment at Kent International Airport at Manston where Oxord’s firefighters attend a 1 day intensive training course twice a year.
Mark Phipps, Senior Airport Fire Officer (SAFO) said, “Emergencies are rare and mainly confined to rough running engines, tyre problems and undercarriage malfunctions. As our firefighting team wears its PPE routinely, in addition to having suitable protection against hot fires should the worst happen, we also give priority to firefighter clothing which is comfortable in all weathers and for extended periods. Bristol supplies our short tunic style ensemble, which suits our needs well, and has been particularly reliable in meeting our supply needs on time which is key to our operational preparedness”.
There is a growing interest in adopting managed services which use computerised technology linked to garment bar coding to track and monitor firefighter PPE. A record of regular inspection, washing, repair and decontamination is built into a condition coding process which predicts when replacement will be required and helps in procurement budgeting.
Richard Cranham, Bristol’s UK Business Development Manager responsible for airport and industrial firefighter PPE, observes, “The operational demands placed on airport firefighters around the UK vary considerably but 30 airports, including seven BAA airports, Bristol International and 10 Highlands & Islands sites, have one thing in common – they all rely on Bristol’s PPE to protect their firefighters. We have seen a move towards replacing traditional PPE designs with our Ergotech™ lightweight jackets and trousers. Manchester, Bristol, Gatwick and Liverpool are amongst a number of UK airports now enjoying the benefits of our managed services.”
Written by Richard Storey of RSL Associates for Bristol Uniforms.