By: Russ White
0216 hours. The lights go on, and the tones go off. You pop out of bed and head down the red-lit hallway as you try to shake off the cobwebs of sleep and focus on the dispatch information you just received. Your crew dons their gear and climbs aboard the engine, and you pull out of the station. We’ve all been there, right? Instead of pausing at the street to check for passing cars or pedestrians, you hear the high-pitch whine of two turbofan engines approaching. You catch a glimpse of the red and green lights on the wingtips as the Boeing 767 speeds by on Taxiway Papa. The second scenario may be a little foreign to the structural firefighter.
The fire service, like many other professions, has specialty groups that perform tasks outside of the normal range of what is required for basic certification. Some of these include wildland firefighting, hazardous materials firefighting, marine firefighting, or aircraft rescue firefighting. While many of the specialties in fire service focus solely on their discipline, some of the larger airports are more like cities. Firefighters must be proficient at not only Aircraft Rescue Firefighting (ARFF) but also as structural firefighters. An excellent example of this is DFW International Airport. The size of the airport is large enough that it can be classified as two Index E airports and can operate on the east and west sides independently. At over 27 square miles, DFW Airport is larger than the Island of Manhattan. Besides the terminal areas, it contains three hotels, warehouses, sporting venues, a 36-hole golf course, trains, and other infrastructure that requires the need for a structural fire/EMS service. In this environment, it is imperative that the Fire/Rescue Division be adept at both disciplines, which poses some challenges. Several of these include adapting structural equipment to ARFF, communications, and firefighting tactics.
Adapting Structural Equipment to ARFF
While there are tools and equipment specially designed for ARFF, equipment from the structural truck may be needed to adapt to the aircraft environment. In the structural arena, a fan is typically used for positive pressure ventilation of a residence or building. In ARFF, a fan is an invaluable tool for cooling hot brakes on aircraft. Many of the materials in the wheel assembly, such as magnesium, may react if water is used. Pike poles that are used for pulling ceilings during overhaul may be used to prop open doors on aircraft. Forcing entry into an aircraft is always considered the last option. Forcible entry into an airplane is typically much more difficult than a residence or commercial building, but if needed, spreaders are an option to force open doors and hatches of aircraft.
Communications on the fire ground are, at best, confusing. Some of the most significant obstacles to overcome during an emergency are good communication. In the ARFF environment, communication on an emergency scene can be overwhelming. In addition to regular radio traffic and trying to maintain contact with command, on-scene firefighters, and dispatch, ARFF personnel have additional responsibilities. A second radio is typically used to maintain contact with the tower, aircraft pilots, and airfield operations. Managing communications with this group requires specialized knowledge of their radio procedures and a different vernacular than most structural firefighters are familiar with. ARFF personnel must be trained in the use of proper radio use, radio system frequencies, and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) phonetic alphabet. Coordinating efforts between all these groups to ensure a positive outcome can be formidable.
In a broad-scope look at firefighting tactics, it can be deemed that we all follow the same principles and for the most part, that is true. We all subscribe to the proposition of Life safety, Incident stabilization and Property conservation (LIP), but how we achieve those results may differ for ARFF personnel. Everyone understands how quickly the fire can spread and have seen videos of the different stages of fire development in a structure. In a matter of minutes, a home may become fully involved; in an aircraft, time could be less than a minute. At a structure fire, the tactic may be to make an offensive attack to knock down the fire so that rescue may be possible. In an aircraft fire, access to the cabin may be difficult and limited. In this case, the tactic may be simply to provide a safe corridor for passengers to self-extricate. Secondly, while breaching the aircraft is typically discouraged, it may be necessary. In a structure, forcible entry is relatively easy for the experienced firefighter. Opening a door or going through a window is the usual choice. When dealing with an aircraft, a door is much more difficult to force open and escape slides may not have been disengaged, causing potential extreme danger for the firefighter. Windows or cut away areas may be preferred.
To be a professional firefighter is a not a job for everyone, as it is indeed a calling. It is a stressful and challenging job but can be tremendously rewarding. The challenges faced by the ARFF firefighter are no more than any other area in the fire service; I merely hoped to give a small sample of this specialty.