Expert Commentary

Airport firefighting & emergency rescue – a day in the life of a firefighter

Published on 8 March 2011

The experience of airport firefighters differs greatly from that of their municipal fire and rescue colleagues
Airport firefighters operate very differently to their municipal fire and rescue colleagues

For the thousands of firefighters covering over 80 major commercial airports throughout Europe, life is very different from that experienced by their municipal fire and rescue service colleagues. The differences range from the type of regime they experience to the types of emergency they are called upon to deal with on a daily basis. Richard Cranham, Business Development Manager at Bristol Uniforms Ltd, explains more.

Airports with scheduled passenger services range from the largest international airports such as Heathrow, Gatwick, Paris, Amsterdam Schiphol and Frankfurt, to some of the smallest, which include those serving smaller communities in Scandinavia and the Highlands & Islands Airports group in Scotland with 10 locations spread across some of the most inaccessible parts of the country.

BAA (formerly The British Airports Authority) is the largest airport operator in the UK with 7 locations and employing over 450 firefighters at their sites at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Southampton, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

An airport firefighter's typical day

Unlike their municipal counterparts, airport firefighters are required to cover all types of emergencies within the airport boundaries with many of the incidents unrelated to aircraft accidents or fires. Major aircraft accidents are very rare thanks to strict safety regulations and major improvements in aircraft design and build.

 

Airport firefighters must cover all emergencies within airport boundaries - including incidents unrelated to aircraft accidents or fires

In many locations the fire services work closely with the ambulance and other emergency services dealing with all types of accidents including traffic incidents, vehicle fires, and fire alarms across the sites as well as being placed on standby whenever a pilot alerts traffic control to any type of malfunction which could present a safety hazard on landing.

The most frequent incidents affecting jet aircraft involve overheating of undercarriages, wheels, tyres and brakes as well as engine problems, which although uncommon, nevertheless require putting into action major emergency standby routines.

Station Officer at Bristol International Airport, Rich Lynn, who has 48 firefighters on station explained that his team is required to cover all emergencies on site including those involving buildings, vehicles and aircraft-related incidents. "We provide emergency cover for all 11 buildings on the airport site as well as dealing with aircraft-related emergencies. Although we have very few aircraft fires the main potential areas for fire are overheating sub-assemblies, wheels and brakes and any ruptures in hydraulic lines which work at high pressure and could easily cause a fire in contact with hot metal. Carbon fibre braking systems and fans on wheels on modern aircraft have greatly reduced the fire hazard."

Schiphol airport, Amsterdam. Firefighters at the airport are called upon to deal with numerous incidents in the Schiphol area as well as all aviation-related incidents
A plane coming in to land at Schiphol airport, Amsterdam

 

Chief Fire Officer at Schiphol Airport, Michel Wendel, 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 incidents annually 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 serving 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.

Schiphol has a good air traffic accident record. The last major fire was in October 2005 and was non-aviation related. A 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.

The last aviation accident occurred over 12 years ago when a Saab 340 operated by KLM Cityhopper returned to Schiphol because the crew mistakenly believed that the engine suffered from low oil pressure because of a faulty warning light. On final approach, at a height of 90 feet, the plane stalled and hit the ground. Of the twenty-four people on board, three were killed including the captain. Nine others were seriously injured.

Fires caused by burning aviation fuel require special skills - training is a regular part of the airport firefighter's working life

Airport firefighter training

Even though the call to action to fight fires may come infrequently, the special characteristics of hot fires caused by burning aviation fuel need special skills. Training is a regular and frequent part of the firefighter's working life.

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.

 

A firefighter at Manchester airport fights fire in an airplane cab as part of a training exercise
A Manchester airport firefighter training in the cab of a plane

 

Michel Wendel gave details saying, "Firefighter training is carried out at the main station, Sloten, on a daily basis. Firefighters are on rotational duty at Sloten 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 fire fighting on a Boeing 747 test rig with a computer-controlled gas fire."

Gerard Montgomery, Senior Airport Fire Officer at Gatwick, has 80 firefighters on location including himself and a deputy. His team is responsible for dealing with all site emergencies and shares daytime callouts with the ambulance service. With responding to all fire alarms and traffic accidents at Gatwick his crew handle around 2,500 callouts annually.

On training Gerard explained, "We carry out training on a weekly basis on an LPG Boeing 747 aircraft simulator. This would involve a number of fire scenarios and also provides training for breathing apparatus, hose management and ladder work. We are also acquiring a fire behaviour simulator which will provide carbonaceous fire scenarios. The new unit was installed in the summer of 2006."

Firefighter clothing: emphasis on lighter weight, wearer comfort

Most, if not all, airports use a selection procedure for purchasing firefighter Personal Protective Equipment (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 and availability of stock.

A number of airport fire teams are being, or have been, re-equipped over the past 2-3 years giving them the opportunity to take advantage of the new lighter weight firefighter clothing being introduced to the market which provide greater wearer comfort and reduce heat stress associated with prolonged periods of wear. There is also growing interest in adopting managed care services as a means of providing regular inspection, washing and repair.

Richard Cranham - Business Development Manager, Bristol Uniforms Ltd

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