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What are the limits and responsibilities of ARFF teams when a crash occurs outside the airport perimeter and how far should airports be sharing their equipment and expertise in joint exercises?

arffEvery large airport will have dedicated ARFF capabilities but to what extent should airports be sharing and co-ordinating these assets? And if an incident occurs outside an airport perimeter what are the responsibilities and liabilities of the ARFF teams based within that airport facility?

An estimated 55 per cent of aircraft incidents happen off airport property and regardless of whether these incidents occur on airport property, multiple outside airports agencies and fire departments may be involved and coordinated. 

But there have been a number of incidents where ARFF teams have responded to incidents that have gone on to have legal and procedural significance.

For example in Darwin Australia in August 2011, a fatal collision occurred between an ARFF vehicle owned and operated by Airservices Australia and a Mitsubishi Triton, causing the death of three of those in the Triton, including the driver. The collision occurred on a public highway whilst the ARFF vehicle was responding to a mutual aid request from the local authority fire and rescue service. 

The incident led to a a number of recommendations from the Civil Aviation Authority. These include the need for policies and procedures covering all on and off airport driving If vehicles are to be driven within normal road speeds on the public highway and exemptions from road traffic regulations are to be utilised suitable training must be provided.

In addition ARFF vehicles which are to be used on the public highway should be signed and marked to be consistent with local authority fire and rescue vehicles and they use similar audible warning devices. 

Duane Kann, Fire Chief of Orlando International Airport, gave a presentation to the US-based National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)  2014 Conference and Expo last month in which he explained what the limits and responsibilities of ARFF equipment and personnel outside an airport were. 

He told the conference that many structural fire departments believe ARFF units cannot leave the airport. That was only partially right, but it is important to get to know the capabilities of nearby airports.

One such incident, involved an F18 crash that occurred outside Virginia Beach on April 6th 2012. The aircraft experienced engine failures and crashed into an apartment complex (the two pilots ejected safely). The structural fire departments fought the fire for two hours without making much headway. Within five minutes of the ARFF vehicle arriving the fire was almost completely out. 

NFPA 402 (NFPA 402: Guide for Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting Operations), sets out some ground rules for planning for aircraft emergencies, encompassing both ARFF and municipal departments, covering responsibilities, access, aircraft materials, extinguishing agents, structural firefighting, and jurisdiction issues. ‘It’s also critical to have a unified command and a clear understanding of the jurisdiction and responsibilities of the involved responsibilities – be it the structural fire department, fire department and any emergency medical services like the Red Cross and so on. So mutual considerations are also in 402.’

Consequently joint live fire training is key, bringing together all agencies to check equipment compatibility; aircraft familiarisation; checking staging locations; sharing skill sets (eg evacuation slide performance, ballistic parachutes) and knowledge (eg using BA when working around composites). 

Ken Holland, of the NFPA ARFF Technical Committee, told the conference that NFPA regulation 403 is the standard covering ARFF services at airports; extinguishing agents; vehicles; communications; PPE; and station locations and response capability. Ken picked out some key areas of 403: namely that mutual aid shall be arranged between on and off aiport agencies; that there is a risk assessment plan developed by the airport to ensure response capabilities are met based on the aircraft; that there be a current airport community emergency plan; as well as mutual aid agreements in place with communities around the airport. ‘And that the plan be tested every three years. A full scale annual table top exercise is also required by NFPA 403.’

Duane explained that the true ARFF capabilities of local airports may not be reflected by their actual index rating. For example, Orlando International’s index rating requires 3 vehicles and 6,000 gallons of agent at the ready. However, the layout of the airport means that to fulfil its response requirements the airport actually needs a minimum of 4. And in reality, it has six to compensate for maintenance and other issues. ‘Which means if I get a phone call that says we need mutual aid from one of your ARFF units, probably I would say “yes” 95% of the time, without having to change the index of the airport.’

Index A airports on the other hand could have problems lending their assets off airport, as they are only required to have one ARFF vehicle. Non-indexed airports are not required to have any response vehicles but nevertheless may have assets to lend out – and in fact they may be more open to a request for help.

Almost every airport in a municipal fire department’s area will have enough ARFF resources to send a truck to help ‘most of the time’, said Duane, who then played a video of a training exercise carried out by Chicago International Airport and involving an apartment complex that they were able to burn for this purpose. ‘They were actually able to respond their ARFF units and this gives you an idea of how quickly having an ARFF unit discharge onto a fully engulfed fire can knock it down and get it under control.’

The trucks in the video were carrying 3,000 gallons of water each, as well as 400 gallons of foam concentrate. ‘Most of this is switched over to 3% ration, which means we can resupply our water tanks 4 times before we have to resupply the concentrate,’ adding that such resources could also provide tremendous support for hazma- type situations occurring outside airport premises.

On the subject of NFPA 424 Guide to Airport Community Emergency Planning, Ken Holland explained that at its basic level it ensured everyone was ‘on the same page’ with their emergency plan should an accident occur. Are resources available, for example? ‘If not, what are the other mutual aid groups you have?’

Every three years Duane has to carry a full-scale exercise to test all the relevant areas in the airport emergency plans, and he encourages municipal fire departments to engage with these exercises. ‘If they are indexed airports they are doing it, but many don’t reach out and pull the community in.’

Orlando does its full-scale exercise every two years, in addition to live fire training on an annual basis. ‘We also reach out to our surrounding Orlando and Orange County. We schedule some of their crews to come in and participate every year. Keeping them in the mix and letting them interact with our crews so that when we are in need, we are prepared.’ Duane then showed a video of the largest full scale exercise ever conducted in Florida, involving over 600 victims and 1200 responders from 50 different agencies. The aim was to test the surge capacity of 16 local hospitals following an off-airport A320 crash into a motel a mile from the airport, in the city of Orlando: Operation Crash and Surge.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires the airport to conduct a full scale exercise at least every three years. They’ve asked the airports to consider using this scenario where the crash happens off airport property. The Orlando International Airport Central for the emergency response agency are better prepared for an aircraft incident since participating in the largest full scale exercise ever conducted in the state Florida. The scenario is an A 320 aircraft that just departed Orlando International Airport, experiencing a complete hydraulic failure. The pilot declares an alert two and begins the process to return to the airport. But shortly after, the airliner disappears completely off the aircraft control radar. 911 calls begin pouring in and reporting that an airplane has crashed into a motel one mile away from the airport.

Upon arrival at the scene, fire department crews find a large hotel on fire with major damage from the aircraft impact. The airliner and several cars are on fire in the hotel parking lot. There is a large debris field and hundreds of victims throughout the crash site. Quick decisions have to be made beginning with, who is in-charge?

The incident is in the city of Orlando. So Orlando fire department takes the lead. A unified command system is established following the National Incident Management System framework. The operations chief assigns the Orlando fire department crews to manage the fire incident calling that a ‘Building Group’. Search teams go through each floor. There is debris surrounding the building and damages done to the internal stairwells. The aerial apparatus cannot be used because of the accessibility issues. So ground platters must be raised to gain access to the upper floors.

The Orlando International Fire Rescue assets are assigned to the aircraft rooms due to their specialized expertise. Gaining access to an aircraft is challenging. Stepping through the ladder onto the main surface is a dangerous point, since the wing is naturally sloped for flight purposes and is often slippery from the foam extinguishing agent.

Personnel must know how to gain entry through the doors and hatches, which are all different in numerous types for aircraft. Getting inside the hatches with full gear on is another challenge and once inside, this base is confined and the environment is often dark or possibly smoke filled. Firefighters must know their way around inside an aircraft in these conditions or they can become disoriented very quickly.

Rescuing a victim is another difficult task due to the elevation of the aircrafts. Slides are a part of the aircraft’s built-in evacuation system. They can be an effective way to quickly egress the aircraft, but this avenue also leads to many injuries. 

Approximately 20% of uninjured passengers that use the slide evacuation system will sustain injuries during this process. An airstair unit, which is a specialized vehicle designed to access aircraft, is a great way to control an evacuation. Passengers can walk down the stairs or can safely be carried down backwards.

Orange County Fire Rescue is also responding in force. They are assigned to be the EMS group. It required a tremendous amount of personnel to triage, backboard, and carry a large number of victims to treatment areas. The EMS group must establish an entry point to funnel everyone into treatment.

In an aircraft incident, there is always a potential for field contamination. So using a decontamination system at the entry point is a good way to control the proceeding process. To determine which victims were on the aircraft and which ones were on the ground is critical for accountability purposes.

The movement of the wounded from treatment to the transport units requires organizational coordination. Medical helicopters provide a means to take the critically ill to local trauma centers. But, often overlooked, these helicopters can also take victims to hospitals that are further distance away, increasing the amount of possibility they will be able to assist.

Having an adequate supply of transfer units may also be an issue during a mass casualty incident and will usually require resources from multiple agencies. Tracking these various assets has been done, including blood patients who were transported to various hospitals.

Communication to the airport EOC is critical during an aircraft crash regardless of where the incident takes place. Equally as important is communicating with the media through a Joint Information Centre to control the information being released.

A scenario like this takes huge amounts of team efforts. Communities must plan, train and exercise together. 

Building these relationships is essential to the success of any emergency but it becomes even more important for higher, risk low frequency events such as airplane crashes.

The move towards better ARFF equipment

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Airport Technology R&D Branch’s Operation of New Large Aircraft (NLA) Research Program is evaluating specialized Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) vehicles and equipment that are capable of performing multiple tasks at an aircraft incident. ARFF personnel are required to provide a wide variety of services during both life-threatening and non life-threatening aircraft emergencies. The severity of an aircraft incidents can vary widely from running off the runway to a crash landing involving fire. Aircraft do not always land on level surfaces or orient themselves so that all the emergency exits are usable or easily accessed. Weather can also hinder the use of slides, especially in windy conditions. Other factors, such as malfunction and fire, can render emergency slides unusable.

 A study conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board from 1997 to 1999, reported that 37% of emergency slides involved in evacuations were not functional during the aircraft incident. The majority of injuries reported as a result of emergency evacuations occurred when passengers had to jump from an exit or off the wing because no evacuation slide was available. Traditional ground ladders used for accessing aircraft can be dangerous to climb, extremely difficult to secure to the airplane, require multiple firefighters to setup and do not always reach the desired aircraft exit. Some airports have structural ladder trucks, sky lifts or air stairs, but these vehicles take time to deploy and were not manufactured for intended ARFF operations. The introduction of NLA presents additional challenges to ARFF personnel. The Airbus A380 was certified to carry up to 873 passenger and crew, with the upper deck exit door over 26 feet off the ground.

Traditionally, ARFF personnel were tasked with providing a safe escape route free of fire while passengers self-evacuated. However, ARFF personnel have been required to assist passengers during the evacuation process if slides do not deploy or are unusable, make rapid entry into an aircraft fuselage to rescue injured or incapacitated passengers that can not self-evacuate, in addition to extinguishing interior fires. Several airports are now acquiring mobile air stairs and modifying them for ARFF use with hand lines, ventilation equipment and fire fighting tools. Some European airports have even acquired customized platform vehicles for rapid firefighter access into aircraft. Ideas being discussed are various air stair designs, scissor lift catering style trucks and modified ARFF vehicles with stairs or ladder that will accommodate all sizes of aircraft, including double deck designs. Some manufactures are willing to construct a specialized platform type vehicle, but lack performance requirements and standards set forth by the FAA before they will commit toward the engineering and manufacturing process of constructing a vehicle.

The FAA has already started research in this area including evaluations of a new 65 foot High Reach Extendable Turrets (HRET) capable of reaching the upper passenger decks of NLA and air stairs equipped with fire fighting capabilities (see Interior Intervention Vehicle Research). In addition to these projects, the FAA is also interested in the following areas:

  • Equipment and tools needed on specialized platform type vehicles for assisting ARFF services during the evacuation process and firefighter access inside aircraft.
  • Methodologies to assist during passenger evacuation and enabling firefighters to gain access inside aircraft.
  • Specialized platform type vehicle requirements for ARFF services to assist during the aircraft passenger evacuation process and enable firefighters to access inside aircraft of NLA and double-deck aircraft.
  • Other uses and benefits that an ARFF service specialized platform type vehicle type can be utilized at an airport.

Source: FAA

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