The Bastion fire and rescue personnel are also trained as frontline soldiers to evacuate casualties. (Credit Crown Copyright)

Frontline Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) at the UK’s fourth busiest airport – report from the ground

Published:  02 March, 2012

David Oliver visits Camp Bastion Airfield in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, which is now the fourth-busiest UK-operated airport.

Combat operations, medical evacuations and logistics sustainment flights all operate from what has become a vital military hub for British military operations in southern Afghanistan. Although initially designed to handle no more than three aircraft movements per week on its dirt track airstrip, since a new 2,350 m concrete runway was opened in December 2007 Bastion Air Traffic Control now handles on average 600 aircraft movements per day or 18,000 a month, ranking it with Stansted Airport in terms of aircraft movements.

Contained within Camp Bastion’s 10 km perimeter is an airfield, three heliports, ammunition dumps, fuel depots, vehicle parks, repair bays, stores, offices and accommodation for some 21,000 personnel including around 2,000 contractors and 14,000 American troops. The protection of all of these assets against fire is the job of the RAF Fire Fighters.

Based at Manston in Kent is the RAF element of UK Defence Fire Risk Management Organisation (DFRMO) which is currently providing Response, Prevention and Protection (RPP) capability at both UK MoD facilities and deployed operation locations around the world, including Afghanistan.

The RAF Fire Section at Bastion Airfield numbers some 40 firefighters and is one the largest ever detachment of RAF Firefighters. They provide the RPP to the many types of incident that can occur across the airfield and the domestic site at Camp Bastion. Equipped with state-of-the art fire appliances the teams can be at the scene of an aircraft or helicopter incident at Bastion Airfield in under two minutes.

One of the many challenges for the fire crews is knowing how to shut off fuel and electric systems of more than a dozen different types of military aircraft based at Bastion ranging from small unmanned aerial vehicles to giant cargo transporters plus several Russian types of aircraft and helicopters that are chartered by civil contractors and the military.

The RAF firefighters must also react to anything within the wire at Bastion, including Afghan National Army’s Camp Shorabak, the US Marines’ Camp Leatherneck, and the US Army’s Camp Barber. RAF Fire and Rescue personnel are on 10-minutes notice to move with Immediate Response Teams (IRT) and could be flown to the scene of an incident and provide emergency response anywhere in the Helmand Task Force area of operations - 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.  They also travel around to locations in Helmand Province such as Patrol and Forward Operating Bases to ensure that everything is being done to minimise the risk of fire in conditions that often fall far short of Western standards.

In 2010 firefighters from Bastion’s Fire and Rescue Service Section helped their American colleagues to tackle a massive blaze at Camp Leatherneck. The fire broke out in a storage yard and with a severe dust storm ripping into the camp fanning the flames, which consumed an American fire engine, it took nearly five hours before the fire was officially declared contained. One of the RAF firefighters involved in Leatherneck fire was awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal.

RAF firefighters at the airfield fire station are also fully trained to work alongside British Army ground forces to help recover any casualties in the field.  For this task they are fully equipped with the latest state-of-the-art body armour and personal weapons together with their fire fighting clothing and safety kit in the fire station. 

 They provide armed casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) cover for the Royal Air Force Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) helicopters that transport casualties from the front line, carry the casualties from incoming helicopters to the Camp Bastion hospital, as well as helping those patients subsequently returning to the UK by air, on to homeward bound aircraft.

The Fire and Rescue Service Section at Camp Bastion is equipped with five Carmichael/Unipower Major-Foam Vehicle (MFV) fire appliances, alongside two US Marine Corps Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting response vehicles.  The UK fire appliance manufacturers, Amdac Carmichael Ltd based in Worcester produced modified fire trucks specifically for use at Camp Bastion as part of £5.25 million deal with the Ministry of Defence to refit 80 MFVs in 2009 and produce 10 specifically modified fire trucks for use in Afghanistan.

Above and below: Bastion’s RAF firefighters deployed their MFVs to fight a major outbreak that occurred in the US Marine’s Camp Leatherneck in 2010. (Credit US Navy)

The 27-tonne MFV 2 Florian vehicles are fitted with enhanced engine cooling systems to withstand temperatures of up to 50 degree C (122 degree F), and new air filtration systems to deal with the fine desert sand that has caused problems with the existing models. They are painted in a light stone solar reflecting finish which can reduce in cabin temperature by 20 degree centigrade. In addition, one of DFRMO’s fleet of Alvis Unipower Rapid Intervention Vehicles (RIV) is used by the Bastion Fire Section.

The military firemen at Camp Bastion, Helmand, drawn from the RAF Regiment and Royal Navy, are all trained to the exact same standards as their civilian counterparts, yet their living and working conditions in theatre can be very basic. There are four fire teams based at Camp Bastion who work around the clock. Two of these teams work as Domestic fire teams and two as Airfield Crash fire teams. The Domestic fire teams work a 24-hour watch system, so they have one day on, one day off. They are known as the Blue and Red watches. They also swap personnel with the Airfield Crash team to keep all members of the team up to date with all aspects of being a fireman in a ‘danger zone’.

The Blue watch consists of a Corporal who is the Domestic Crew Commander and four Senior Aircraftmen (SAC). All are on four-month tours to Afghanistan and are deployed from a variety of Royal Air Force bases across the UK. The 24-hour rotation starts at 8.00 am every day of the year, when the fire trucks have their ‘first parade’. This is an essential to ensure the fire trucks are completely up to scratch and ready to go at a moment’s notice. The essential checks include ensuring the oil is topped up, the electrics and lights work and the amount of water in the tank as well as the pressure for the hoses is correct.

Throughout the day the firemen go around the base to maintain smoke alarms and ensure fire safety is being adhered to on the camp. They will also familiarise themselves with the rescue and fire fighting drills of any new pieces of kit or new vehicles that are entering theatre. Most importantly these patrolling firemen are always at five-minutes’ notice to respond to any fire or emergency calls.

Vital to the smooth running of operations, civilian and military personnel from DFRMO work together in Afghanistan to ensure assets and personnel are safe from the risk of fire.  A Divisional Officer will undertake a six-month deployment to Afghanistan as theatre fire officer. Typically the majority of their time will be spent at Bastion but to ensure that all of the facilities are covered they will move around theatre and liaise with the Quartermasters or the fire representative within the military. They have a remit to ensure all the buildings are adequately maintained and fire extinguishers, emergency lighting and fire detectors are maintained, and to ensure that training takes place.

Typically the issues in theatre are largely that when working in austere conditions the opportunity for fire is far more prevalent in theatre because the military eye is very much focused on combat operations and often the issues that present themselves for accidental fire to propagate itself are very, very commonplace. Much of it is general housekeeping, smoking, electric devices etc..

However, on the whole the military is very good at maintaining a safe environment from fire while the DFMRO personnel provide top cover for troops and provide them with support and solutions to ensure they are adequately equipped to deal with fire.

In order to relieve the pressure on the RAF Fire Section at Bastion Airfield, members of the Afghan National Army are being trained on fire appliances and the methods of fire prevention by UK and US firefighters. The aim is to train the Afghan soldiers to man and run a domestic fire service modelled on the RAF system for the Afghan Army’s Garrison HQ at Camp Shorabak in preparation to the withdrawal of British combat troops in 2014. 

  • Operation Florian

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