Picture credit: Simon Petts

A shared interest in arff: a report from the Airport Fire Officers Association's conference

Published:  24 February, 2014

Part one of our coverage of the airport fire officers association conference that took place january 15-16 in dublin (ireland), by F&R editor Ann-Marie Knegt.

The Airport Fire Officers Association (AFOA) Conference attracted a record number of senior airport fire officials and leading staff from municipal fire and rescue services with a vested interest in airport and aviation firefighting practice. All 165 of them came together at the Radisson at Dublin Airport to review the challenges they had faced during 2013 and to discuss the trends and technology for the future.

Alisdair Couper, MD of Terberg DTS, and main sponsor of the event, kicked off the conference and praised AFOA for highlighting technical and operational matters for ARFF personnel, while interacting on the highest level with other crucial organisations, including the CAA (UK Civil Aviation Authority) and CFOA (UK Chief Fire Officers Association).

Alisdair emphasised that the ARFF industry was still not out of the woods yet, with regards to budget cuts and increasingly stringent legislation. However, he firmly believed issues could be overcome by working together with organisations such as AOA (Airport Operators Association) and by continuing to share information.

Keynote speaker for the event was Sean Ruth, Chief Fire Officer for West Sussex and CFOA Lead for Aviation.

Sean kicked off his presentation by acknowledging the work of West Sussex Fire Officer Pete Martin, who took the lead in developing the first guidance for dealing with aviation incidents for municipal FRSs in the UK.

Sean explained that the aviation fire industry, like the municipal fire industry, is undergoing enormous change. ‘We are under significant pressure to operate more efficiently and offer greater value to the people we serve. This is a massive undertaking.’ Fire services have to offer more service for less cost with a higher quality.

‘Over the last four years West Sussex has delivered 13% reduction in budget, with fewer fire engines and fewer fire stations and 136 fewer staff. Aside from investing in community safety and improving our activity and performance, we have signed a 10-year agreement with Gatwick Fire (Training school operated by Gatwick FRS) for compartment fire behaviour training for our staff.’

Sean saw a continued improvement in service, but emphasised this was not enough. West Sussex was entering a new phase of operations in which community safety and early intervention was at the heart of 'everything'. Fire service buildings would become community assets and would be shared with other organisations. Staff would become assigned in different roles, and the organisational culture of the FRS would change completely. During the enrolment of this change the FRS needed to achieve a budget reduction of 20% by 2018.

Sean called this review ‘ambitious’ and ‘transformational’, and noted that changes in European regulatory systems were driving fire services to reconsider how they should be run. Debate, sharing ideas and good practice should underline this process. He asked whether the FRS should fight austerity and hope it would go away, or accept the situation and work it to the fire service’s advantage?

Sean illustrated this with the two examples. Gatwick Airport was one the main drivers for economy in West Sussex, and also a major economic factor for the UK as a whole. Joint working between the airport and the municipal fire service was of great importance, and worked well as a whole, however recent events had shown that there was still room for improvement in terms of interoperability.

Secondly, he raised the example of an incident that happened in West Sussex, where a mother and her 56-year old son had died in a house fire. The two had become isolated from the community due to social circumstances, including local facilities in the rural village disappearing. Both people had ended up completely disengaged from society. Fire and Social Services had tried to step in, but to no avail.

This incident had since been at the heart of West Sussex’s community reform programme, which aimed for members to thrive and survive, by broadening the role of the fire service staff.  

Sean concluded by noting that in order to offer best value service to residents, and making a more positive difference to our communities, it was essential that all agencies should operate as one team. ‘I am highlighting things that we already know in the fire industry; we have more to offer as a collective group and we can achieve more together than we can alone. Partnership and interoperability is key.'

The next case study offered three different perspectives from police, local authority and fire service during the helicopter crash at Vauxhall Bridge in London, on January 16, 2013. Graham Leedham, former MET police officer, now NHS, did a joint presentation with Jo Couzens, Emergency Planning Lead, Lambeth Council, after which Incident Commander Ian Black from the London Fire Brigade offered his perspective on the incident management in the aftermath of the crash.

Pete Barnes, a very experienced pilot, was on his way to Redhill Airport on a private assignment when he struck a crane attached to a high-rise building during the rush hour. The visibility was incredibly poor that morning and it is still unknown why the pilot took that particular route. Unfortunately he and one other victim were killed during the incident, but Graham stressed that consequences could have been more severe due to the complexities of the crash location which included the new site of the US Embassy, the Covent Garden Flower Market, Lambeth Council Office, an intersection of seven roads and a major railway station, and even more so the MI6 buildings (UK Secret Intelligence Service's headquarters), which meant that in the initial stages of the incident terrorism was considered. However, this was rapidly discounted as response rolled out.

Sean Ruth, CFO West Sussex FRS. Picture credit:Pete Martin.

The main challenges brought forward by all three speakers were communications between agencies and the establishment of command zones (especially as the incident took place on a boundary area between Westminster and Lambeth Councils). Other challenges included the proximity of two petrol stations and the establishment of physical cordons during response.

A particular challenge where all agencies had to work together was to safeguard the damaged crane, which was in danger of collapsing on the very busy Vauxhall Railway Station, where a train passes every 45 seconds. However, following deployment of a support crane and after the London Fire Brigade’s USAR teams had secured every component they could with bolts rated up to 38 tonnes, it was deemed safe.

The incident was coloured with many complications, but all three speakers agreed that the main issue was dealing with the press. Members of the international press were very quick to take up video images that had been sent in by the public. The operational picture became distorted during incident command as some people ended up relying on the wrong information. Civilians who had witnessed the events were disseminating highly subjective information to the media. Facts were eventually verified and corrected during the course of the incident, but this aspect was heavily noted during debriefs. Ian Black said: ‘People were everywhere with phones, and the media reports on the incident had a massive impact on the operational picture. It confused communications. However, nobody should learn to dance on the night of the ball. Command, control, communicate, collaborate, coordinate.’

All three speakers also highlighted that as a consequence of the major media attention, senior political figures were appearing at the incident scene because they required briefing in order to update the press. This put extra strain on resources.

In the final debrief it was concluded that the response had been very good because all agencies involved did what was required of them, and the potential further disastrous consequences of the aviation incident had been avoided.

Bob Rattcliffe, Assistant Chief Fire Officer for Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, then took the helm to discuss how the FRS dealt with bereavement as an organisation in the aftermath of the Shirley Towers high-rise fire in Southampton in which two operational firefighters James Shears and Allan Banning tragically lost their lives. 

On April 6, 2010, teams from Hampshire FRS were called out to a fire in Flat 72, Shirley Towers, a 16-floor building owned by Southampton Council that housed around 50 families. A young couple with a child were living in the apartment. The lady had been hoovering, and a curtain fell on a light, after which it caught flame. The fire flared up and spread to the sofa, and soon the apartment was engulfed in flames.

The initial response to the call contained five fire engines from the local fire station and an aerial platform. It was decided that an interior attack was required, and two teams of two entered the apartment – which was spread over multiple levels – to look for potential survivors. Unfortunately, the two teams lost communication, while the conditions in the flat deteriorated considerably. At some point, the firefighters made the decision to vent the apartment, after which the situation escalated. The inquest revealed that James Shears’ and Allan Banning’s SCBA had become stuck in fallen cables from the ceiling, leaving the firefighters to succumb to the fire.

Bob Rattcliffe explained that the emotional impact on Hampshire Fire and Rescue as an organisation had been huge. ‘On the day that the coroner’s inquest was completed, the local newspaper Meridian ran a tribute to both firefighters. There is always learning from tragic incidents such as these, and we were not going to judge anyone involved with the benefit of hindsight. Nobody went into that fire to hurt anyone. This is an important lesson, which we learned from the fatal Warwick fire where people were charged. It is an absolute tragedy and we were very much in shock.’

Directly after the tragic day the FRS established an independent accident investigation team. One of the officers who led the investigation was later commandeered. Two formal Fire Service funerals were organised, as well as a memorial service at Winchester Cathedral. Continued support and counselling were offered to the loved ones of James Shears and Allan Banning.

As a result of this incident Hampshire FRS developed two DVDs with the aims of preventing similar fire deaths in the future as well as dealing with the impact of fatalities within an organisation. The FRS went on to further develop training standards as well as continue the efforts to improve community safety. ‘What is the impact of incidents such as these on an organisation? How would you respond and what systems would you have in place? It is all about improving resilience within your organisation,’ said Bob.

Hampshire has also implemented improvements in equipment so that the SCBA doesn’t become entangled with fallen cables. Communications equipment has been reviewed, and cable cutters and thermal imaging cameras have been issued to operational staff. In addition to an ongoing training programme, changes to policies and operational procedures have been made with the assistance of West Midlands FRS.

Hampshire FRS will be finalising the operational roll out of the programme in March 2015, and it is very keen to share the learning outcomes with anyone who is interested. Interested parties should get in touch with Bob Ratcliffe (bob.ratcliffe@hantsfire.gov.uk). Bob concluded: ‘This has been a legal and emotional minefield for everyone involved, and anything we can do to help others is a step forward.’

The second part of our coverage of the AFOA Conference will be published in Fire and Rescue Q2, 2014 and on www.hemmingfire.com in June 2014.

Bob Rattcliffe, ACFO Hampshire FRS. Picture credit: Pete Martin.

  • Operation Florian

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