Duane Kann, Fire Chief, Orlando International Airport

Aircraft down – are you ready?

Published:  10 July, 2014

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

This session by Duane Kann, Fire Chief of Orlando International Airport, and Ken Holland, NFPA ARFF Technical Committee, was presented at the NFPA 2014 Conference and Expo.

The session's aim was not to focus on aircraft rescue and fire fighting at airports, clarified Duane, but rather to discuss what happened with structural fire departments and what happened off the airports once one of these aircraft went down.

One such incident, highlighted with a video, showed 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. ‘So if one of these goes down, especially if you have fire involved, you are going to have some pretty significant damage and it’s going to be a challenge for you to put out.’

Many structural fire departments believe ARFF units cannot leave the airport. Duane said that that was only partially right, and then went on to explain why it was important to get to know the capabilities of nearby airports.

The Federal Aviation Administration classifies airports depending on the length of aircraft and provides an index rating. A is the smallest scale airport and E is the largest.

There are six NFPA documents that address ARFF, and it is important to note some of these are guides and others are standards.

Focussing on NFPA 402 (NFPA 402: Guide for Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting Operations), Ken Holland, pointed out that this guide discussed 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). Duane stepped in to quickly reinforce the risks of the composite fibres: ‘Once you have a fire out in an aircraft incident you need to watch these fibers – they are still in the air. I would highly recommend that you consider keeping on your BA long after the incident is over, and consider respiratory protection for any victims in the area.’

Moving on to NFPA 403, Ken Holland explained that this was 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.

Opeation Crash and Surge: video voice-over transcript:

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 - Operation Crash and Surge. 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. Aircraft down! Are you ready?

Following the video, Duane concluded by highlighting how Orlando Fire Department had been assigned the Building Group, Orange County the EMS, and Orlando International Airport the aircraft. ‘This worked pretty well. We also beep them on the radios, so their comms centre can track everything that is going on. That’s been extremely helpful in organising the assets and the communications processes, and it helps with accountability.’

  • Operation Florian

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