In profile: Stansted Airport Fire and Rescue Service is ready for action

Published:  17 July, 2014

Dr Dave Sloggett reports on the unique and challenging environment in which the fire and rescue team based at Stansted Airport (London) in the United Kingdom operates. Not only is the airport FRS geared for receiving the most prolific people in the world, the team is also extremely well geared for dealing with plane hijackers.

The majority of fire and rescue services around the world rarely have to worry about the precautions taken when the world’s most powerful man is in town. That is not the case for the Airport Fire and Rescue Team at Stansted Airport. When President Obama or any of his predecessors are visiting the United Kingdom, their first port of call is Stansted. This is where they quite literally get the red carpet treatment.

These are of course welcome visitors, who come to discuss international politics. The airport also has to provide the facility to handle another type of visitor. Those that decide to undertake hijackings of aircraft often in far-away places and divert them to the United Kingdom. When they arrive a very different form of red carpet is laid out in their honour. This is one that, whilst being equally welcoming, also seeks to immediately contain the situation and bring it to a peaceful conclusion.

Since Stansted Airport was given the task of being the reception airfield it has had to perform that role on a number of occasions. Interestingly those aircraft that arrived having been hijacked had travelled long distances via often circuitous routes from their original flight plans. On arrival in the United Kingdom a key concern is for the aircrew and passengers who have been subjected to threats to their lives for some hours.

Whilst such events are mercifully rare the team at Stansted have a tried and tested procedure to deal with the incident. This is something that is routinely exercised involving all of the agencies that would be present if a real-world event were to suddenly develop.

For the management team at the airport the arrival of a hijacked aircraft is an unwanted development. It is a designation that was given to Stansted after they successfully dealt with the first major hijacking into the United Kingdom when signs were quickly erected around the airport that made the terrorists involved think they were at Heathrow Airport. This was a deliberate attempt to mislead the hijackers who had demanded to be taken to Heathrow. Concerns existed over how they might react if they knew they had been deliberately deceived.

In such an incident the initial priority is to safely get the inbound aircraft on the ground and then move it to a specially designated area on the North East side of the airport that is far enough away from the main runway and the prying eyes of the public. This allows the incident to be contained and brought to a peaceful conclusion no matter how long that takes. The record for the longest hijacking in the United Kingdom was four days and that was at Stansted.

The understandable priority of the Stansted airport management team is that they have a vibrant and expanding international hub to keep operating. Stansted also has an ability to grow its current traffic levels by 50 percent without having to reconfigure the airport. The airport gained its Code F status in 2010, which enabled it to handle the wide range of commercial jets that are in service today. This required Stansted’s fire team to be capable of operating at the Category 7 licencing level with the ability to upgrade to Category 10 if the situation demanded it. This means that Stansted has plenty of scope for expansion and the airport’s management team are trying hard to persuade other airlines to take up some of this spare capacity.

Whilst such events and recent incidents involving people on inbound aircraft to the United Kingdom making threats to the safety of the aircraft are rare the fire team does have to take steps to ensure they are fully prepared should an event unfold. Aviation history shows that hijackings can have unpredictable outcomes. Whilst planning for such events offers a welcome distraction from the business-as-usual scenarios the focus of the fire team has to be on the day-to-day activities of the airport.

Therefore for the airport fire and rescue services the priority has to be to ensure they can successfully deal with a range of in-flight emergencies that do not have any suggestion of being linked to terrorism. In this regard Stansted is also a key diversionary airfield for aircraft operating out of other London airports that might declare an emergency.

This workload adds to the routine planning and preparation that has to be undertaken at Stansted to respond to what might be called a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario. It creates a unique environment in which the airport fire and rescue team has to work and demands of them a very flexible and agile way of working to cater for the range of tasks that suddenly may present themselves.

At the heart of the response of the airport fire team are new facilities that were built as part of a £1million investment in an extension to the fire station to enable it to house additional vehicles. Over the last couple of years an additional £4million programme has also been undertaken to reequip the firefighting team with five major foam tenders (Rosenbauer Panther) to meet the growing requirements at the airport over the next 5, 10 and 15 years and the demands on the aviation industry. After an extensive selection process the team chose the 6-wheel drive Panthers, the prototype of which starred as Sentinel Prime in the Hollywood blockbuster movie Transformers 3

The Standard Panther vehicles each weigh 36 tonnes with the two High Reach Extendable Turret (HRET) vehicles weighing in 3 tonnes heavier. Using their six-wheel drive they can achieve speeds of up to 75 miles per hour and accelerate from 0-50 miles per hour in under 30 seconds. They can carry up to 11,500 litres of water and 1400 litres of foam. These operate alongside three standard appliances. The roof-mounted monitors on the Panther vehicles can discharge either foam or water at a rate of 5.600 litres per minute at 14.5 bar pressure over a range of around 90 metres. 

These new and existing resources provide the airport fire team with the ability to deal with accidents involving the largest airframes in the world, such as the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-8. These giants of the sky impose new requirements on airfield fire teams to be able to deploy their fire-fighting apparatus over extended distances.

Fire hydrants are provided along both sides of the main runway at intervals of 300 metres. If required the fire team can also deploy a 1,000 metres of 125 mm hose to provide a source of water to specific locations on and off the airfield. These facilities help the airport meet its operating Category licensing requirements.

To be ready for any eventuality the 76 people in the airport fire and rescue team conduct regular exercises on a fire simulator that is based on Boeing 767, 737 and MD11 situated on the northern side of the runway. This training rig cost £5million and is one of the largest facilities of this kind in the United Kingdom.

A typical week involves different exercise scenarios taking place on the fire simulator. Every two years major multi agency exercises are planned to test the response from category 1 and 2 responders as well as the Airport emergency plan with internal stakeholders and the local resilience forum, through the Airport Emergency Planning Group. During the routine exercises a wide range of fire scenarios can be set from a luggage-rack fire to the more serious types of fire involving the engines or a major incident such as a crash landing. These simulations include real life role players assuming the part of the aircraft passengers.

Decisions on the deployment of the firefighting assets are taken in the watch room in the fire station which is manned 24/7. This can involve mobilising a response on or within the airport and up to a range of one mile from the airport. Arrangements are in place at the discretion of the Duty Station Manager at the fire station to also provide support to the emergency services in the area outside those boundaries should a major incident occur. A carefully planned set of emergency orders have prescribed actions for the many scenarios that can occur. 

All of this adds up to creating a pretty unique environment in which the airport fire teams operates. The idea of groundhog-day simply does not apply to the people involved. After all tomorrow they may get a call to say they need to put in another round of planning to receive the world’s most powerful man and all his attendant entourage.  

  • Operation Florian

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