ARFF matters – a report on the Airport Fire Officers Conference

Published:  02 March, 2015

The 14th annual Airport Fire Officers association Conference held in Dublin in January brought together ARFF professionals from all over the world. Ann-Marie Knegt was at hand to report the highlights of an event that is growing in prestige – and attending delegates – every year.

Barry Alderslade, Deputy Airport Fire Manager and Interagency Liaison Officer for Gatwick Airport Fire & Rescue Service (London) kicked off the conference by welcoming all 164 delegates and the main sponsor Terberg DTS. Barry also highlighted that while 2014 might have seemed like a disastrous time for ARFF due to several high profile incidents, it was actually the safest year in recorded history for aircraft-related accidents.

AFOA going from strength to strength

MD of UK-based company Terberg DTS, Alisdair Couper then took over the helm. He applauded AFOA for becoming one of the strongest groups in its industry, and he highlighted that the Airport Fire Officers Association was at the cusp of something great. ‘AFOA is very close to becoming a recognised body that can create benchmarks and standards,’ he said.

Alisdair emphasised that recent multiple-location attacks, such as the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket shootings in Paris, highlighted that security and fire services could no longer be seen as separate entities, and that the two were intrinsically linked. He continued that currently there were no such things as airport police services, and he wondered how long it would be before there were.

AFS do not only respond to aircraft incidents but they also have the task of protecting airport buildings and the complex physical infrastructure around these, and with this increasingly stringent task in mind, Terberg DTS is looking to set up hub meetings across the UK where these challenges could be discussed.

Another initiative the company is getting involved with is setting up a working group on aerial platforms. Alisdair said: ‘At the moment there is no standard for this type of equipment. There is a requirement to develop a tactical agreement on the use of high-reach technology. We would like to offer the opportunity for all interested parties – manufacturers, airport fire services – to take part. Dallas/Fort Worth Airport is already supporting this initiative. Standardisation is key to our industry, and hopefully this initiative will result in the first industry standard in one or two years.’ The new working group will be launched in the first quarter of 2015.

Airport Operators Association – challenges ahead

Ed Anderson, the Chairman of the Airport Operators Association, delivered the keynote address. He highlighted that aviation was the lifeblood of the world – 58 million people worked in this industry worldwide, and it provided global supply chains, prosperity, social benefits, and – moreover – it brought people together.

‘The challenges in our industry have become very apparent. It is clear that businesses in our sector have to be financially sustainable. It has become a struggle to keep revenue above costs, and there is a global consolidation to drive down these costs,’ he commented.

Ed explained that the picture on airport profitability was mixed. Most airports were now privately owned with significant private shareholderships. The competitition between small and medium-sized airports was constantly increasing, putting additional pressure on resources.

‘The second challenge is safety, which is the number one priority. The overall safety record is excellent, with only 3.2 accidents per million flight movements. The Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappearance has highlighted the requirement to improve tracking capability.’

Ed continued that not many things had changed over a period of 25 years, apart from the increasing costs. Even though airport operators regarded Airport Fire Services as essential, it was felt that they were very expensive to staff and to equip, especially since airport fire appliances were bespoke. There also tended to be an inflexible approach on part of regulators and people who worked in these types of operations.

‘However, the winds of change have swept through our industry. Regulators now allow the fire service to staff according to risk. Capabilities of the equipment have been improved, and the relationship between airport operators and the airport fire service has improved considerably. Airport CEOs now see a fire service that is customer focussed and efficient in its operations. There has been a real leadership change,’ he commented.

Ed emphasised that the security issues would remain with us because aviation would always be a major target for terrorists. ‘We need to outsmart those who wish us harm so our measures need to be proportionate, while based on risk at the same time, as well as compliant with legislation.’

Ed also highlighted that Europe and its airports in particular were experiencing an infrastructure shortfall  compared with the Asian and Middle Eastern airports, which were growing rapidly. The Rukatski whitepaper issued in 2003 identified that major runway capacity expansion was required in the UK.

‘The 2013 Aviation Policy Framework did not cover major airport expansion, as this was left to the Independent Airport Commission. Airport expansion is required in London and the south east of England, and a final report on this matter has been promised after the election. The Airport Operators Association has consistently urged political parties to provide the UK with sufficient world-class hub capacity in order to keep competing in the global race.

‘We have made enormous strides when it comes to customer requirements, and from the UK alone there are around 50,000 routes for customers across the whole world.  Low-cost carriers have increased the potential for people to travel. Even Michael O’Leary [CEO of Ryan Air] has seen the light, since he now realises that customer service is important as opposed to just being price-driven,’ commented Ed.

He further highlighted that airports were striving to improve passenger experience with an intense focus on service standards. He also urged a reduction in red tape and regulations – the regulations coming from the European Union were proving to be a massive cost for the industry especially. Aviation was also carrying national security costs, and Ed pointed out that the Air Passenger Duty (APD) in the UK was higher than anywhere else in Europe. AOA is campaigning for a reduction in Air Passenger Duty on the long haul APD band as well as for the abolition of APD for children under twelve – extending it to 16. Ed concluded: ‘The level of APD in this country is unacceptable. The Scottish will be halving APD soon, and the levels need to be evenly matched across the UK. As an industry we are facing plenty of threats, so we need to become as sustainable as possible, and minimise our environmental impact. As an organisation we have plenty of work to do so we do not slide down the global aviation league table.’

Ground support equipment – knowing the risks

Alisdair Couper from Terberg DTS explained that ground support equipment (GSE) present at all airports presented its own set of safety challenges. He asked whether firefighters knew how to operate GSE and how to rescue someone from it. He highlighted that certain exhaust particulate systems could pose problems, and that the new generation of ground support vehicles presented a number of challenges.

‘Some ground support equipment, for instance, is powered by lithium ion batteries, which can pose a fire hazard,’ said Alistair. ‘There is currently no control and situational awareness about the different types of vehicles used at an airport, so there is a requirement for familiarisation for the fire service.

‘Aircraft catering trucks, for instance, have bodies made out of a type of polyester that flashes over at 1,000 degrees oC. There are many other trucks in and around the airport which contain hazardous chemicals, including spraying vehicles.

‘As manufacturers, airport operators and fire services we have the responsibility to familiarise ourselves with the specialist vehicles around the airport, the chemicals used in them, the types of plastics in the bodies and other hazards. Added challenges are that maintenance on grounds equipment is typically poorly executed, while driver abuse is a large problem as well. This means that an aircraft with grounds support equipment attached to it presents a massive risk. Therefore it is important to assess the risks related to this type of equipment and to engage with airfield licensees, because GSE is as critical as any other part of the infrastructure of an airport,’ concluded Alisdair.

Aircraft Investigation Branch

Sid Hawkins, Head of the Aircraft Investigation Branch (AIB), pointed out some of the challenges faced by his organisation and how it was overcoming these by increasing cooperation with other agencies.

Sid explained that a team from the AIB was currently involved with the search for MH370. Sid’s risk analysis did not deem it safe for his team of investigators to go to the wreckage of MH17 in Ukraine, since it was located in a hostile zone, and because civil air crash investigators should not be deployed in war areas.

 ‘As apart of our response strategy, it is extremely important that we have the right processes in place, and deploy our staff effectively and in a safe manner. We have to make sure that everyone in our team is well protected. I review constantly how we work in order to improve our organisation so we can help the airport fire service and other relevant agencies in the future. The information process is continuing to be improved in the UK. Four to five years ago our number of field deployments was up to about 80, but now this has dramatically dropped to 30.’

However, a large percentage of these 30 incidents were far more significant than the events of four of five years ago. Sid therefore called for increased collaboration between the AIB, emergency services and airport fire and rescue services.

‘I rely on you, as airport fire officers, to be my point of contact on the accident site, and as a source to provide good information about the emergency.’

Sid explained how the AIB had investigated several aircraft incidents that had recently occurred in the UK, including the Heathrow Dreamliner incident in 2013, in which a Boeing 787 caught fire due to the combustion of lithium ion batteries and the Vauxhall helicopter crash, when an experienced helicopter pilot flew into a crane in a busy urban area.

The AIB will investigate any aircraft-related incident where there has been a fatality or serious injury, as well as when an aircraft has gone missing or where an aircraft has suffered major damage.

Lessons learnt from previous accidents included that there was still very little knowledge on composite materials as used in the new generation of aircraft, and not much data on how composite components behaved when exposed to fire.

Sid also said that he was involved in research with the UK Ministry of Defence, the University of Manchester and the UK fire and rescue services looking at the dangers of lithium ion batteries. The final results would be published in around 18 months.  ‘Lithium ion batteries are a massive issue in the aviation industry, not just as cargo, but they are also prevalent in many items that people take onboard an aircraft.

‘It is now standard during our investigations to seize all electrical items from the wreckage. The number of devices that contain lithium ion batteries is incredible these days.’

He concluded his presentation by praising the good relationship between the AIB and the fire and rescue service, and the improvement in the interoperability between emergency services. ‘The events that we have attended highlight how much the airport fire service has moved forward in the last five years. Everybody seems to have accepted the change in their remit, and the planning and the cooperation has been very effective, making my life particularly easy.’

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