The Role Of The Fire Service At An Airport

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If you live in a big city, chances are you are quite used to hearing sirens blaring close by or seeing big red trucks shoot past on a daily basis. Thankfully, airport firefighting services are rarely noticed to the same extent. However, that does not mean that when they are not blasting fire extinguishing foam out of the roof of their truck, they are simply sitting idly by.

Firefighters Berlin
Aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) services can fill many functions at an airport. Photo: Getty Images

Extensive training for unique challenges

In most countries, larger airports with scheduled passenger flights are obliged to have firefighters and firefighting equipment on the premises. Their primary purpose is to conduct emergency response, mitigation, evacuation, and rescue of passengers and crew.

An aircraft fire presents unique challenges, and aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF), as it is called in the US, require specific training. When an emergency landing takes place, to quickly be able to extinguish potential ensuing fires is paramount to giving people the best possible chance of making it safely out of the aircraft.

This is especially true if the aircraft took off not long before returning to the ground and is still carrying a more-than-optimal amount of fuel. Airport fire services go through extensive training in applying firefighting foams and chemicals, especially suitable for extinguishing burning aviation fuels.

Fire truck Dublin
This fire and rescue vehicle at Dublin Airport can shoot fire extinguishing foam with massive pressure through its ‘nozzle’ mounted on the roof. Photo: William Murphy via Wikimedia Commons

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The firefighting fleet and the ‘snozzle’

The vehicles operated by airport rescue services are usually a fleet (numbers depending on the airport’s size) of large high-volume pumping vehicles. These have the capacity to carry a huge amount of fire extinguishing foam which is applied with enormous pressure through nozzles on the vehicle’s roof.

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This is commonly known as a ‘snozzle’ and is equipped with a spike capable of piercing the aircraft fuselage to deliver the foam inside. It also has an infrared camera attached. This way, the airport firefighters can fight the flames without having to set foot inside the plane. To reach the upper deck of the Airbus A380, an upgraded version of the roof-mounted contraption had to be introduced.

However, putting out aircraft fires is a sporadic occurrence for airport firefighters. Beyond the obvious immediate response calls in the case of an aircraft emergency landing, they fill several other functions crucial to airport operations.

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Emirates A380
Airport firefighting vehicles have special ‘snozzles’ to reach the upper deck of the A380. Photo: Getty Images.

EMS, snow removal, and runway inspection

The number one call that airport rescue services handle is for Emergency Medical Services (EMS). This is when an aircraft makes an unscheduled landing due to a medical emergency on board or if someone has been taken ill on a regularly scheduled approach.

Airport ambulance crews also typically depart from the airside fire stations, and on the site, they follow the orders of the ARFF incident commander. Many airport firefighters have also cross-trained as paramedics.

Beyond those stemming from actual aircraft, airport firefighters, not surprisingly, also deal with potential fires in the airport’s structure itself. They also deal with hazardous spills that may occur throughout operations, as well as monitor refueling. They often assist snow removal services with getting rid of snow in winter and deal with any traffic collisions on the airport’s property.

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Working in overnight shifts, airport firefighter crews provide security for the premises after midnight. They also perform the first runway checks of the morning.

Wildlife damage bird strikes
At some airports, rescue services help deal with wildlife posing a danger to operations. Photo: Getty Images

Wildlife and water rescue

At some airports, ARRF units are also involved in wildlife management. More specifically, they handle bird strike reports and investigations. In the US, if there is blood from a bird strike, it must be collected and sent to the Smithsonian for DNA analysis so that it may detect if a potential pattern could be emerging.

If an airport is located near a body of water, the airport firefighting crew must also operate a water rescue service. The International Airport Water Rescue Working Group, with representatives from airports such as Singapore Changi, Boston Logan, and Copenhagen Kastrup. The Copenhagen Airport Rescue and Firefighting Academy (CARFA) also specializes in water rescue training.

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Celebratory salutes

Meanwhile, airport firefighters also have more celebratory tasks. When a new aircraft arrives with an airline, it is often greeted with a water cannon salute. That is done by one or two firefighting vehicles lined up on either side of the aircraft, expelling plumes of water over the plane.

It can also be performed on other ceremonial occasions, such as the retirement of a senior pilot or an airline’s first or last flight to an airport. When the British Airways Concorde made its final commercial flight out of New York JFK in October 2003, it was saluted by red, white, and blue water plumes.

On particularly momentous occasions, such as the closing of Berlin’s Tegel Airport in November last year, you can see a whole row of firefighting vehicles banding together to give a proper sendoff. In the picture below, you can see the salute of an Air France flight on its way from Tegel to Paris Charles de Gaulle for the very last time.

Firefighters salute the very final takeoff from Berlin’s Tegel Airport in November last year. Photo: Getty Images

What can’t they do?

While legislation surrounding the mandate of airport fire services differs somewhat, they are usually not allowed to respond to non-aircraft-related incidents outside the airport premises. Doing so would result in leaving the airport without fire cover.

At least in the UK, an airport without fire cover must close its runways to passenger aircraft, unless in an emergency. However, the services can respond to aircraft-related incidents off-site if they fall within a six-degree cone from the end of each runway.

Have you ever seen the airport fire service in action? What was the incident? Tell us about it in the comment section.

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