By Carl J. Haddon
In prior columns, I’ve shared rural fire department concerns, about which I’ve often heard “Aw, that’ll never happen to us” or “We don’t have those kind of cars drive through our district,” and so on. I often feel the same way as I live and serve in a rural area with a county population fewer than than 8,000. You’ve seen and heard in prior articles about new vehicle technology extrication challenges and about 20-foot-wide, more than 100-foot-long “Megaloads” traveling through our area en route to the sand tar fields of Canada.
Like many rural areas, we have a very small unmanned municipal airport with a single runway. In the past 11 years that we’ve lived here, I can recall a single plane crash in the area. Like many of the aforementioned things, plane crashes just don’t happen here…until recently.
In the past month, we have had two single-engine plane crashes and a fatal crash of a Graumann Goose occurring this past spring. So, how prepared, equipped, and, more importantly, trained is your department to deal with a plane crash? Or three? I must admit that of all the “regular” calls we respond to and train for, airplane crashes rank down there with the threat of elephant stampedes in my mind.
With limited budgets, limited equipment space on the apparatus, and limited personnel, just how exactly do we consider the right equipment to put on our wish lists? What and how do we train for potential plane crashes?
Life safety first, right? The biggest threat with aircraft crashes is fire. Access to the crash site is a challenge. What can rural departments do to prepare for aircraft rescue and fire fighting (ARFF) work? Most of us carry class A foam, which is good if we are dealing with a single-dimension fire. But what do we do with a multi or three-dimensional (flowing fuel) fire?
New to the American fire service are encapsulating agents, which are mixed with water—either inducted, mixed in tank, or nozzle adjunct provided in solution—and appear to be a fantastic new option for all departments. Without getting into all of the science involved in true encapsulating agents (beware of wetting agents that want to be encapsulators), this technology is excellent for all hydrocarbon-based fires, class D fires, and dust explosion mitigation, among other things. This technology is also the agent of choice for lithium ion battery fires found in today’s new hybrid and all electric vehicles. I encourage you to do your own research and become informed about encapsulating agents. Much research and testing has been done in Europe on this technology, and it is being used extensively with great success. Unfortunately here in the United States, the encapsulator technology is stalled in the standards process. On a personal note, I have been using encapsulator technology agents in motorsports firefighting since 1997! I have no dog in the fight. However, I do have extensive experience with its benefits and resultant successes.
In addition to the fire danger at a plane crash is the extrication component. If you have easy access to the aircraft, most newer traditional hydraulic rescue tools will be able to do the job. I offer caution when using spreaders and especially rams on the heat treated aluminum found in much aircraft as it provides significant challenges when trying to gain purchase or anchor points for rams and spreaders. Tools slipping off of poor purchase points will cause the aluminum to violently snap back to its original shape or position.
Ok, now for the real challenge. How do we train to be ready for a potential incident involving an aircraft? I wish I had a great all encompassing answer to that question. The simple fact is that very few of us have access to aircraft boneyards for training. In absence of these boneyards, I recommend talking to private and commercial pilots in your area who may be able to conduct aircraft familiarity training at your local airstrip. As you go through that training, think about it from a firefighting prospective. What is the fuel capacity of certain aircraft? Where is the fuel located? What type of fuel does it use? Can you tell how the fuselage is constructed? What are the lookouts and safety concerns involved in aircraft crash responses?
Getting a general knowledge of best practices regarding aircraft crash response may be the best your department can do. Whatever the case, it is something to consider before the tones drop for another call that’s never going to happen in your district or response area.
CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.