Off-Site Aircraft Emergencies

Richard Marinucci   Richard Marinucci


A long time ago, I attended a very basic class regarding aircraft emergencies, essentially about crashes. I don’t recall attending any classes on the topic since.


This is an example of “out of sight, out of mind” in that the vast majority of fire departments and firefighters do not really expect this type of event to occur in their jurisdiction. Perhaps it is time to review your background in this area and consider training in some of the basics needed for a professional response to such emergencies.

Sometimes a reminder that something could occur is necessary to generate the planning and training that would provide a great response that takes care of the emergency and offers the appropriate safety measures for firefighters. It seems that the further we get from an emergency the more likely we are to neglect our responsibilities to be ready. Although it has been a long time since an organization I’m affiliated with responded to this type of incident, I have responded to a single-engine plane that crashed into a garage two houses from where I lived. I have also responded to a couple of minor helicopter crashes. Because of the infrequency, my confidence level in this area is not as high as it should be.

Airport Resources

Aircraft events are most likely to occur on airport property or nearby. This is good, because airport firefighters regularly and routinely train and prepare for such events even though crashes are rare. They continue to work on their skills and knowledge and have apparatus and equipment specifically designed for the emergencies that might occur. On occasion, this is not the case. Departments, especially those on a flight path, must train and review regularly for incidents of this type even though the risk is relatively low.

Those looking for resources to help prepare them for aircraft emergencies should start with nearby airports staffed for response. They are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and are very knowledgeable. They almost always are willing to offer their expertise to help others that are not as well versed as they are. This also applies to those near military airports. Good relationships are always beneficial, and the closer you are to an airport or along flight paths, the more you need to know. Though infrequent, a crash can create a significant challenge to any department depending on the type of aircraft, the amount of fuel on board, and where the crash occurs.

In most cases, crashes do not present rescue opportunities for those on the plane. Still, there are instances where proper actions by rescuers have saved victims. It could be a case of knowing enough and being prepared in those rare instances. In addition, organizations should consider the possibility of crashes from aircraft other than fixed-wing types. Because of their design, they often have greater potential for survival.

Aircraft Types

There are more types of aircraft than I can list. To simplify, we would classify aircraft as commercial or private, jet or prop, fixed-wing or rotary, or even passive such as hot air balloons. Although I don’t think a typical fire department or its personnel will ever possess the knowledge of airport crash crews regarding specifics on various aircraft, there should be some minimum familiarity and understanding. Responders should know about some of the special hazards they may face based on aircraft construction and what they carry, from fuel to cargo.

Large commercial jets do not crash as frequently as private planes, including both jets and props. The odds of the average firefighter or department responding to a major event are very low. Staying motivated and keeping people prepared for something not likely to occur are challenges. Leaders should work hard to include the basics in their training program.

Aircraft Differences

Firefighters need to raise their awareness and understand some of the basic differences between various aircraft. Some are obvious, but others could make a difference in a significant emergency in your jurisdiction. Passenger planes have the potential for rescue opportunities, although the survival rates are not that good. Cargo, in addition to passenger luggage, is on board, and most departments would have no idea what is being carried in the belly of the plane. It is not likely that any organization will know what is being carried on freight planes. As such, use caution when approaching the remains of a crash.

It goes without saying that the bigger the plane, the more fuel on board at takeoff. Any mishaps early in the flight will have more flammable liquids to consider. They will create even more potential damage based on where the event occurs. If the crash is in a residential area or any area with more buildings, responding units should expect many structure fires as part of the emergency. If the crash occurs in a more remote area, there will likely be significant environmental issues to consider.

Single-engine and jet private planes offer various possibilities. Some are more regulated than others, with some recreational flyers coming under limited controls with respect to air traffic control, flight plans, and so on. This means there is more of a chance that flyers are “flying under the radar.” This was the case in the crash I mentioned earlier that ended up in the garage of a neighbor.

Helicopters, blimps, and hot air balloons offer other considerations. Many fire departments have more information regarding helicopters because they are involved with medical helicopters and have received training that helps with landing zones and use of the aircraft as part of emergency response. For example, all firefighters should know how to approach a helicopter. Members and organizations should never get complacent and must review their operations as often as practical.

Regulatory Entities

The FAA regulates flights, and the National Transportation Safety Board also has oversight in some areas. Unless you are in the business, it is not reasonable to expect that you will know the jurisdictional responsibilities of the agencies. But as part of the awareness preparation, members and organizations should have information as to how to notify both agencies should an event occur. They can inform you of their requirements and the information they will need.

My knowledge is very limited regarding aircraft rescue and firefighting operations. It is easy to overlook the potential of an incident occurring because the chances of these happening in most areas are fortunately low. Yet, the possibility exists-especially if you are in close proximity to an airport-so professional departments must prepare and review their operations. They need to know where resources are available to help them and how to quickly initiate operations. Although departments continue to add responsibilities that make them busier than ever, here is one area that could use a refresher from time to time.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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