It’s a common scene in the movies.
The brave pilot is about to land the crippled aircraft, the good-looking flight attendant by his side. It’s night, of course, and the approach lights race toward home. The music is tense. The airplane crosses the threshold and there they are: the crash/fire/rescue trucks. Lights flashing. Already rolling. These are the guys who will rescue our heroes. These are the trucks that carry foam. All is well. Cue the happy music.
There are movies about pilots and passengers, even a movie about air traffic controllers, but no one has yet put airport fire departments in a starring role. Perhaps this is a mistake. The real world of the airport fire department is intense training, and then long periods of calm—interrupted by the occasional emergency.
In real life, the scene would begin in the tower. An airplane has reported a problem and the guys in the cab pick up what’s called the crash phone. Across the airport, the fire chief answers.
“Alert Three,” the tower says. “Category One.”
Alert Three means a crash has happened or is imminent. Category One is a small-frame aircraft, something in the world of general aviation.
The chief sounds the alarm. Security is alerted and calls 911. The guys in the tower continue. “Business jet coming in to Runway Three-Six. Asymmetrical flap extension.”
“Firehouse copy,” the chief says. His crew is already in the truck, silver fire suits reflecting the flashing lights. The garage doors open, and the trucks are out. FAA standards say they have to be at the midpoint of the farthest runway in less than three minutes. It’s a matter of pride that the crew beats the time soundly.
Tales from the fire house
I am sitting with David Bush, fire chief at Fargo, North Dakota’s Hector International Airport (FAR), in his office on a bright, quiet summer morning. I’m asking him for stories about airport crash/fire/rescue.
“A young gal,” he says, “on her first solo, was coming in to land. There were two F–16s waiting to taxi, right off the edge of the runway, and she got spooked. She just ran off the end of the runway and flipped the airplane upside down into a snowbank. She was unbuckled from her harness and lying on the top of the aircraft when we got there, but she was fine. Actually, she flew a week later.
“Another time,” he adds, “a helicopter was doing autorotations 1,000 feet off the ground. It just came down, hard and fast. We went looking for the FAA inspector on that one, and he was one of the guys in the helicopter! Both survived. They were outside, cussing.”
Sometimes there is no warning. “One day we were standing outside the station right before morning roll call, just kind of talking with each other,” Bush says, “and we watched a twin-engine cargo plane come in. We watched him land, and all of a sudden the nose gear collapsed. We watched the nose gear collapse. And that ended up sending a prop through the aircraft. It sliced right through. That could have been bad.”
Sometimes, though, the news comes early. “Routinely we’ll get advance notice,” Bush says. “We’ll be sitting out there in our standby positions for a long time. Our long-est wait was a commercial flight. They had to burn off fuel before they landed and that takes some time. So they’re circling all the farmland and we’re waiting for them to come in.
“If we get a heads-up like that, when we get the call we usually know the nature of the problem. The aircraft is calling the tower and they’re saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a warning light or a landing gear light or I’m having flap control problems.’ We usually know the nature of the emergency, and depending on the nature of the emergency we know what to expect.
“If they’re having flap problems they’re going to land long and fast, ,and we know we have the possibility of hot brakes. We have all sorts of different issues we look out for.”
Bush has two desks in his office. Depending on which phone he answers, he’s either called senior master sergeant or chief.
Like many large airports, Fargo hosts an Air National Guard contingent. As part of the agreement to use the airfield, the guard had provided fire service. Recently, however, the base lost its flying mission and fire services followed the aircraft. The number of firefighters went from 28 to 10. While the airport could have outsourced the fire protection, Shawn Dobberstein, executive director of the airport authority, says they felt an obligation to keep as many of the guard members on site as possible. Still, the changes have been deep.
“We’ve had to change a lot of our procedures with our mutual-aid partners,” Bush says. “The Fargo Fire Department takes a much more primary role.”
“We’re a specialty firefighting service,” he says. “We don’t do facilities and we don’t do structures. We simply do aircraft and medical emergencies out here. Even the structures on the airport property are supported by the Fargo Fire Department. If they need us, through mutual-aid agreements, they will call.”
Airport training and equipment are not the same as a standard civic fire department. “Our training focuses on hydrocarbon fires. Fuel fires. Our training revolves around aircraft. Familiarization. The processes of how to egress people out of aircraft,” says Bush. “We deal with pressurized cabins and slides that might deploy. The agents we use are different. We don’t use water on an aircraft. We use foam. It’s a different niche. It’s a different specialty.”
Aqueous film-forming foam is meant to float on the surface of the fuel and smother it. The larger of two new airport fire trucks in Fargo holds 3,000 gallons of water and 420 gallons of foam. That’s a lot. The foam is mixed with the water inside the truck—it’s a 3-percent solution—and then sprayed out. With 420 gallons of foam, the crew can pump four tanks of water before expending its foam supply.
Airport fire trucks—Oshkosh Global Strikers—often have a nozzle on a boom, and many have a piercing nozzle that can penetrate the side of an airplane and then spray the inside.
Airport fire protection is governed by the FAA. The agency gives airports an index rating based on the largest aircraft that lands on a regular basis, and the airport has to meet the standards of that rating. Fargo is an Index C airport.
“Our manning and vehicle sets are determined by our rating,” Bush says. “We exceed that standard here.”
There are 172 general aviation airplanes based at Fargo, plus five helicopters. Fargo also is a primary diversion airport for Minneapolis, is a designated primary alternate for a number of international flights traveling to Minneapolis and Chicago, and has a high volume of student flights. Nearly half a million people landed or took off from the field in 2014. Fargo is, in airplane terms, the best halfway point between Europe and Los Angeles—with a world-class FBO, which makes it popular for business jets. Based on the scheduled aircraft, Fargo is required to meet standards for a smaller Index B airfield. In fact, they meet the standards for Index C and have the capacity for Index E.
“We haven’t had a lot of large incidents out here,” Bush says. “We’ve had a lot of the smaller type stuff. Someone skids off the runway. Someone’s nose gear collapses. A lot of belly landings. It’s just amazing watching some of these pilots when they do a belly landing. Some are good. Some can work the prop and they don’t do any damage to the engines. Some just total the airplane. It’s amazing to see the different skill sets.
“We use the principle that if people are trying to get out of an aircraft, we’re not going to impede that. Our main goal is to get people out of that unsurvivable environment. But once we enter an aircraft, the same principles apply as in a structure fire. It’s just that the house is sitting on a large amount of fuel.
“It’s not the fastest-paced job out here,” he says. “But when there is a call, it’s zero to 60. It has the potential for catastrophic events.”
‘That’s what we train for’
Training is ongoing and intense. Each shift is tested at least once a month. Every firefighter also is an emergency medical responder. There is practice for small airplanes as well as large.
“We just tested our large-scale crash exercise with the city of Fargo, F-M Ambulance, and Fargo P.D.,” Bush says. “Our scenario this past year was a CRJ–900 that veered left on takeoff, clipped a wing, and crashed. For the CRJ–900 exercise we had 70 passengers. We had two buses and about 50 volunteers. We had about 20 cardboard cutouts, too. There were evaluators from each department of the exercise—someone evaluating the fire section, the EMS section, the law enforcement section, communications, command and control, an overall exercise director. Something always comes up. Communications is always an issue when you’re dealing with multiple agencies on multiple frequencies, but we did very well.”
Would Fargo be ready for a situation similar to the 1989 crash landing of a DC–10 in Sioux City, Iowa? Like Fargo, Sioux City was a National Guard base; 285 trained people were able to aid in the emergency.
“I am very confident in the responders in this part of the country,” Bush says. “If I had 20 minutes, we would have a full, county-wide response. Even if we have no warning—even if it’s something that happens on takeoff or landing—it’s still going to be a county-wide response. We’d be calling in rural ambulances, for example, just for the sheer volume. That’s what we train for.”
Most GA airfields, however, are a lot smaller than Fargo’s Hector International. Just a few miles southeast of Fargo, the airport in Moorhead, Minnesota, relies on city resources for crash/fire response. According to Steve Edner, airport manager, there are no firefighting resources on the airfield. It’s just too small. The airport does not have an FAA index rating. Twice a year the city fire department comes by for a familiarization tour, but they have not run any training exercises that he can recall.
At airports that do have their own crash/fire department, the responsibilities of the department often go well beyond one airplane behaving badly. This is especially true when the events and the crowds get large.
“The Fargo Airshow,” Bush says, “is a tough beast to get your head around as far as emergency response. You’ve got so many different types of things you need to prepare for. You’ve got hundreds of people, sometimes in a hot environment. You’ve got medical issues. Heat stroke in the spectator area is part of our emergency response. And in today’s environment, you don’t know what kind of people are out there and what kind of harm they want to do to other people. For the airshow, security falls under our emergency response. We coordinate with the police department and the sheriff’s office, but it’s my office’s responsibility to develop the plan.”
Bush said the industry implemented changes after an airshow pilot was killed in a crash during a performance at another airport and the first vehicle didn’t arrive on scene until more than five minutes later. “Any time there is an aircraft in the air, we’re in full uniform, full bunker gear, trucks running, ready to go.”
Even though the department has shrunk, the experience in Fargo is deep. The least-senior firefighter has 11 years in service. The oldest has been there 33 years. “What used to be six weeks of training,” Bush says, “is now four months.
“It’s not a well-known career field,” he says. “It’s a specialty career field, despite the Hollywood scenes with the big trucks and the silver suits. It requires extensive amounts of training. If we’re busy, somebody’s having a bad day.” <
W. Scott Olsen is an English professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.