When Lexington Blue Grass Airport upgraded its airfield in 2020, the commercial airport, which serves central and eastern Kentucky, also invested in a $15 million three-story aircraft rescue and firefighting facility (ARFF).
The 23,196-square-foot ARFF building provides optimal access to the airfield and airport terminal. It houses primary ARFF functions on the airfield level, observation and operations space on the upper level, and a large training/conference room on the lower level that doubles as an emergency operations center.
“We are now more centrally located to the runway system, which improves our response time to aircraft events,” reports D. Scott Lanter, Director of Public Safety and Operations at Blue Grass Airport. “While our response times were within a three-minute response window before, the location of this new station shaves off seconds on our resonse.”
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires ARFF teams at every commercial airport to position responders and equipment in a way that gets a primary truck to the midpoint of the farthest runway within three minutes and ll apparatus there within four minutes. The FAA bases response times on research that shows radiant heat and fire from a spill-based petroleum fire can melt an aircraft’s aluminum skin within 3-4 minutes.
The new building changed Blue Grass Airport’s ARFF services location, but what sets the 18-man department apart is training.
Lanter explains, “In my career we’ve had three Alert-3 events or aircraft crashes at this airport. I’d describe an event like that as controlled chaos. If you don’t plan and train for a crash, you can’t control the chaos.”
TRAINING THEIR TEAM
Airports face aircraft incident or accident risks every day. Lanter stresses the two are different types. An incident involves an emergency landing or fuel spill, while an accident refers to an actual plane crash.
Accidents pose grave risks to victims and firefighters and the environment. ARFF teams must prepare for large fuel spills and fire, hazardous debris scattered everywhere, and possibly hundreds of injured and deceased passengers. Here preplanning and training makes a difference.
“Our training begins the day people start,” Lanter says, noting that the members of their ARFF team are cross trained as police officers, firefighters and EMTs.
Predesignated training takes place Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to Noon and covers a variety of topics. Members must know how to respond to fuel and aircraft fires, fuel spills, victim rescues and emergency medical treatment, use of firefighting foams, how to breach and ventilate structures, and more. And they need to know how to do everything while wearing 60- to 70-pounds of gear.
“We prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Lanter says. “The clock is ticking when the bell alarm goes off. They must know how to put on their gear and get to their truck, even in the dark. They need to know what to do in both alert and standby positions.”
While accidents are unexpected, sometimes members receive advance notice of aircraft problems. In those cases, the department dispatches members to predesignated areas along the runway to compress response times.
“They need to know how to do these things intuitively. Use of personal protective equipment, ARFF apparatus, driving on runways and taxiways in many weather and lighting conditions must be second nature,” he says. “Our team members receive over 100 hours of aircraft rescue firefighter training each year.”
TRAINING THEIR PARTNERS
An 18-man department at an airport that serves 1.4 million passengers annually cannot fight an aircraft fire alone. Incident commanders call for mutual aid as situations unfold. Their initial dispatch shares information on the type of accident, and whether it involves a large- or small-frame aircraft. This information paints a picture of the crash scene and size.
Most aircraft manufacturers offer crash charts for their products. It’s important for ARFF teams to understand the aircraft that might land at their airport and gather crash charts well in advance.
Like many ARFF teams, Blue Grass Airport partners with local Lexington police and fire departments. However, the department went the extra mile and trained local responders in ARFF response at its training center.
“We started training local fire department officials for free to ensure that when they respond here, they have the same knowledge base we do,” Lanter says. “That’s a direct investment that we’ve made in the safety our passengers. Local firefighters understand the nitty gritty of fighting a fire at this airport, and that’s the best piece of insurance we’ve ever invested in. Whenever we make a change that impacts their ability to back us up, we notify them of the change and train with them.”
At a recent aircraft event, certified aircraft rescue firefighters from the Lexington Fire Department showed up as planned. “It is nice to know that everyone has the same training. When our members ask for something aircraft rescue specific, the structure firefighters know what to do.”
Lanter notes this type of relationship is uncommon among industrial firefighting teams working for private businesses. “Private businesses may have trade secrets they don’t want others to have,” he says. “But operating in a hybrid and open way better protects our passengers, people and property.”
He adds, “If you’re a chief officer and you are not reaching out to neighboring departments and local stakeholders to build relationships, you are not doing your job. The time to build relationships is before you meet at the scene of a fire.”
Advanced training keeps responders safe and helps them respond to aircraft crashes. Blue Grass Airport conducts full-scale and tabletop emergency exercises with its police, fire, EMS, and emergency management partners. These exercises test response plans and standard operation guidelines (SOG) to see if what they designed on paper works for actual incidents.
“We do annual tabletop exercises and a tri-annual mock disaster to test our airport emergency plan, which is tied to our operating certificate issued by tthe FAA. Executive staff develops the incident, and we work through it with our partners to test the emergency plan,” Lanter says.
No one involved knows specifics about the disaster until the alarm sounds. “The goal of these exercises is to respond within the confines of our emergency plan. It lets us validate the processes we use or change processes to make them work,” he says. “The goal is to make people think.”
Past exercises included dealing with a pandemic-type illness, a terrorist attack from improvised explosive devices, active shooter drills, an aircraft crash on the runway and close to the airport,
The mock drills prepare firefighters for horrific accident scenes rife with hazards. An aircraft fire presents similar dangers to an industrial complex fire including:
- Fuel fires, fuel spills, and ignition sources nearby
- Composite fibers that present puncture and inhalation hazards
- High pressure hydraulic cylinders, accumulators, and hydraulic lines
- A spider-like web of wiring inside aircraft that can trap firefighters
- Threats of explosion from undeployed slide shutes
- Sharp metals and shrapnel
- Flashover risks
The key to dealing with aircraft incidents is advanced training to better understand these hazards. “Our first approach to an aircraft accident is being there within three minutes. If there’s a fire, we control the fire so we can make entry to help passengers on the aircraft,” Lanter says. “The next critical time hack we look at is the Golden Hour. If someone is seriously hurt, we have one hour to get them to an advanced trauma center.”
He adds they use water and firefighting foam to create a rescue path for passengers to self-evacuate. They keep this path open for firefighters. “If the fire goes out, great. But we still maintain apparatus coverage so that we can handle a flashback,” he says. “Once the fire is out, the EMS part of the command structure starts. The EMS triage officer classifies people based on their injuries. The more severe the injury, the faster we transport them to the hospital.”
FOCUS ON COMMUNICATION
Good communication helps control the chaos at an aircraft accident.
Blue Grass Airport invested in a $1 million, 800-megahertz, interoperable radio system in 2015. Today key personnel carry a portable radio that ties into local police and fire departments.
An alert sends everyone to a primary dispatch channel or command, and ARFF works the alert until it ends. The system also sends a mass notification to every player inside and outside the airport after an aircraft crash. The alert tells officials to respond according to the emergency response plan.
ARFF then moves to an incident command structure, and the commander assigns specific tasks to individual channels. “When you only have one radio system, it's very hard and very challenging to communicate, but with this new system, we have the ability to assign specific incident command roles to specific channels,” Lanter says.
KEEP IT CLEAN
The final step is clean up. Firefighters may use firefighting foams that contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These foams when left in the environment can contaminate groundwater. It’s essential that every ARFF team develop an SOG that addresses how the department handles discharged foam.
“We treat PFAS as a hazardous material, just like we would treat a fuel spill,” Lanter says. “We contract with a hazardous materials reclamation group to evaluate what’s happened, then remove fuel, foam, and water. We even dig out the dirt,” he says. “We have an environmental officer who makes sure we remove anything exposed to water, fuel and foam and send it to a hazardous material disposal facility.”
The Lexington Blue Grass Airport ARFF team understands the best defense is a good offense. With aircraft fires that offense comes by developing an emergency plan, training daily and regularly with local partners, and planning communications and cleanup for the big event—even if that event never happens.