4 challenges for the structural fire department responding to aircraft crashes

Structural firefighters face unique location, access, PPE and site security challenges when responding to general aviation aircraft crashes

Did you know that roughly 95% of aircraft accidents happen within 10 miles of an airport? That statistic from the Federal Aviation Administration means that an airport is the least likely location for an aircraft accident.

Now that you know that statistic, every structural firefighting department should recognize aircraft crashes as a serious potential hazard to which they can respond and for which they should be prepared.

According to the FAA, there are over 19,000 airports, heliports, seaplane bases and other landing facilities in the United States and its territories. The airports we typically think of, large airports with commercial flight service, like LAX and JFK International, account for only 378 of the airports in the U.S. 

Responders should anticipate crash sites that are in heavily wooded areas or other remote locations.
Responders should anticipate crash sites that are in heavily wooded areas or other remote locations. (Photo/Moody Air Force Base)

General aviation aircraft and landing facilities

In the U.S., 2,952 landing facilities (including 2,903 airports, 10 heliports and 39 seaplane bases) support aeromedical flights, aerial wildland firefighting, law enforcement, disaster relief and support for remote communities. These 2,952 landing facilities are primarily used by general aviation aircraft and are, therefore, commonly referred to as general aviation airports.

Part of this grouping of landing facilities includes 121 airports that feature limited scheduled air service; these are facilities that board at least 2,500 passengers per year, but less than 10,000. 

The FAA classification for general aviation (GA) aircraft includes about every type of aircraft except those used for commercial air service. GA aircraft include light planes, experimental crafts, hot air balloons, gliders, helicopters and small jets.

Seventy-eight percent of all active GA aircraft (i.e., civil aircraft) are single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft. Another 10% of GA aircraft are of the light twin-engine variety. And about 12% of all active GA aircraft weigh more than 12,500 lbs. 

These aircraft, which number in the tens of thousands according to the FAA, include corporate jets, medical evacuation helicopters and airplanes owned by individuals for business and personal use. The FAA reports that three out of every four takeoffs and landings at U.S. airports are conducted by GA aircraft, and most of those flights originate or end at general aviation airports [3].

Odds are your department has a GA airport in its first-due

The FAA lists about 500 airports have dedicated aircraft rescue firefighting (ARFF) on site (the 378 commercial service airports and the remainder at GA airports with limited commercial service). Those ARFF departments at those 378 commercial service airports have the resources to be self-sufficient, but those GA airports likely rely on mutual aid from their surrounding local fire departments.

That means that roughly 15,000 of those small airports, helipads and other take-off and landing sites rely exclusively on their local fire departments for response in the event of an aircraft crash or fire. And just because you don’t have an airport in your first due doesn’t mean you won’t get the call. Remember, 95 percent of aircraft crashes happen within 10 miles of an airport.

Preparing for an aircraft crash

A response by structural firefighters to an aircraft crash (with or without fire) – especially for fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters – should pretty much mirror a response to a motor vehicle crash or fire, albeit a very high-velocity crash. The primary differences of note are going to be the configuration of the aircraft, its structural integrity and the amount of fuel that was on board at the time of the crash.

There are some specific hazards that structural firefighters should be aware of and factor into their incident action plan when responding to GA aircraft crashes. These include: [5]

  • Fires that can involve Class A, B, C or D materials. Today’s GA aircraft are constructed with a wide variety of materials: aluminum, magnesium, beryllium, titanium, steel and composites, such as carbon/graphite and boron/tungsten.
  • Toxic fumes and smoke from the combustion of aircraft fuel, and any of the above materials.
  • Explosion hazards from ordnance (in military aircraft), fuel cells, cargo and oxygen tanks (in air medical planes and helicopters).

Get training specific to aircraft crash management

For structural firefighters, it’s important to have a set of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) specifically focused on response to GA aircraft crashes and fires. These KSAs are essential for firefighters’ safety, and for the safety of the pilot, the passengers and any others on scene that may be involved.

Such training should include: aircraft terminology, types of engines, types of aircraft, hazards associated with materials used in aircraft construction, basic airport operations and aircraft hazards. 

Structural fire departments should be equipped and prepared to overcome these four challenges when responding to aircraft crashes.

1. Determining the exact geographical location of the crash site

Responders should anticipate crash sites that are in heavily wooded areas or other remote locations. A good handheld GPS navigation unit that displays latitude and longitude coordinates (don’t rely on wireless phone service being available) is a great tool. When the crash site is located, a GPS navigational unit can provide the coordinates, which can then be communicated to other responding departments and agencies, enabling them to easily find the site.

2. Access for personnel and equipment

Going back to the heavily wooded areas and remote locations, how are you going to get people and equipment to the crash site? Four-wheel drive equipped trucks and ATVs are certainly a couple of options. Find out what’s available and add it to your resource list for your department’s SOG for aircraft crashes.

Also look at what resources are available in your community for building an ad hoc road to the crash site (e.g., bulldozers and tree removal companies). Depending upon the size of the aircraft and location of the crash site, building such an impromptu road may be necessary, even to get enough access for those four-wheel drive vehicles and ATVs.

3. Personnel protection

Structural firefighting PPE makes for lousy working protection — increased risk of heat related illness — at the site of an aircraft crash, especially if it’s a high-speed crash with multiple injuries and fatalities. In the absence of the need for structural PPE for fire suppression tasks, or initial protection from unburned aircraft fuel or hazardous cargo, your department’s apparatus should carry OSHA Level B/NFPA Class 2 or Class 3 CBRN suits.

Today’s CBRN protective clothing is more light-weight, more breathable, and more economical than ever before making it a necessary addition to PPE carried aboard fire department apparatus. Such protective clothing will provide better protection from fuels and biohazards for your firefighters and reduce the risk of heat stress while working in structural PPE. It will also protect your department’s financial investment in its structural PPE. 

4. Maintaining crash site security

Responding personnel must approach an aircraft crash site much like they would a serious multi-vehicle crash or crime scene. Even as any fire suppression or occupant rescue operations are taking place, the incident commander must ensure that the crash site is preserved as much as possible for the investigation process that will be conducted by local, state and federal assets (e.g., the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board).

That subsequent investigation will rely heavily on what the crash site initially looked like, (e.g., aircraft location and orientation, location of aircraft debris, and the location of any victims or victim body parts). Fire department apparatus should be equipped with some basic tools for crash site control, much like a hazardous materials spill site, so that personnel can quickly identify, establish and maintain the following control zones:

  • Hot Zone: Only the minimum number of personnel and equipment necessary for any active fire suppression or occupant rescue.
  • Warm Zone: The location for decontamination unit and staging for relief personnel and equipment to relieve personnel in the Hot Zone.
  • Cold Zone: The location for the incident command post, on-scene rehab unit, and other assets not yet organized and ready to moveup to the Warm Zone.

The basic tools and supplies on fire apparatus should include items such as:

  • Banner tape for identifying each control zone.
  • Small flags (like those used by irrigation system and lawn care contractors) to mark the location of aircraft debris and occupant body parts. This is important, particularly if crash debris must be moved to effect occupant rescue.
  • A small digital camera for initial crash site documentation. Don’t rely on personal phone cameras carried by fire department personnel. Such photos must be considered extremely confidential and a chain-of-custody for such photos must be maintained. So, be prepared to hand over the camera to investigators.

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