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How to respond to plane crashes

By Chief Bob Lindstrom
Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting Working Group

AP Photo/David Duprey
A firefighter works at the scene of the plane crash in Clarence Center near Buffalo, New York, in February.

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Communities near and far from airports have the risk of the unfortunate event of an aircraft accident/incident on a daily basis. Over the past couple of months, we’ve seen two such events — one which had a very positive outcome and the other sadly not so good.

Firefighter safety is always number one in our industry. Approaching all situations with this consideration in mind will help keep your focus on personal and overall scene safety. The aircraft crash site is a dangerous environment. There are the obvious concerns such as a large fuel fire, debris everywhere, injured and deceased passengers. We all can agree there are a lot of things to worry about.

My hat is off to all those brave brothers and sisters who responded to both the Hudson River crash and the Buffalo, NY, tragedy that killed 50 people. No one can ever imagine what was going through their minds as they responded, then reacted to the situation.

First, for the purposes of this article, an accident is a crash or a crashed landing. An incident would be a situation where perhaps the aircraft makes an emergency landing on your road systems or in a farm field or other space where the pilot can attempt a safe landing. Accidents will involve planes that have probably has suffered a great deal of damage, and or fire and destruction. These will probably be one of those “once in a career” type of events.

Dispatch information
Scene safety begins on the initial dispatch information. If you are lucky, you will know what magnitude of the accident you are heading to is — such as a large or small-frame aircraft. Among the long list of large-frame aircraft are the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A-340 aircraft. Small-frame aircraft can be the hobby aircraft such as a Cessna 150 up to and including Cessna Citation private business jets. In addition, there is military aircraft ranging from theT-38 Trainer jet up to the B-2 Bomber. Most information will not be clear on the aircraft type, but probably will give you a size estimation of the accident scene.

As responders you will do what you do best: prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Incident commanders will start calling for mutual aid as the incident is unfolds. EMS will be activated based on the size of the incident.

There will not only be probably victims from the aircraft, but perhaps even from those on the ground. NIMS will play a crucial part in these types of incidents.

When approaching the aircraft, the following hidden dangers lay waiting for you:

  • Fuel fires
  • If the fuel has not ignited, then perhaps a fuel spill will be looking for an ignition source
  • Twisted sharp metals
  • Composite fibers (sharp puncture, and inhalation hazards)
  • High pressure hydraulic lines (1000 PSI. Plus)
  • High pressure hydraulic cylinders and accumulators
  • Miles of electrical wiring, which can wait like a trap for you
  • Slide chutes that have not been deployed, which can present an explosive reaction when activated

Hazards that can present in military aircraft include military ejection seats; explosive squibs, rocket motors, munitions, high explosives and other hazardous materials such as hydrazine.

This laundry list of hazards sounds like something to make you stand back and worry, but understand you see many of these hazards and more in the average industrial complex fire. All municipalities large and small also have fuel storage which is far greater a hazard than the average aircraft carries. The aircraft just happens to be high profile and have significant potential for loss of life.

Cabin hazards
There are several hazards that can be present in the cabin of any aircraft. Aircraft carry hundreds of feet of wiring, some low voltage and some higher. The problem usually is not in the voltage, but entrapment of the firefighter. The wiring can be best described as a spider web, so firefighters should think about entering the cabin with a good set of cable cutters. Door slide chutes if not activated can also be dangerous. Use caution when opening the exterior cabin doors on commercial aircraft.

Aircraft cabins also provide the perfect flashover atmosphere. Use caution when starting interior attacks. Fight like you would any fire with a potential flashover potential. Aircraft cabins are also a good example of a confined space. You will usually find the cabin compromised to the point where a confined space may not exist. Regardless, use caution.

As responders we respond with the hopes of saving lives and making a difference. Firefighters must be mentally prepared. When responding to a high impact accident, you should be prepared for a horrific accident scene.

One of the oldest training manuals out there helping firefighters better understand aircraft firefighting is the Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (5th Edition) Manual.

It goes into far greater detail than I can, but like any training manual it is just a beginning. You should also contact an airport close to you that has an airport fire department, commonly known as an Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) department. ARFF departments train year around to combat and deal with aircraft accidents and incidents, and there are also organizations that provide training seminars all over the United States.

The key to dealing with an aircraft accident is training in advance. Understand the obvious hazards and prepare for some of the hidden hazards pointed out in this article. There are many ways to get your department prepared. Spend some time reading articles. Talk to your local airport fire department. Search the Internet for information.

Most aircraft manufacturers provide crash charts for their aircraft. These are easily obtained from the Internet or a local airport fire department. These incidents are challenging no matter who you are — just remember your basic fire training and scene survey.

Chief Bob Lindstrom is the fire chief at the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City. He is a past chairman of the ARFF Working Group and also a contributing writer for the IFSTA ARFF Book 4th Edition. Chief Lindstrom is currently the chairman of the ARFF Technical Committee for the NFPA ARFF documents.

The ARFF Working Group is a non-profit international organization dedicated to the sharing of aircraft rescue and fire fighting information between airport firefighters, municipal fire departments and all others concerned with aircraft fire fighting. For more details on the organization, go to