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Fire department response to aircraft emergencies

Video shows home engulfed in fire after being struck by a Cessna aircraft


A plane crash is one type of event, but in this case, the crash creates a second event in the form of a residential structure fire.


We tend to relate responding to aircraft emergencies with an airport where there are many planes in one area, but the fact is that every fire department may be called to an aircraft incident, regardless of whether there is a major airport nearby. After all, there are numerous airplanes off all types and sizes flying through the skies at any given moment, and the possibility of one of them crashing into your response area is very real.

If this does happen, how prepared is your fire department in handling aircraft incidents? Are your members trained in aircraft rescue firefighting (ARFF)?

ARFF is a specialized form of firefighting and the apparatus involved are typically larger than those used in a municipal setting, with larger foam operations and larger water supply operations. Additionally, the aircraft poses a variety of hazards, particularly a higher fire load content involving jet fuel, and, depending on the size of the aircraft, crews may be facing a mass-casualty incident. Clearly, there’s a lot of factors at play at an incident involved a downed aircraft.

Aircraft crash hazards

In the corresponding video, we see an incident involving a small plane – a Cessna 414 – that crashed into a residential structure in Middlesex County, New Jersey.

A plane crash is one type of event, but in this case, the crash creates a second event in the form of a residential structure fire.

One of the main hazards to consider is the jet fuel. Jet A is kerosene-type fuel with a high flash point and low freezing point. Specifically, Jet A fuel in the United States has a freezing point of -40 degrees C, with a flash point of 38 degrees C. It is highly flammable and requires the use of foam to help suppress this type of fire.

Another aspect of aircraft rescue incidents to consider is the access to the downed aircraft. Planes crash anywhere, and sometimes the access to the area may be impeded by obstacles – the plane itself, with parts/debris of the plane, buildings into which the plane has crashed, or natural terrain. Access to the site may not be possible with the use of a regular fire truck; you may need an off-road vehicle or an all-terrain vehicle. If your department does not have access to these types of vehicles, then you likely need to reach out to neighboring departments or surrounding agencies for help.

Many airplane crashes result in some type of debris field from the impact. Amid this debris field may be deceased passengers or body parts. Besides this being an emergency situation, it is also a crime scene with respect to investigations of why the plane crashed. The body parts or debris from the plane needs to stay in its location until it has been documented by investigators.

ARFF training

Consider holding an ARFF training class in conjunction with local airport authorities or ARFF response units to help educate local fire departments on the varying aspects of responding to an aircraft emergency.

After watching this video with your company, take the following steps to help prepare your members for responding to similar incidents:

  • Review your department’s standard operating procedures and guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) to identify best practices for responding to an aircraft emergency.
  • Have a roundtable discussion on the different hazards present at aircraft fires and resulting structure fires.
  • Determine what actions the crew should take (or not take) to access the plane.
  • Discuss go/no-go decision-making as it relates to fire severity, jet fuels and other aircraft-related hazards.
  • Talk through some of the more psychologically challenging parts of an aircraft crash response, like potentially discovering a body or bodies.
  • Organize a tour or joint training session with local airport authorities/ARFF units to become familiar with response protocols.
  • Conduct training on foam operations using both the onboard foam system as well as a foam educator operation.

Get ready

Incidents involving aircraft can happen at any time and at any place. Be sure to prepare ahead of time, focusing on response basics, such as foam operations and getting to know who you need to call or work with for expertise in handling it.

Editor’s Note: How does your department handle training for aircraft emergencies? Share your feedback in the comments below or at

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.