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On a cold February night, a passenger plane crashed into a Buffalo, NY, neighborhood, killing all 49 people on board and one person on the ground. In another incident, a single-engine aircraft crashed in a heavily wooded area after flying in bad weather. The lone occupant was killed and locating the aircraft and extinguishing the post-crash fire proved difficult. Elsewhere, a Boeing 737 overran a runway in a snowstorm and the 50-ton aircraft came to rest on an occupied vehicle.
What do these three incidents have in common? They were all handled, either initially or completely, by structural fire departments. Although these types of accidents are rare, they will happen without warning and challenge even the most experienced incident commanders’ abilities.
Aviation history in the U.S. has had its safety issues, but air transportation remains the safest way to travel (per mile). While 80% of the world’s aviation traffic is in U.S. airspace, there were no deaths from crashes in commercial aviation in 2011. With 85,000 flights a day in the U.S., and approximately 61,000 people in the air at any given time, it is always possible that an accident can occur, but the average is now as low as one accident for every 1.2 million landing and takeoff cycles. About 85% of all aircraft accidents happen during landing or takeoff and usually without warning. Problems with aircraft quite often occur within the first 10 to 15 minutes of flight.
If an aviation accident were to occur in your jurisdiction, would you know what to do? When dealing with aviation accidents, the personal safety of responders should be the primary concern. An aviation accident should be handled just like any other emergency in the initial stage. Risk vs. benefit must be weighed before making rescues. “Risk a lot to save a lot,” as the saying goes.
If there is nothing to be saved, responders must put out any fires, minimize property damage and control access to the scene. Safety must be paramount in any plan of attack. The Incident Command System (ICS) must be established whether the accident involves a large commercial aircraft or a small general aviation aircraft, due to the large amount of resources you may need to manage. The 3 Cs (coordination, communication and cooperation) will get you through.
An aviation accident can be many incidents rolled into one. You may be dealing with fire, extrication, structural damage, hazardous materials and confined-space rescues, to name just a few. The location of an accident by itself will determine how the incident is handled. An accident that occurred at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, where an executive jet was taking off, is one example. During takeoff, the jet never made it off the ground. It went through the fence at the end of the runway, struck at least one car on a busy highway and then crashed into an occupied building. All occupants of the jet made it off the aircraft successfully, but the ensuing fire destroyed the aircraft and heavily damaged the building. Once again, in that incident the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) was a structural fire department.
Airport firefighters were on the scene very quickly, but roads became quickly blocked with traffic making it difficult for responders to gain access. Imagine being in command of this incident. Not only do you have an aircraft accident to mitigate, but also a fire in a building with unknown occupancy and a major highway blocked with damaged vehicles and stopped traffic.
Another problem can be the misidentification of the aircraft during an aircraft emergency. The 1990 Avianca crash in Cove Neck, NY, was reported by the first police officer to arrive as a possible Cessna aircraft down. It was actually a Boeing 707 that had run out of fuel and crashed on a steep slope.
In the case of the Boeing 737 jet that overran a runway and came to rest on an occupied vehicle, what steps would you take to stabilize a 50-ton aircraft and perform extrication having very little knowledge about the aircraft? Aviation accidents can cause many problems for responders; however, like many other challenges within the fire service, training is the key.