Aircraft Firefighting: Dangers to Responders At General-Aviation Accidents

Chief Todd Bane addresses the technical challenges departments face when they respond to aircraft incidents in their community.

The article “Aircraft Rescue & Structural Fire Departments” in the November 2012 issue of Firehouse® about aviation crashes and structural fire departments focused on responding to an aviation accident and obtaining training and information on aircraft rescue. This article places the emphasis on

light-frame general-aviation aircraft accidents.

There are thousands of privately owned general-aviation aircraft in the U.S. General-aviation aircraft can be any size, but are most often small to mid-sized privately owned airplanes. Accidents involving general-aviation aircraft seem to be more prevalent than those in commercial aviation and the reasons vary. This can include weather conditions, aircraft maintenance, training and flight skills, to name just a few. This article focuses on scene activities, response safety and aircraft construction.

Scene safety should be the incident commander’s priority in weighing risk versus reward. Aviation accidents are unusual for structural fire departments and responders may not be familiar with handling aircraft, and that may make these scenes even more dangerous and challenging. With any aircraft accident, ask your emergency communications center to contact the nearest airport fire department. Even if the incident is a distance from the crash site, aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) departments may be able to provide assistance by telephone or even send assets to the scene to aid the incident commander if requested.


Reaching the scene

Scene access may be a major challenge for responders when dealing with accidents involving general-aviation aircraft. In many cases, pilots who are having problems with their aircraft will attempt to take their plane to less-populated locations. At night, that equates to going to where the lights are not. Rescuers may have difficulty gaining access to crash sites without special vehicles or hiking in to a crash scene. Lack of good lighting could also increase dangers for rescuers.

If it is difficult to gain access to a crash site, it may be just as difficult to evacuate victims from the scene. Crash sites may be remote from any type of road or other access path. Responders may need to use saws to cut their way into a crash site or clear a large area to provide for tool staging, patient treatment and evacuation. Aircraft may be entangled in small trees and ground cover and that compounds access issues.

Some of the dangers of operating on the scene of an aircraft accident should be obvious. Other challenges with aircraft are hidden and unknown to rescuers. That makes these scenes potentially even more dangerous. Take the most common dangers first:

• Jet-A fuel – This liquid is responsible for powering the engines providing thrust for flight. Jet-A is basically kerosene that powers turbo-prop and jet engines. This type of fuel is combustible, meaning it has a flash point over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Obviously, the warmer the temperature outside, the more the fuel will vaporize.

• Av-Gas – This liquid is used in small-propeller engines and is highly flammable. It has a high octane rating and will burn off very quickly in the event of a crash. Av-Gas has a flash point of less than 100° F.

Both of these fuels can be extinguished effectively with foam and their vapors suppressed if you are able to get it to the scene of the crash. Fuel type and quantity will vary with the type of aircraft. Treat any wing as if it has fuel in it. Smaller general-aviation aircraft will have between 22 and 100 gallons of Av-Gas, depending on the model. The closer to takeoff an accident occurs, the more fuel may be on board the aircraft.


Fire protection

Some type of fire protection must be present at crash scenes and ready to be deployed instantly to deal with fuel or other types of fires. It is not always possible to have foam from handlines available, so dry chemical extinguishers may be needed. Try to ensure that enough of them are on site or enroute to support fire suppression. Because it has no cooling ability, any hot metal can still be a heat source if dry chemical is discharged.

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