Aircraft Firefighting: Dangers to Responders At General-Aviation Accidents

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.

Aircraft batteries should be disconnected as soon as possible. Due to crash damage, batteries may touch up against the skin of the aircraft, leaving the surface charged. Once the battery is located, disconnect it and remove it to a safe location if possible. Do not discard it as it may be needed for the post-crash investigation.

Aircraft engines are a danger, especially if still operating, and present additional dangers to responders such as a heat source or ingestion hazard, such as with jet engines where items may be drawn into the running engine. Another possible danger is shrapnel if the engine fails violently.

A ballistic recovery system (BRS) may be found on a small general-aviation aircraft under 3,400 pounds. In the case of a stall or uncontrolled flight problem, a BRS can save the lives of the people on board that aircraft. A BRS deploys a large parachute from the back of an aircraft. It is powered by a rocket-propelled motor and fires through the rear skin or rear window of an aircraft to deploy. Within 1/10th of a second, the rocket is moving at 100 mph. The system is activated by pulling a handle or lanyard located in the aircraft and is activated by the pilot. A ballistic recovery parachute is not a safety problem if it has been deployed.

An aircraft equipped with BRS may be identified by a small sticker behind the rear window or passenger section. If there has been a post-crash fire, the aircraft is inverted or heavily damaged, this marking may not be visible. There currently is an effort by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to mark aircraft that are equipped with BRS so that they can be spotted more easily.

If the aircraft has crashed and the system has not deployed, the “pull” or “throw” on the lanyard may be stressed due to the damage the aircraft frame has sustained. This can create a potential activation hazard for responders. The lanyard T-handles are located on the roof in the center of the aircraft, generally over the pilot’s shoulder. If you respond to an aircraft accident and a BRS is identified, but not deployed, stay away from the aircraft unless a rescue must be accomplished.

Information on BRS can be obtained through an online search. There are videos and response tips for dealing with non-deployed BRS. They include sections specifically for first responders with safety procedures and presentation of specific dangers when potentially dealing with these systems. BRS can also be found on ultra-light aircraft and gliders.

Aircraft stability

Any downed aircraft should be stabilized in place. Just like vehicle extrication, the platform being worked on must be as stable as possible, then access can be made to the victims of the accident. Aircraft structure, especially with small general-aviation aircraft, does not provide a great deal of resistance to rescue tools; hand tools often will complete jobs that normally would require powered rescue tools. Ensure that the aircraft is supported by some type of cribbing or other material when cutting any structure.

Aircraft doors may not use the same latch mechanisms from aircraft to aircraft, even within the same manufacturer. The same holds true for door hinges. One commonality is that they are lightweight and will break or breach easily, providing access to the cabin. Doors and door hinges, especially on non-pressurized aircraft, are easily accessed from the exterior and are often held in place with a light pin or cotter key. Types of door latches will vary on aircraft also. Most are easy to use, but many aircraft have instructions for their use on the latch. Windows on lighter aircraft are also easy to remove with a striking tool. Removal of these doors is easy and will provide the best access to the aircraft cabin.

As in motor vehicle accidents, creating an effective patient pathway for removal from the aircraft is essential. If you as a rescuer are not satisfied with the amount of room needed to extricate a patient and maintain good C-spine alignment, do what is needed for the best patient care. Life always takes precedent over investigation.

For responder safety, clothing of any victim that is soaked in Av-Gas or Jet A must be removed to reduce damage to skin or organs and to decrease the potential fire danger. This is especially important if that person is going from a cold environment to a warm one, like an ambulance. If it is possible and safe to do so, wash the victims with a hoseline before placing them in a warm ambulance to reduce fumes.


Extrication techniques

An important point to remember is that standard extrication techniques may not work on aircraft. Aircraft aluminum tears easily during accidents and leaves sharp edges. Rescues may require hand, air or electric tools or unconventional techniques.

By working along a rivet line, the skin will cut or tear easily. (Rivet lines are where the stringers and formers are joined to the aircraft skin.) Stringers and formers are the skeleton to which the aircraft skin is attached. Stringers run longitudinal and formers run laterally. If using a striking tool to cut or tear metal, the closer you strike to a rivet line, the easier the cutting will be. Striking or cutting in the middle area of these will cause the metal to bounce due to no supporting structure in the area. If the accident involves an aircraft constructed from composite materials such as fiberglass or carbon fiber, there will be no rivet lines to guide you as to stringer and former locations.


Response guidelines

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) response guidelines for aviation accidents suggests the acronym “RAG” for rescue, advise and guard:

• Rescue – If a rescue must be effected, proceed with the rescue and take whatever actions are needed to complete that rescue as safely as possible. When the rescue is complete, leave the aircraft as it is and do not disturb the scene any more than necessary. Any deceased victims may be moved to affect a rescue or if they are in danger of being destroyed by fire, if they are not, leave them in place.

• Advise – The FAA will request information about your location; aircraft tail number, make, model and serial number, if available; number of injuries and fatalities; and the primary contact number for an on-site commander.

• Guard – Place scene tape around the crash site if possible and deny entry to the site. Most important, do not touch any switches and levers or remove any parts from the scene. Aviation accidents are heavily investigated and it is important for investigators to have all the pieces.

Guidelines for an aircraft accident can be found at This website provides a great deal of information in dealing with aviation accidents. The Advisory Circular, or AC 150\1200-12C, addresses securing an aircraft crash site.



Aircraft accidents can provide many challenges and obstacles for responders both by type of accident and final resting location. These challenges will be compounded when dealing with a commercial aviation crash.

An upcoming article will present an in-depth look at commercial aircraft construction, gaining entry to a commercial aircraft and specific dangers to emergency responders. n