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.


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.