The Challenge of Firefighting at Denver International Airport

Aug. 1, 2005
Jeff Price describes the numerous challenges the fire crew faces because they cover over 53 square miles of the eastern Colorado prairie.

Geographically, it's the world's largest airport. Covering over 53 square miles of the eastern Colorado prairie, Denver International Airport (DIA) offers numerous challenges to firefighters. The airport itself is nearly a 30-minute ambulance ride to the nearest hospital, which means almost every critical medical incident requires a helicopter evacuation. Firefighters must respond to over 1.5 miles of underground tunnels that house the baggage system and DIA's high-speed underground train system, plus huge parking garages. Six runways, some several miles apart, create the additional challenge of being able to meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) response-time requirements.

Distance also adds another challenge as structural units must be based on the airport in addition to aircraft rescue units. Firefighters have to stay proficient in both disciplines while stationed at DIA. The City of Denver's aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) crews stationed at DIA have taken numerous proactive steps to prepare for both routine emergencies and "the big one."

"Every situation is unique at DIA," Assistant Chief Eben "Buck" Wyles said.

Before the airport opened in 1995, firefighters had to figure out how to access the underground tunnel system. Two long tunnels extend from the terminal building all the way out to the farthest concourse. The tunnels bracket two more tunnels housing the Automated Guideway Transit System, more commonly known as the "underground train." Airline employees use the tunnels to transfer luggage from the terminal building to the concourses, while the train system hauls thousands of passengers an hour to and from their flights.

To solve the problem of responding in the tunnels and the parking garages with their low ceilings, DIA acquired a pair of Humvees with bumper turrets, onboard water and pump-and-roll capability. Additionally, the tunnels are fully sprinkled; however, there are occasions when the system may not work or the possibility exists of the pipes freezing in cold weather. There is a lot of underground smoke control and Wyles said they can overwhelm the exhaust system quickly, but for those times when an immediate on-scene response is required, DIA sends in the Humvees.

Since DIA opened, there have been no major aircraft incidents, but firefighters routinely respond to what are called "Amber Alerts." The airport or air traffic control tower can call an Amber Alert when a pilot declares a minor emergency, such as smoke in the cockpit, or when a pilot is unsure that an aircraft's landing gear is completely "down and locked." Other minor incidents also classified as Amber Alerts are blown aircraft tires, hot brakes, aborted takeoffs, or anything that has not caused injuries, fatalities or serious damage to the aircraft.

Whenever an Amber Alert is called, ARFF trucks are stationed at various points along the runway. The practice of putting foam on the runway as described in Arthur Hailey's 1968 novel Airport has not been in use for many years. Foaming the runway creates additional challenges for the pilot, who is unable to see the runway, and since firefighters don't know where the airplane will actually touchdown, it wastes a lot of expensive resources in both dispensing the foam and then cleaning it up. Incidentally, Airport is one of the many novels on the bookshelves in Fire Station 1 at DIA.

For all alerts, the fire department responds with airport operations personnel. Firefighters must learn a slightly new vocabulary when coming to DIA. Airport operations personnel and FAA air traffic controllers speak a slightly different language, which firefighters must understand to operate on the runways and taxiways. It's an adjustment phase, Wyles said, but he also feels that the firefighters and the airport operations personnel work very well together.

Red alerts are called when there is an aircraft crash or significant aircraft incident, that either has caused or has the potential to cause casualties. The most significant red alert in the past 30 years occurred at Stapleton International Airport. On Nov. 15, 1987, Continental Airlines Flight 1713, a DC-9, crashed while on take off killing 28 of its 82 passengers.

Red alerts at DIA also include one situation in which a small commuter aircraft had the landing gear fail while taxiing to the terminal. In another incident, two small cargo planes collided on the ramp. There were no fatalities in either incident.

However, on Oct. 1, 1997 a Boeing 727 operated by Ryan Airlines, a cargo carrier, collided with an employee bus as it was crossing in front of the plane on the taxiway. The pilot suffered severe injuries and the first officer and driver of the bus sustained minor injuries. The two passengers on the bus were not hurt.

There has been one airport fatality. On Sept. 6, 2001, an aircraft fueler was killed in a fire that erupted while he was refueling a British Airways Boeing 777. The apparent cause of the accident was the fuel hose dislodging from the aircraft and spraying the individual with jet fuel.

DIA has four separate fire stations located on the airfield and five 3,000-gallon, all-wheel-drive ARFF units plus a structural engine and truck, the two Humvees and a rescue truck. While the City of Denver has paramedics staffed at the airport, the firefighters are called for the major medical emergencies.

"We get the most calls on medicals," Wyles said. "There are paramedics in the airport, but the fire department responds for any serious injuries or impaired breathing. There are a lot of those out here in Colorado, as people aren't used to flying into a higher altitude, and then you add in the additional stress of the flying itself."

Each fire apparatus is equipped with an automatic external defibrillator (AED) for response to incidents outside of the airport facility itself, most often construction sites. In 2003, there were at least two saves with the AEDs.

When the airport opened, there were only five 12,000-foot runways. However, in 2004, DIA completed construction of a 16,000-foot runway, the longest commercial airport runway in the United States. This created new challenges for the fire department, which had already constructed an additional firehouse on the airport to meet FAA minimum response times. That new fire station is being replaced by another facility located between the new 16,000-foot runway and a parallel shorter, 12,000-foot runway on the northwest side of the airport.

In 2001, the City of Denver constructed a new ARFF training facility that includes an 80-foot aircraft mockup. The mockup can simulate interior and exterior fires, wheel- well fires (even jetting fire up to 15 feet away from the wheel well to simulate a blown tire), under-wing and over-wing fires, and flashover fires within the aircraft cabin. The facility also has the capability to simulate fuel fires.

Previously, DIA had to use a simple burn pit, which created both public relations and environmental problems with large plumes of black smoke erupting from the airport site. DIA also had to send its firefighters out of state and pay for costly training to meet FAA requirements. This took the firefighters out of service and off site for over a week. Now, the crews can stay at DIA and be immediately called back to service in an emergency.

The training facility includes an incident training room with an interactive whiteboard, remote computer tablets and desktop computers at each desk, which enables incident commanders to run various scenarios, with firefighters in-putting their responses and the results of their actions projected on the whiteboard.

Another new toy for the fire department is a former United Airlines Boeing 727 that is used for exercise simulation and training. While firefighters cannot make cuts or punch holes in the fuselage, they can use it to practice rescues. The real benefit of the 727 is the reality it provides during mandatory FAA emergency exercise drills. In previous exercises, aircraft that have been on loan from the airlines have suddenly been called back in the service right in the middle of the training. Additionally, the airlines were not pleased that firefighters were operating inside their aircraft, increasing the risk for damage to the plane.

The City of Denver firefighters at DIA are now preparing for the new challenges that ironically enough, they hope to never have to respond to, including the real potential for a "dirty bomb" to be detonated on the airport, or other nuclear, biological or chemical threats. Shortly after 9/11, firefighters responded to numerous calls of suspicious substances in the airport that turned out to be artificial sweeteners, baby powder or other harmless substances. The airport firefighters have the equipment and training to respond to a certain level of hazardous material, but Wyles said they're working to prepare for a higher level of response.

Nearly 100 firefighters are stationed at DIA, with about 30 on duty at any given time. Every firefighter is trained as an emergency medical technician and many find the challenge of operating at the airport reason enough to stay for their entire career.

Denver International Airport may occupy 53 square miles of property, but only about 30 square miles currently are occupied. The ultimate design for DIA is more runways, more hangars, more facilities and more square footage for firefighters to cover.

The challenge has just begun.

Jeff Price is a professor in the Aviation and Aerospace Science Department at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, and the owner of Leading Edge Strategies, an aviation security training company. He has a bachelor's degree in aviation from Metropolitan State College and a master's degree in education from Colorado Christian University. He is the lead airport security coordinator trainer for the American Association of Airport Executives and was assistant director of security at Denver International Airport from 1994 to 1998.

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