San Francisco Jet Crash Puts Focus on Rescue Perils

9 08 2013

Fire-AirportsThis item is reprinted from the August 8th edition of the New York Times.  The article was written by Matthew L. Wald and gives a glimpse of the challenges fighting fires at airports.  The recent crash of the Asiana Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport on July 6th brought much attention to airport firefighting and rescue operations, especially after the facts seemed to point to one of the passengers being run over by a responding airport fire truck.  As in much of today’s firefighting, approximately 70% of the calls handled by airport fire crews are for medical-related calls for assistance.  But, in addition to being emergency medical technicians, airport firefighting crews also spend time being drilled on the proper firefighting techniques for each of the many models of airplanes.  In the article below, Mr. Wald gives you a glimpse into some of the complexities of emergency response at airports.

The firehouse near the end of Logan Airport’s Runway 14 is home to the pride and joy of the airport’s rescue and firefighting team: Engine 3, a 1,000-horsepower, four-wheel-drive behemoth with thermal imaging and a radar screen, its body painted a special color, Boston Lime Green.

Acquired in 2010 for $1.3 million, Engine 3 will soon be joined by two more high-tech trucks as Logan plays catch-up with the challenges of fighting fires on today’s bigger and more sophisticated planes.

“When the bell rings, you’ve got to be ready,” said Edward C. Freni, Logan’s director of aviation.

But fire trucks can present their own dangers, fire experts say. The crash of a Boeing 777 at San Francisco International on July 6, and the fact that one of the three passengers who died was run over by a fire truck, has drawn new attention to airport firefighting like the kind at Logan.

Although there will not be a definitive explanation of how the passenger died until an investigation is completed by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is reviewing onboard videos, reports circulating among firefighters indicate that at San Francisco, one fire truck pulled up near the airplane’s nose and started spraying foam. A second truck arrived later, forward of the right wing, and ran over the passenger, who was likely covered in foam.

“They’re responding with very large trucks capable of delivering 3,000 gallons of water with fire suppressant in a matter of a few seconds,” said George Doughty, a former airport manager and former official at the Federal Aviation Administration. A passenger flat on the pavement could quickly be obscured by foam, he said, and “the risk of hitting a survivor is very real.” A passenger could even be drowned, he said.

Officials in San Francisco have not said whether the passenger, a 16-year-old Chinese girl, was still living at the time she was struck. Two other passengers on that Asiana flight were also killed.

Presuming that trucks reach a burning plane without mishap, there are other snap judgments to be made, firefighters said. For example, some trucks carry a boom with a tip resembling a giant hypodermic needle that can penetrate the fuselage and squirt the fire-suppressing foam. The most likely use is on a cargo plane, but they could be used on a passenger plane, perhaps even before firefighters are sure that all the passengers have gotten out. Firefighters are trained to punch a hole near the crown of the fuselage, avoiding the overhead luggage bins and entering at an angle to reduce the chance of spearing a passenger.

Quick action is essential, fire experts say, because modern planes like the Boeing 787 are increasingly made of carbon fiber, which burns faster than the traditional aluminum and produces more toxic smoke.

In big crashes, firefighters have to handle multiple levels of chaos. “There is an active fire, debris on the runway and persons evacuating the aircraft,” said Duane Kann, the fire chief at the Orlando airport. The driver might be alone, and the trucks have extra equipment, including a Forward-Looking Infra-Red camera, known as Flir, for finding fires in poor visibility.

“There’s the Flir, looking for hot spots, and he’s listening to the radio,” Chief Kann said. “There’s a lot of things happening in the cab of that vehicle.”

Airport firefighters are drilled on different models of airplanes and sometimes travel to distant airports to do so. Manufacturers like Boeing issue special instructions for each model and give the locations of critical items like batteries.

Firefighting strategies also differ by the size of the plane. Larger aircraft are usually taller, with longer evacuation slides, so firefighters are trained to park their trucks further away to avoid interference.

The F.A.A. requires fire equipment appropriate to the types of planes at an airport, but it does not specify staffing levels. In 2009, a United Nations aviation organization and the National Fire Protection Association began a campaign to impose such standards and require that crews be able to reach a crash scene in two minutes.

But a National Academy of Sciences panel that studied the idea said that it would cost $2.8 billion to set up and $1.3 billion a year thereafter. Reviewing government reports of accidents from January 1997 to December 2007, the study found that the tougher standards “may have made a difference in the outcome for at most one individual.”

Fire-Airports-AsianaThe philosophy at Logan is to be prepared for the worst but to respond proportionately. In January after an American Airlines MD-80 landed with a wheel on fire, the rescue crew, using thermal imaging and communicating with the cockpit crew over a special channel, persuaded the captain not to use the emergency chutes and to wait for a truck with attached stairs to pull up.

“We averted a needless evacuation,” said Robert J. Donahue Jr., the fire chief. Whenever the slides are used, he said, “at least 10 percent of the passenger load is going to be injured, some very seriously.”

The accidents do not have to be dramatic to require high-tech tools. Again, in January at Logan, a mechanic smelled smoke on a Japan Airlines 787 parked at a gate. Firefighters went quickly to the electronics bay, but it was so filled with smoke that they had to use a thermal imaging camera to find the source, a lithium-ion battery that had caught fire.

Much of the work of airport firefighters remains everyday calls. At the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., Robert W. Benstein, the public safety and operations director, said that the firefighters were also emergency medical technicians.

“Seventy percent of our calls are probably medical-related,” Mr. Benstein said. “Somebody tips over luggage in the terminal, or spills hot coffee on themselves, or there’s a car accident.”

The San Francisco accident and Engine 3 notwithstanding, crashes at airports are still so rare that firefighters say they try to prepare themselves for the real thing by watching crash videos on YouTube.

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