An airport fire service training manager might have a hard time to set up a complete training plan for his team. The regulations differ widely from country to country, while the training time, opportunities and available equipment are limited.
Firefighting, similarly to flying, cannot be learned in a classroom and requires much real life practice and experience. The first training difficulty we face as an airport fire service are the high levels of safety standards within commercial aviation. Incidents and accidents are very rare, so compared to our structural firefighting brothers and sisters, the experience has to be based even more on training excercises, rather than real responses. Due to economical and personnel constraints, much of the training is done during duty hours, further resctricting the type of training that can be carried out in order to maintain readiness.
In general, for training in any profession that requires technical knowledge and practical skills – think of flying, medical response and firefighting – there are basically two approaches. Firstly the more conservative method is teaching the subjects in a classroom, one-on-one: learn how the heart works today and the lung tomorrow for example, and when this is completed, start practicing how to treat a heart attack. In sciences or professions where the theoretical knowledge is much more dominant than practice, this method can be duly applied, although there is always risk that the knowledge gathered in the classroom will not be readily usable on the field. The medical student might not be able to recognise the illness based on the symptoms.
The practical approach to training is to recognise specific problems and then know how to treat them by carrying out specific tasks, and simultaneously learn some theoretical background. The latter method is more applicable to professions requiring a variety of manual skills and quick decision making – and emergency response disciplines fall into this category.
From the training officer’s point of view, it is easier to assemble a training program following certain given areas or subjects. When the training roster permits, I try to arrange four-hour-long sessions covering one special area, for example: aircraft doors, landing gear, or engines for instance. Such a session may include 1-1.5 hours of practice, skill and excercise, and the remaining 2.5-3 hours are in the classroom. The classroom training is structured as: first, a short description of the system and its components, then the dangers and possible emergencies associated with that system, followed by tactical considerations for emergencies related to the system. And finally, we run through the aircraft to see and practice the scenarios in real life – ideally on a real aircraft.
Required knowledge and skills for airport firefighters
The relevant international regulation ICAO 9137 gives some information and description on the training subjects and practice, but it is general in nature and descriptive in terms, so it cannot be used directly as a training curriculum. It contains eight subjects including aircraft familiarisation, first aid, rescue, etc. This document is not fully aligned with the ICAO Annex 14, which contains 12 training subjects (well hidden in an attachment) and mandates initial and ongoing training, but without a required/recommended curriculum, specific practical skills or excercises. So, where no national regulation exists, it is the responsibility of the relevant authority and the training officer to compile a training curriculum and supervise its execution.
In contrast, the US (Federal) airport firefighter training regulations provide help for the compilation of a training program. FAA advisory circular 150-5210-17 contains the same subjects as the ICAO annex 14, but also adds required knowledge and skills for each of them. The circular also includes the requirement for live fire drills. Interestingly, there is a big difference regarding first aid training. The ICAO annex does not mention it, the FAA circular requires training only for one person on duty, while ICAO doc 9137 states that all personnel should be trained. According to the ICAO Airport Emergency Planning Manual at least two firefighters per shift should have advanced training in emergency medicine, others should have first aid training. Considering the fact that there is no separate medical service at smaller airports, accident victims would have to wait at least 10 to 15 minutes for the first outside help to arrive. It is wise to have first aid-trained personnel, in order not to lose precious time during the golden hour of trauma. After all, our duty is to save lives.
The draft version of the EU regulation is based on the documents mentioned above, with a few topics added, making the curriculum more up to date: composite materials, small aircraft ballistic parachute systems may be interpreted as part of aircraft familiarisation, whereas low visibility procedures are part of airport familiarisation. You can also find an extra training requirement for driver/operators. There is one subject that is comletely new – human performance and team coordination – which has been discussed is some detail in the last issue of Fire & Rescue. There is little guidance on what and how to train around these subjects within airport fire services, and much will be up to the imagination of the trainers.
My ideas on what should be trained from my perspective as a pilot and a firefighter are the following. The most comprehensive regulation for airport fire service training is UK CAP 699. This regulation uses a different philosophy for training. It is task and skills oriented, it states the required fields of knowledge and skills, and also assists in the assessment of the tasks. The document differentiates among the firefighter, supervisor and manager positions or roles, recognising the fact that these individuals need different skills, knowledge, responsibilities and perspective. This document is very comprehensive, but also more difficult to use for professionals used to the former philosophy.
An airport firefighter needs a lot of technical skills that are hard to gain or practice anywhere else. The aircraft he is supposed to work on is rarely available for training. Strict environmental protection regulations restrict the use of kerosene for live fire training. New technologies appear but training does not always follow up on these new and fantastic gadgets (such as penetrating nozzles and thermal imagers). Due to heavy traffic, the opportunities for conducting driving excercises around an operating airport are scarce, and often not very welcome by the airport operators.
A lot of new technologies are applied on modern commercial aircraft as well – in airframe structures, new types of ultra strength materials are used, as well as integrated systems. Experience has shown that these new technologies also introduce new challenges to the airport fire department. Just think of overheating batteries and engines that cannot be shut down.
Training equipment and facilities
A general problem with practical skills training is the lack of aircraft mock ups and similar training equipment at smaller airports, not to mention real aircraft. The training officers have to use all their charm to get any opportunity for hands-on training on aircraft. Usually fire mock ups have different door opening mechanisms to real aircraft. Based on my experience, a person who has never opened a Boeing 737 door will have difficulty to do it the first time due to the special mechanism. Someone who hasn’t opened a B737NG overwing exit from the outside, will likely be pushed off the wing due to the springloading. And how do we open a B737 door from the outside, when the emergency slide might be armed? These are only some examples of numerous required skills.
The solution to this training challenge could lie in some (new) training aids, ranging from full-size aircraft fire simulators to computer-based training. In my experience this type of training can be very well utilised, and is not always very expensive.
Computer e-learning has a lot of benefits, not only in terms of cost. During regular VR training subjects you can provide a wide range of visual material, 3D images, animations, and also analyse real incidents from video, and even practice situations in virtual reality. You will never feel the heat and smell of burning kerosene, although you can practice decision making, situation awareness and experience some stress as well. It is also easier to evaluate the effectiveness of the training, personal development, and modify or update the traning content accordingly.
All simulations have limitations, but they are still far better than just listening and trying to imagine in a classroom how something works. It is the task of the training officer to know which type of simulation and training aid is the best option for each skill and knowledge. Last but not least (maybe I am an old school guy), I really appreciate presentations in which we can benefit from the knowledge and experience of a fellow collegue. It is a great motivation for all of us.
About the Author
Zoltán Szilvási is a commercial airline transport pilot, a certified ARFF instructor as well as a firefighter and an emergency medical technician.
All these professional positions of responsibility have provided him with a unique insight into improving aircraft emergency response. He can be contacted by people looking for new and innovative training opportunities at: firstname.lastname@example.org.