Emergency response in hostile environments

Emergency response in hostile environments

While air travel in all its forms is statistically one of the safest means of transportation, it is a fact that despite our best efforts, aviation incidents and accidents do sometimes occur reflects chris thain, Business Development Manager, Fire Protection Services, G3 Systems Ltd. 

At airports around the world, where aircraft are moving and operating often in very large numbers, the availability, capability and readiness of the designated Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) Service can be the difference between a successful emergency incident resolution or a tragic disaster.

Being able to respond professionally and swiftly to any emergency is the primary responsibility of the ARFF team. Firefighters meet all challenges through a combination of professional and continuous training, ongoing innovation and investment in equipment, vehicles and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), compliance with international standards, interoperability and strong leadership.

Emergency incidents are difficult enough to manage in a relatively benign operating environment, however consider how one might deal with such incidents and their aftermath in a situation that is remote, environmentally challenging or potentially hostile; such environments exist today in conflict zones around the world.

Skilled, professional & ready

The hazardous nature of emergency response increases when fire and rescue service operations are conducted in ongoing military theatres. Dealing with typical aviation incidents such as aircraft crashes, burst tyres and engine fires assume an altogether different intensity when the airport is under rocket or mortar attack or terrorists are attempting to infiltrate the facility. Alongside UAV attacks, unexploded ordnance and weapons malfunctions, these are just some of the everyday challenges facing ARFF crews working in hostile arenas.

Within the limits of their experience and qualifications, professional ARFF crews provide a disciplined, self-contained and adaptable workforce to meet the needs of incident managers in a variety of situations and during all hazard assignments. 

ARFF crews are staffed, conditioned, equipped and qualified to meet a variety of strategic and tactical airfield and structural fire assignments. On a day-to-day basis, crews maybe pre-positioned for initial attack or perform ready duties at stations as and when needed by planning level requirements. When not committed to fire assignments, crews provide a skilled workforce to accomplish a variety of resource management objectives while maintaining availability for incident mobilisation.  

G3 Systems provide ARFF Services to both military and civilian airports and air bases around the world, including active military missions. Under these circumstances, International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards, NATO Standardised Agreements (STANAGS) and other international and local standards (CAA/NFPA standards for example) serve as the primary source of guidance and direction for the ARFF activity delivered at each facility.  

Apart from the immediate response to a hazard assignment, the ARFF crews conduct a variety of more routine but nonetheless important tasks each day.  

Emergency dispatch & communications

Centralised Emergency Dispatch that provides cover up to a 24/7 basis is a critical element of any emergency response effort. An established and reliable communications infrastructure is also essential to ensure incidents are dealt with swiftly and effectively.

The Emergency Dispatch function ensures a professional response to all emergency incidents. They handle all communications, dispatching the appropriate resources, vehicles and equipment in accordance with standard operating procedures and then maintain an accurate log of all incidents and communications from commencement to completion. The records kept within the dispatch function provide auditable, legal documents in the event of an emergency and its subsequent investigation. To this end, G3 Systems uses Firepro software to maintain a fully auditable trail of dispatch activities including response times.

Effective communication is the key to any emergency incident resolution. Multi-frequency handheld and base station radios for use during flight line activities and emergencies, augmented by an alternative means of communication (such as mobile phones), and with a single frequency designated for a “Crash Network” is utilised for any emergency calls and response situations.

Inspection and maintenance

The inspection and testing of firefighting vehicles and the preventive maintenance and repair of firefighting systems, equipment and vehicles forms an integral part of the day to day operational activities of the ARFF team.

A daily inspection regime ensures that all equipment is checked and available in good working order in the event of an emergency. Maintenance schedules are developed and refined in conjunction with manufacturers recommendations for austere environments. Service intervals are then adjusted to sustain operational capability.

Similarly, operating and tracking assets, monitoring their status, reporting maintenance requirements, and developing recurring and corrective maintenance requirements, in the form of a Planned Preventative Maintenance Programme is an important management process for the ARFF team. G3 Systems currently utilise the Redkite database on all sites to track assets and equipment in use.  Full facility inspection checks are conducted periodically as part of the Quality Management System and Health and Safety policies.

Team members can undertake day to day maintenance and husbandry of vehicles, PPE and essential equipment. All equipment will only be handled by competent persons who have received induction, operation, and care and maintenance training on the equipment in use. More complex equipment and vehicle support and annual calibration / inspection / service tasks are normally carried out by a combination of local supply chain and OEM support as necessary. 

Maintenance and testing of essential ppe

It is imperative to understand the importance of the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for ARFF staff which has been identified in the facility and operations risk assessments. PPE must be available and subject to inspection throughout its service life.  PPE can only be considered suitable if it effectively protects the wearer and is appropriate for the risks and the working environment. The needs of the user must be considered to ensure the PPE fits correctly and provides adequate protection. All PPE must be ‘CE’ (or an approved alternative) marked and comply with the requirements of the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2016. The CE marking signifies that the PPE satisfies certain basic safety requirements and has been tested and certified by an independent body. 

An effective system for maintenance and storage in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, which includes reporting of loss or defects (wear, tear, expiry date etc.) is required for all PPE.

Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) is probably the single most important item of kit used by the ARFF team. SCBA is inspected at the start of every shift and inspection results are recorded in each individual set logbook. 

In addition, each firefighter follows set procedures for “fit” testing to ensure that they have an adequate seal on the face piece. Any firefighter who cannot obtain an adequate seal following the procedure must report it to a manager immediately. The ARFF Service uses an UK HSE approved alternative to the quantitative and qualitative mask fit testing guidelines outlined by the UK HSE.  Thorough cleaning and decontamination of SCBA is conducted on each shift and following every BA wear and emergency incident.

SCBA are subject to annual testing by qualified SCBA technicians. Records of this testing are maintained and any SCBA that fails testing is tagged and removed from service until repaired and retested. Air cylinders are hydrostatically tested every five years from the date of manufacture or the last testing date. Out of date air cylinders are immediately quarantined and cannot be used.  

Similarly, SCBA compressor air samples are tested as per the manufacturer’s instructions, based on usage and climatic conditions and the results are recorded for future reference.  All SCBA units must be properly stowed and secured in the brackets provided on each ARFF vehicle. Spare cylinders are stored in the brackets or holders provided, in order to avoid any risk of damage. 

ARFF firefighters must be medically evaluated on an annual basis. Their pulmonary function is tested as part of this evaluation and records of this are retained for reference.  The firefighters receive regular respirator training including ‘hands on’ training. This training is also recorded in the ARFF Service training programme.

Situational training and CPD

Every professional ARFF Service must have a robust training and mentoring system in place. The Training Plan ensures that staff are trained with specialist skills where required so that there is no dependency upon a single person for operation of and training on essential equipment. 

As new equipment is procured, different aircraft types supported or Standard Operating Procedure’s changed, the training needs of the team must be reassessed to ensure that the ARFF personnel are fully capable of responding efficiently and effectively in accordance with the prescribed operational requirements. 

Fully qualified ARFF Training Instructors actively seek to maximise every opportunity to train in order to develop the personal and professional skills of all staff. Detailed training and qualification reviews are conducted based upon the prescribed operational and regulatory requirements, covering the following primary areas: 

  • Identification of specific trade certification requirements 
  • Inventory of in-house expertise 
  • Provision of training objectives for in-house delivered training 
  • Outline training course packages for in-house delivered training 
  • Confirmation of training currency and requirements to re-train/update 
  • Management of training records and skills matrixes 
  • Personal development aspirations & action plans 

These outputs guide the development of the Draft Training Plan which is reviewed during the initial mobilisation of the ARFF and then approved and monitored by the ARFF Service Management Team. 

The Training Plan includes a Training Needs Analysis to identify both team and individual training requirements, identification of any specific trade certification requirements, the provision
of training objectives for any in-house delivered training and outline training course packages. Training currency (date since last recognised training occurred) and requirements to re-train/update are confirmed and the training records and skills matrix updated to ensure a complete auditable and legal record of training is maintained. 

Where local nationals are engaged within the ARFF, mentoring is a key part of the training programme, supporting the crew and helping to develop their skills often as part of a longer-term transition plan.

In remote locations, Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is increasingly delivered via a ‘blended learning’ approach, comprising a combination of formal classroom training, on-site practical training and e-Learning packages that enable the team members to maintain their CPD even though they may be a considerable distance from the nearest training establishment.

Managing risk and resilience

Increasingly we see terrorist tactics developed and deployed in war zones being introduced into countries and areas that hitherto have not had to consider such acts. Every airport around the world can be a potential target. Risk mitigation, loss prevention and operational resilience are primary objectives in critical aviation operations around the world today and reducing the risk of emergency incidents by being prepared, ready and able to respond instantly to any hazard situation forms the core remit of all on-site ARFF services. Now that the risk model is changing, ARFF Services must recognise these new challenges and adapt accordingly to meet them.

A fully managed ARFF Fire Protection Service includes emergency dispatch and response, fire safety, fire inspection and investigation, equipment and vehicle maintenance, testing and compliance, firefighter training and CPD and Medical Crash Crew / Ambulance Services.

Our organisation is presently providing full operational ARFF fire and rescue services at the four international airports on air bases in Afghanistan, covering both civil and military aircraft and delivering cover for up to Category 10 aircraft on a 24/7 basis. 

Other deployments include the delivery of facilities and infrastructure projects in Kenya and the Falkland Islands and our business is now expanding into the oil, gas, chemicals, energy and critical infrastructure sectors.