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A day in the life of an airport firefighter.

To find out more about the life of an airport Firefighter Martyn Cartledge spent a day with Red watch at Manchester to see just what really happens behind the big red doors.

Would you do a job that you train hard for, is both mentally and physically demanding but that you never really want to do nor often have the opportunity?

Welcome the life of an airport firefighter.

There is a great deal more to being an airport fire-fighter than you might initially assume. As one told me “Its very rare that we get a shout which involves squirting water at airplanes, that is just a small part of what we are here for”

Statutory requirements.

What are they here for and what determines the structure of the service, the types of equipment and staffing levels?

Condition 2 of the Aerodrome Licence requires the holder to ensure that Rescue and Fire Fighting Services (RFFS) facilities appropriate to the type of operations are readily available at all times. (CAP168). Manchester has a category 10 status allowing it to have aircraft such as the A380 and 747-8 operating through it. This requires it to have a certain number of different types of vehicles available as well as the staff to operate them. To provide the level of response required, Manchesters RFFS roster comprises of 84 personnel split across a 4 watch system. Each watch being given a colour red, white, black and green and consisting of 21 personnel, with a minimum manning level of 16 required to maintain Cat 10. The difference between the two allows for sickness, leave and detached roles. Should the numbers ever fall below the minimum 16 then the service has just two hours to find cover or reduce its operational category and therefore not be able to accept larger aircraft. The actual size of aircraft would be determined by just how many staff were left available. This is also why an airport might be closed for a short period as firefighters may be dealing with a job that then leaves available numbers short. An example of which being an aircraft tug which caught fire a few years ago causing a closure of just three minutes.

Each watch comprises of:

1 x Station Manager

2 x Watch Manager

5 x Crew Manager

13 x Firefighters

In addition to these there are four non operational roles

1 x Fire Service Administrator

1 x Training Manager

1 x Fire Service Operations Manager

1 x Head of Fire, Emergency Services and Airfield Security.

Varied workload.

oshkosh striker fire vehicles

airport firefighter

There are two strategically located fire stations covering its two runways and associated taxiways as well as the three terminals and other buildings that make up the airport complex bringing with them many different risks. The RFFS provides 24/7 emergency cover for aircraft and airfield incidents, domestic incidents in, and indeed around, the airport complex, any of which might not only be fire related but also special service calls and medical calls, including co-responding in partnership with North West Ambulance Service (NWAS).

Each 12 hour shift changes watch at 8 o’clock with those finishing their shift leaving when their respective colleague arrives so ensuring a full complement should a call out happen during shift change.

Initially the Watch Commander or ‘Fire Chief’ do a handover at 7 o’clock so enabling information to be disseminated at the watch briefing which takes place on the dot at eight. Todays Station Manager, and the authors host for the day, is John Sulek. John has been with MFRS for 29 years. Ground rules have have been laid down to know what to do in the event of an incident and he talks about the sorts of things included in this briefing

“The information is generally about such things as vehicle status, that is any faults or vehicles unavailable. It also includes runway mode, which at Manchester would be about single or dual runway ops as well as the more specific situations such as Low Visibility Procedures (LVP). It also ensures that each watch member is aware of their role. Operational Advice notes are also read out, these are about such things as any works in progress on the Airfield etc that might affect fire service operations, this might include closures in the road or taxiway systems which might require taking a different route than normal”. This knowledge is, of course, critical so that delays can be avoided by taking the best route around such areas. “There are also Advisory memos which revolve generally about administrative tasks or duties, for example a change in the way incidents are recorded.”

Even Airports of the World made the briefing, ensuring all were aware of the authors reason for being here and how it might impact on the days planned activities. Assessments were also on the agenda as part of the day’s plans was to run some drills on the fire ground located south of the RWY23L threshold. These drills form part of the ongoing maintenance of competence and assessment process that the airport fire fighters go through to keep them at the top of their game.

At the end of the briefing there is a opportunity for the watch to ask questions or bring subjects to the attention of the group.This same process happens over at the south station with the Watch Manager taking the meeting rather than Station Manager

Daily routine

Once the briefing is over each member of the watch will go about his or her assigned roles, the first of which is the daily inspection which is to check over the assigned vehicle and its equipment..

The Station Manager also checks his vehicle. Using the call sign of “Fire Chief” he ensures that the various pieces of comms equipment are all in working order including the frequency of 121.6 which is used exclusively by the fire service to speak directly with the flight deck crew of any aircraft involved in an incident as well as those used to speak with ATC and the Fire Service Watch room. This vehicle also carries thermal imaging cameras, invaluable when looking for hot spots as well as a colour dash cam. In addition to items to help with the management of incidents. It also has an airport specific sat nav which might seem strange as you would not think the fire service needed directions to other towns and cities and would know their way around the airfield. However being airport specific it has such things as stop bars and the runway centreline programmed into it in addition to the road and taxiway system. This is of particular value when the airport is in LVP’s (Low Visibility Procedures), even more when there is thick fog as it would be invaluable in finding an aircraft in need, something that the fire service in Genoa could have found of assistance back in 2004 as John recounts “A Britannia 757 aircraft landing in low visibility, with torrential rain and a failure of runway lighting wasn’t found by the fire service for over 18 minutes”.

The Fire Chief also makes contact with the Airport Duty Manager (ADM) via mobile phone as these roles work closely together throughout the day. Mention is made of the upcoming training as there is likely to be what is termed a ‘dirty burn’ which is when aviation kerosene is used in the simulated fires producing thick black smoke. Very realistic but not something you want to see unless you are expecting it!

Outside there is a hive of activity with sirens being tested, water being sprayed and equipment lockers being checked on the fleet of relatively new Oshkosh Strikers. The decision was made to replace and modernise the existing vehicles with state of the art Strikers in 2014. John explained why.”Manchester Airport carried out a comprehensive review of its Rescue and Firefighting Operating model and Task and Resource Analysis. The introduction of these vehicles and the technology presented the airport with the opportunity to introduce a new operating model incorporating a completely fresh approach, adopting revised tactics and techniques”.

The new operating model is a considerably different process to what was in place before and although not universally appreciated initially, as it cut staffing numbers, it does provide a safer environment for fire fighters as the new vehicles control all operations from inside the cab. In the main using the ‘High Reach Extendable Turret (HRET)’ with a water/foam output significantly superior to the previous vehicles monitors which were added too by firefighters using hand lines externally. The Strikers still have equipment for use by Firefighters externally but this is avoided wherever possible.

Fire Chief Sulek expands more on the benefits of the HRET system “This new HRET technology, can spray water, foam or dry powder from devices placed at the end of the boom which can move 30 degrees left or right and anywhere from floor level for incidents such as engine fires, undercarriage or ground pool fuel fires to a maximum height of 15.7m (51ft 6in). On the end of the boom is the turret, itself able to move 120 degrees up or down as well as 95 degrees left and right, which comprises of a Hydro-chem nozzle which can emit water, foam or dry powder and the Snozzle which is a spiked device capable of piercing aircraft hulls to emit a spray pattern to not only put fire out but dramatically reduce heat producing a survivable atmosphere inside the cabin. All turret operations can be monitored using the attached thermal imaging and colour cameras”

Split operations.

Two sites

Manchester has two fire stations with the main one situated on the north side and housing two of the Oshkosh Strikes in addition to the Domestic appliance similar to what is operated by local authority services, an Incident support unit which carries hydraulic and manual cutting gear and spine boards and the aforementioned Fire Chiefs command vehicle

Over at the newer South Fire station located on the other side of the airports two runways ensuring that the response times of 3 minutes are achieved there are also two Strikers. The service also has a further two strikers and a Carmicheal Cobra to ensure Cat 10 is maintained when one or more vehicles might be out of use and also for training purposes, more of which later.

With rain forecast for the afternoon the days training is to be pretty much first on the list as we are to go over to the training ground. So after a quick breakfast we make our way over.

fire service at work

fire service at work

Red watch is not the only group using the training ground today Manchester’s fire service has become an award winning world leader in airport fire service training which brings in some very welcome income. Not only do they train and assess in house staff instead of making them take the trip north to the Fire Service School at Teesside airport in the North East of England but the extensive up to date operational knowledge is also imparted to others from all around the globe. Operational fire fighters are detached off the watch to become part of the training team running whatever course the customer requires. Moreover in recent times they have been at the forefront of creating an accredited HRET training course and today Firefighters from nearby Liverpool Airport are undergoing a HRET Instructor Course course.

Without doubt the most impressive piece of kit utilised in the training of both internal and external fire fighters is the 747/767/MD11 Dual fuelled Airport rescue and Fire Fighting training simulator. This £2.6 million, 268 tonne beast was acquired from Simulation Ltd in 2006 to keep up with the requirements of CAP168. It has a number of internal and external fire scenarios which can be selected individually or in combination including engine, undercarriage, wing and fuselage fires as well as running fuel fires using LPG or more realistically aviation kerosene.

The training ranges from different combinations of fires on the rig with crews responding from a short distance in the Strikers as the assessments cover everything from initial positioning to methods employed to put out the fire. Additionally however there is a need to hone the skill of operating the HRET system. This is controlled from a joystick inside the cabin and it takes some skill and practice to manage it effectively and MAFRS have come up with the novel idea of trying to push of tennis ball from the top of a traffic cone! Not the most high tech of equipment but certainly an effective one both operationally and cost wise. This training certainly has the feel of the real thing, even standing some distance away from the rig, the heat produced is substantial. However when much closer and inside the Strikers there is no noticeable change despite the nearness of an impressive and dangerous looking fire.

After each scenario the tenders are refilled with water not only for the next exercise but in case of a real callout during the training. Additionally there is a ‘hot debrief’ of what went right or wrong with the exercise which will be followed up with a longer more involved session at a later time.

Lunch time

It is now lunch time and we make our way back to the North Station and it is all hands on deck to get it served. Gone are the stereotypical pie and chips replaced by a more healthy diet. Today being smoked mackerel with peppers and onions.

In the afternoon there are a variety of jobs undertaken. There are a number of specific tasks both regular and one off to be done including Breathing Apparatus (BA) sets to be checked, equipment to be tested, familiarisation of little used equipment and daily duties to perform which is essentially cleaning and is dictated by what role each firefighter has that day. Firefighters rotate through the various roles throughout their shift pattern. This also includes a spell in the watch tower situated just below the VCR of Manchesters new Control Tower. This role is performed each shift by the crew of the Domestic Tender with each member spending 2 hours at the post overlooking the North station. Should there be an incident the fire fighter in the watch room, as well as potentially initiating the call out, would also go through a process which involves contacting various people and organisations including Greater Manchester Fire service, Greater Manchester Police, North West Ambulance and senior Airport Fire staff. However it could even include network rail as power to the overhead cables feeding the trains heading in and out of the airport train station may have to be temporarily cut.

Chief Sulek was keen to point out that “Fire fighters are continually being developed to enhance not only their already considerably high skill set but also as a person with educational qualifications such as NVQ’s available in such diverse areas as Watch Management or Team Leadership. This development of the person is of great assistance for those wishing to gain promotion, in fact there are often chances for acting up into development roles when certain members of staff are unavailable for whatever reason”

One of the afternoons tasks is to check a dry riser in one of the airports office buildings situated above the bus exchange. This is a job for the domestic appliance team and we head out to find the particular dry riser, all of which are numbered and indicated on a map of the airport layout. A dry riser is a normally empty pipe that can be externally connected to a pressurised water source by firefighters. It is a vertical pipe intended to distribute water to multiple levels of a building or structure as a component of the fire suppression system. To check this type of system water a hose reel is run from the tender to the Dry riser inlet and water is turned on. Then it is a case of checking the outlets on each floor to ensure that seals are in place and that there are no leaks which compromise the effectiveness if needed. However part way through there is a medical call which just so happens to be in the bus terminal and as one of the roles staff on the domestic tender cover is back up to the onsite Ambulance service they rush the few metres to where the incident is occurring. However it turns out to that medical assistance is not actually needed in this case and the situation is dealt with by Airport staff and the Police so the team head back to complete the checks and return to the North Station.

Joint working

On arrival back we go to refill the tender at the rear of the station and in doing so join quite a hive of activity. There is a group performing some equipment familiarisation under the covered area directly behind the vehicle bays and a couple of tenders from Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue service (GMFRS) have arrived as they are performing some BA training using MAFRS training area. In fact the two services work quite closely together and have established a close relationship in terms of training and dealing with operational incidents. John Sulek goes on to say that “We are currently in the process of compiling SSRI (Site Specific Risk Information) information, in co-ordination with GMFRS across the airport site, in order to provide all responding crews with the most up to date risk/hazard information available.

Recent joint training exercises include Hazmat, lines-rescue and high-rise incidents. A multi-agency off/difficult environment airfield exercise is planned in July, with Greater Manchester FRS, Cheshire FRS, Greater Manchester Police and Cheshire Search and Rescue Teams.”

Joint working between fire services

Just across from the BA training is the in house gym. Physical fitness is an obvious requirement for the demanding role of firefighter and each member of staff will spend time in either this gym or the one located at the south station.

It is fast approaching the end of the 12 hours with Red watch and it is probably a good job that the only shout was the aborted medical incident earlier in the afternoon as there has been precious little time available!


John was asked just what would happen in the event of a real aircraft emergency. Something that is thankfully quite a rare experience

“Time is of the essence and with this in mind every opportunity is taken to shave off bits of time here and there, a couple of examples of this are that when the alarm is sounded from ATC this automatically opens the doors to the Fire stations and when the vehicles are started the power supplies connected at the rear are automatically ejected saving about 30 seconds. This might not seem a lot but is nearly 15% of the maximum allowed time to be on site, plus would you like to be in a fire for 10 seconds longer, never mind 30!”

John continues with an explanation of his role.“Whatever the circumstances of the alert the Duty Station Manager will assume the incident command role and this will stay so until relieved or the incident commander hands over to a Local authority fire officer. The incident commander has control of all resources at the incident site.”

At any incident there will be much to consider. This will intensify with the scale and duration of an emergency.

Clearly no Officer can be expected to remember everything so there is an incident command system which provides a structured, safe operating framework and support to reinforce those given by the incident itself. In order to support an effective multi-agency response MAFRS utilise the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Program (JESIP). This ensures a jointly agreed working strategy with emphasis on co-location, communication, co-ordination, joint understanding of risk and shared situational awareness.

At all times communications between personnel are essential. This is particularly so when delegating tasks or briefing Officers from external emergency services.

The accumulated knowledge of the site, situational awareness, the incident, the risks and actions taken so far need to be communicated in an easily assimilated form.

The strategy involves planning and directing the emergency organisation to meet its objectives which are likely to include:

• Saving and protecting those in danger

• Ensuring the safety of operational personnel

• Protecting property

• Protecting the environment

Although the incident commander is responsible for securing and controlling resources on the incident ground, due to the demands of the incident, some specific areas of resource control may be delegated to Crew Commanders.

Such areas may include:

• Breathing Apparatus

• Water Supplies

• Foam Supplies

• Decontamination

• Casualty Care

John goes on to say that “Emergencies are classified into certain types and although very much the majority, not all of them are aircraft related. By far the largest number is what is called ‘Local Standby’, this is where an inbound aircraft is known or is suspected to have developed a defect which would not normally involve any serious difficulty in effecting a safe landing. An example of this would be a cockpit indication that the aircraft landing gear is not fully locked into position for landing.

‘Aircraft Ground Incidents’ are just what they sound like; it is when an aircraft on the ground has an emergency situation other than an accident which requires the attendance of the emergency services. Allied to this are such things as when hazardous materials maybe involved including spillages, such spillages at MAN have included anything from the obvious fuel spillages to such bizarre fluids such as Bull semen and may occur in an aircraft or as a result of associated facilities.

An ‘Aircraft Full Emergency’ is when an aircraft in the air is, or is suspected to be, in such difficulties that there is a danger of an accident. This is most often initiated by the Captain of the aircraft, however should ATC believe an accident is inevitable then it can be classified as an ‘Aircraft Accident Imminent’.”

Other types of aircraft emergencies are such things as Bomb threats to aircraft both in the air and on the ground, or when an aircraft at or inbound to the airport is known or thought to have been hijacked.

Aircraft accidents off airport are also attended, if it is between one and three kilometres then 2 major Foam Tenders would respond from the South Fire Station and the airfield would revert to single runway operations on 23R/05L.

If there is an incident within 1km of the runway thresholds then all vehicles will respond with the necessary closure of the airport as it would no longer have any un-deployed fire fighting capabilities.

Chemical incidents both on aircraft and in the World cargo centre will also be responded to.

Domestic and non aircraft incidents are also attended and will encompass anything that a ‘normal’ local authority service might see including domestic fires within the airport terminals, hotels, office buildings, railway station, ancillary services and over at the cargo village in addition to post fire investigation. Furthermore even though the airport has a strict 20mph speed limit, vehicle accident/rtc is also something that is both attended and practised for and, as with domestic fires, can be attended off airport. In fact airport fire crews attended when a famous footballer quite severely modified his new Aston Martin in the tunnel system under the runways. In addition the skills learnt and practised can also apply to aircraft incidents.”

oshkosh striker fire vehicles

It is getting close to shift change and Green watch are arriving and it is time to give my thanks and say my goodbyes.

A previous stereotype of a firefighter, particularly at an airport was one that sat around drinking tea, watching tv or playing snooker. Well I can tell you I only had two cups of tea, I didn’t see the TV on and there isn’t a snooker table. There simply isn’t time!

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