The recent rash of airplane crashes in Missouri has prompted the state to join with the University of Missouri Fire and Rescue Training Institute to offer courses in aircraft rescue firefighting at 15 locations throughout the state.
"This course is designed to give the structural firefighter a basic knowledge of aircraft firefighting principles," said Gary Wilson, director of the Fire and Rescue Training Institute (FRTI). "The main focus will be on the strategy and tactics of general, commercial and military aircraft incidents. Some of the topics will include aircraft and airport familiarization, firefighting and rescue tactics, hazardous materials and National Transportation Safety Board guidelines."
Wilson said the 12-hour courses will commence in 2005, after locations and registration information have been finalized. He said the courses would be paid for through a contract with the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT).
Mark Lee, MU FRTI aircraft firefighting specialist, will be the chief instructor. He enumerated the many dangers posed by aircraft fires.
"It’s not just the fuel," he said. "You have hydraulic fluids at about 3000 psi, and little leaks can be very dangerous. That pressure coming out, it can cut off a finger."
Lee said many aircraft contain hazards not ordinarily encountered in structural fires. "The toilets in airplane use a lot of chemicals, and you really have to watch out for those. Even the cargo can be a biohazard." He cited an incident in which bottles in a woman’s handbag stored in an overhead compartment broke. "The toxic fumes just knocked people to the ground."
Oxygen systems in an airplane add to the danger, he said. "If you break a line on an oxygen system, it helps the fire burn better. There are 24-volt batteries, and you can’t always disconnect them, so you have to consider the electrical power. If somebody cuts the wrong cable, the wing could pop up and really hurt somebody."
Many aircraft also have ejection seats with explosive charges, which "can do a lot of damage to people if they attack it wrong," Lee said. "The tires can blow up and injure people, too.
"There are a lot of different pieces to an airplane."
The course will even include "how to handle a military incident," he said. "There are a lot more military aircraft flying with ordnance. That’s more frequent than it used to be, and there is some concern about that."
Joe Pestka, MoDOT administrator of aviation, said the agency considers the training sessions especially valuable in the light of recent plane crashes. "We have a state aviation trust fund designated mainly for maintenance and capital improvements, but it can also finance other things involving airport safety," he said. "This would fall under that."
Lee believes the area of aircraft rescue firefighting has been neglected. "People say, ‘Everybody always dies in a plane crash.’ That’s not true, as some of these recent crashes show."
In the past eight weeks, he noted, there have been four airplane crashes in Missouri: one near Kirksville; another in the Springfield area; a third in a Jefferson City residential neighborhood and another from the Chesterfield airport "that crashed on an island in the river. They had to get some boats to get out to that one."
A crucial aspect of the training will address ways to fight aircraft fires in ways that meet National Transportation Safety Board guidelines. "When they do their investigation, they need things to run smoothly," Lee said. "You can’t damage evidence that might contribute to the investigation."
So far, he said, Missouri sites that have been selected for the training courses include Branson, Clay County, Hannibal, Poplar Bluff, Perryville, Osage Beach, Moberly and Nevada.
"The fact that we’re in a central location enable us to get out to the smaller airports and work with them," Lee said. "There are about 115 runways in the state. We need to get out to some of the folks who haven’t received all this training."
MoDOT’s Pestka agreed. "This will be very beneficial for emergency responders who wouldn’t ordinarily get this kind of training," he said.
MU-FRTI has another advantage: its "reburnable airplane," a firefighting-training craft that features movable spill pans so the fires can be located in different places.
"We’re the only ones in the world with a set-up like that," Lee said. "First time around, we’ll probably just familiarize everyone with the aircraft and airports. Then, we’re going to let the audience know that we could come back and conduct training fires if we can get funding from the airports, communities or other government agencies."