Are you prepared for dealing with the aftermath of an aircraft accident? Wg Cdr John Andrews (Ret’d) looks at the hazards of post-crash management.
In the unlikely – but very real possibility – of an aircraft crash at or close to your airport, the first responders will be your firefighters, but this article is not directed at them. Post crash management is not primarily a firefighter’s problem; they are professional, well trained and equipped. They control the crash site until they have extinguished the fire, they then maintain a presence until there is no further risk of the fire reigniting and they are well protected from the crash site hazards. After the fire-fighters have withdrawn, the crash site will be very busy with all the other involved agencies such as police, investigators, engineers, insurance assessors, airport and airline personnel, aircraft recovery personnel, local authority environmental health inspectors and, of course, the media. Many of these personnel have little hazard awareness, even less hazard understanding and little or no protective clothing. Are they at risk from crash site hazards? Very definitely! Are you responsible? Possibly!
Over the past ten years the safety record of the global civil aviation industry has been steadily improving, but although 2009 can be regarded as a reasonably good year we still had 28 fatal accidents involving passenger aircraft and 17 significant but non-fatal accidents. Consequently we cannot ignore the real possibility of a major air crash on or near to one of our airports. Of course we all realise that uncomfortable possibility and considerable time and money is expended in training and preparing for such an event, but just how effective is this training and how does it measure up to the very real and increasing threat? There are a number of factors that complicate the process of preparing effectively for a major air crash.
Firstly, no matter what scenarios you have prepared for, an accident is likely to throw surprises at you. To attempt to rehearse all the possibilities is simply impracticable; the answer is to master the basics and to adapt your plan – probably more than once.
Secondly, your accident is likely to be sudden and potentially could be catastrophic, and the great majority of your responders will have never experienced a real aircraft crash scene. Experience would unquestionably be your most valuable asset, but your cumulative real experience on site is likely to be very limited indeed.
Another important factor is that training individuals to respond to a major disaster is time consuming and expensive. Training them to work in teams when the others working in the group are likely to change due to the normal rotation of personnel generates additional problems, and then trying to get these teams to work together in unfamiliar stressful conditions is extremely difficult. I am sure that some of you must have experienced major airport crash exercises that have faltered badly, not because of the simulated crash problems but because the organisation and management of the exercise came adrift at the seams. This can usually be put down to a lack of practice.
Health hazards on an aircraft crash site involving fire, particularly if there are multiple casualties, are emerging to be a significant problem. Many of the newer aerospace materials can become extremely hazardous when they burn. For example, after the crash of a Royal Air Force Harrier GR5 20 years ago, members of the RAF recovery team suffered serious health problems at the impact site. Their problems were caused by the
small sharp respirable carbon fibres which had been released from the composite materials in the aircraft following the high energy impact and fire caused by the crash. These fibres are not toxic themselves but they pick up the dirt and debris of the crash site, which is often extremely toxic, and carry it under the skin of anyone on site who is not properly protected. The Harrier GR5 contained approximately 0.6 ton of (mostly) carbon fibre composite materials but today there are passenger aircraft flying which contain approximately 60 tons of (mostly) carbon fibre composite materials. Are you prepared for that? When one of these aircraft crashes and burns the crash site will indeed be a hazardous place and yet again another problem will emerge. The UK’s Health & Safety at Work Act makes it clear that any manager who knowingly and wilfully commits his or her people into a hazardous area without the appropriate training and protective equipment is committing an offence and liable to both criminal and civil prosecution.
However, all is not doom and gloom, the problem is not insurmountable, hazard awareness and understanding is not difficult, protective equipment is readily available and even the crucial problem of lack of experience can be addressed.
First of all, be aware of the hazards which generally fall into four main groups:
PHYSICAL: which includes the obvious sharp and jagged wreckage, high pressure systems and of course the dust, some of which may be respirable and some of which will probably contain many toxic or even radioactive substances.
CHEMICAL: which, as a result of the fire, contain toxic metal oxides and the residue of burned rubbers, plastics and electrical insulation. These are mainly in the form of dust or perhaps a liquid which can be absorbed through the skin.
BIOLOGICAL: In the event of a high impact crash with human casualties there are likely to be bodies, body parts and body fluids spread throughout the site which introduces the threat of blood-borne pathogens. Depending on the number of casualties HIV is a possibility, but Hepatitis is much more likely and the appropriate protective clothing should always be worn.
PSYCHOLOGICAL: An aircraft crash site can often be a traumatic place; even if there have been no serious casualties. Over the past 20 years we have become much more aware of the psychological trauma or even the relatively minor ‘psychological bruising’ which can affect crash victims and even the responders working on a crash site. If such ‘traumatic stress’ injuries are sustained on site, then financial compensation may be awarded by the Courts and penalties awarded against the appropriate managers at the crash site – unless they can prove that they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent such injury. This aggressive litigation is proving to be a crash site hazard of growing significance.
Secondly, understand the hazards and how they might harm you. For example, many aircraft carry oxygen bottles and these may be scattered on a crash site and possibly leaking. The crash site is likely to be an oily, greasy place and not everybody understands that oxygen reacts spontaneously and violently if it comes into contact with oil or grease.
Radioactive debris is unlikely to pose a problem unless it is burned and transformed into dust and ash. If inhaled or ingested this radioactive dust is likely to be extremely harmful.
The blood borne pathogens are only a threat is you allow foreign blood or body fluids to contact your blood or body fluids. HIV is not considered to be a serious threat as the virus is comparatively fragile and does not live long enough outside a live human host to be a threat to those working on a crash site. However, the Hepatitis virus is strong and can survive for long periods on blood stained clothing and human debris and some Hepatitis strains can be fatal. Never enter a fatal accident crash site with an open or uncovered wound and, if injured on site, particularly if the skin is broken, immediately vacate the site and seek medical advice and treatment.
Psychological trauma is not so easy to predict and often can affect different people in different ways at different times but the injuries are no less profound than physical wounds. There are a number of ‘Indicators’ or ‘Warnings’ such as fear, apprehension and panic, confusion, indecision, irrational behaviour and irritability. There are also a number of ‘Triggers’ such as smell, sight, sound and memory. The countermeasures can be divided into three areas:
Before the event – Training, exercises, building self confidence.
During the event – Strong team leadership, confidence, humour.
After the event – Formal debriefing and review, formal counselling.
PROTECTIVE CLOTHING is readily available and the requirement depends on the hazards. As an approximate guide:
If the aircraft has not burned:
Normal working dress (according to weather and climate) minimising skin exposure
Disposable dust mask
Suitable safety footwear
Protective head wear such as bump caps. Hardhats if crane is on site.
If the aircraft, or parts of it, has burned:
Disposable impermeable coveralls with hood
P3 level respirator or P3 dust masks and eye protection
Safety Wellington boots
Gloves, disposable surgical inners and tough protective outers
Protective head wear such as bump caps. Hardhats if crane is on site
The main message is: select your protective clothing with care and be very familiar with it, do not just keep it in the cupboard. Trying to struggle into your protective clothing for the first time at the edge of the crash site is a fool’s game.
Training and Experience
Training is expensive but to neglect it leads to ruin. Just make sure that it delivers value for money. Isolated periods of training can often be a waste of time and money as the information and initial enthusiasms rapidly fade. Training should always be followed up by consolidation exercises; these need not be expensive and help to imprint the initial information much more firmly. More use should be made of interactive computer simulations.
Experience is perhaps the most valuable and effective commodity you can have at a crash site – but as aircraft crashes are becoming rare how do our response teams gain that vital relevant experience? There are at least two ways. The first is by obtaining crash reports from every crash that occurs anywhere in the world and having your response teams analyse and dissect them. Crash reports are too valuable to be consigned to the dusty archives of history. The other is by liaising closely with your local civil emergency services and to perhaps participate in their disaster response exercises. After all, if you are going to work together when you have ‘your’ disaster, it makes sense to train together.
About the author:
John Andrews served as an Engineering Officer in the Royal Air Force until he retired with the rank of Wing Commander in 1998. For the last eight years of his service he was the Staff Officer responsible for the RAF’s Aircraft Recovery and Transportation centre at RAF St Athan. He now provides advice and training to both the civil and military aviation sectors.
John Andrews – firstname.lastname@example.org