Tom Allett witnesses a fire-fighting demonstration at London’s Stansted Airport.
Though regular readers of Airports International will have seen London’s Stansted Airport featured many times, I paid my first visit to its fire service in November.
The airport can trace its history back to World War Two, but the airport terminal building we know today opened in 1991 and Stansted is now firmly established as the UK’s third busiest airport. Approximately 19.9 million passengers and 146,000 aircraft movements – primarily Boeing 737-800s and Airbus A319s – were handled last year on its single runway. That all adds up to a 24/7, 365-day operation of course, so its fire service also works ‘round the clock’.
Anything can happen
Very few of the airport’s current generation of fire-fighters have been called upon to deal with a real aircraft accident; this fact is really a tribute to just how safe the aviation industry is. This is, after all, one of those jobs where you could spend your whole career training for an event that you hope will never happen. However, this doesn’t mean that the fire-fighters are not busy. They are also responsible for handling incidents in the terminal and on the surrounding approach roads. Their ‘bread and butter’ calls are usually medical-related injuries in the terminal building and often involve passengers that have taken ill, or perhaps begin to feel unwell during the course of their visit. Stansted’s fire crews received some 500-600 of this type of ‘shout’ per year; it is their day-to-day routine.
Perhaps the most notable ‘shout’ of recent times was a car fire that broke out in a section of Stansted’s massive open air car park in the early hours of the morning on August 31. An electrical fault in a parked car is believed to have triggered a fierce blaze that ‘jumped’ from car to car. As this happened during the middle of the night, it probably took longer to be noticed than would have been the case during a busy summer day, so by the time the fire services had arrived, high winds had enabled the fire to spread to many other vehicles.
It took 25 fire-fighters – including a team from the airport’s own fire service – more than an hour to bring the flames under control – but not before 24 vehicles were ruined. Thankfully though, nobody was hurt.
Fire-fighting Shift Leader Nick Curtis explains that at Stansted a typical shift, of which there are four, comprise 15 fire-fighters, two fire officers, two watch managers and one station manager. While all receive first-aid training, at least three members of each shift will be Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), responsible for dealing with any illnesses and injuries that are encountered.
In every 29 days the fire-fighters work seven days and seven nights; 12 hour shifts starting at 07:00 and 19:00 hrs but the shift change over period, which involves checking every piece of equipment that might potentially be used, start 30 minutes before the teams are actually officially on shift. Each oncoming shift also receives a Critical Airfield Brief, which informs them of any ‘need to know’ items regarding the airfield, equipment or manning that could potentially affect their work. Except in cases where low-visibility procedures are in force, thereby restricting all vehicle movements, the fire service vehicles are always driven out of the station and checked as part of the handover process. If the weather does intervene, these checks simply take place when the restrictions are lifted.
Currently Stansted has 60 fire-fighters, and 18 managers. Minimum age entry for the BAA fire service is 21 and the normal retirement age is 55. Like many other safety-critical jobs, regular medical check-ups are mandatory. In the BAA fire service that means a full medical every three years.
Those aspiring to be airport fire-fighters don’t need to have previous experience with either the county or military fire services, and though Stansted’s current workforce does include some who arrived having gained fire-fighting experience elsewhere, the reality is that the team is made up of people from all walks of life. For Nick Curtis, he chose this career because his father was also an airport fire fighter.
New starters are required to undergo Phase One training, a basic seven-week skills course at the UK’s International Fire Training Centre located at Durham Tees Valley Airport. After that it’s back to Stansted for Phase Two training; the point at which they concentrate on learning the details of their particular airport’s layout and information, plus how to operate their own vehicles and other equipment. Having completed Phase Two they will be declared operational but, even then, they will still have to undergo Phase Three; a further year of learning routines specific to Stansted.
During the course of their career the airport fire-fighters will also engage with their local county fire brigade, which involves disciplines such as hazardous material (Hazmat) training. With the possibility of having to deal with an event that requires both airport and county teams to attend in mind, this kind of teamwork is obviously mutually beneficial.
Keeping all the drills fresh in the mind calls for refresher training and the backbone of Stansted’s set-up is one of Britain’s largest fire training rigs.
Introduced into service in 2003 and costing approximately £5 million (US$7.6m), it replicates the nose and fuselage and wings of a Boeing 767, but with the tail of an MD-11, and has a number two ‘engine’ that resembles that of a Boeing 737. That represents a good cross section of the airliners commonly seen at Stansted.
The rig is fuelled with Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) thereby avoiding the potentially fatal and environmentally-damaging fumes that a real fire would produce. At the same time it allows the fire-fighters to tackle a wide variety of scenarios including engine, fuselage, undercarriage and internal cabin, galley and flash-over fires.
Stansted’s fire service benefitted from a £1 million (US$1.5m) upgrade last year. On May 29, 2009, a special ceremony was held to mark the completion of an investment programme. At a special ceremony held at the airport, BAA’s Chief Executive Colin Matthews cut the ribbon to open the new fire station extension and welcomed the arrival of three state-of-the-art fire fighting vehicles.
The extension added additional parking bays to house the new Scania domestic appliance, an incident command vehicle and a medical support trailer. Work to refurbish the fire station was also carried out, creating a more pleasant working environment for the fire-fighters.
For many years Kronenburg fire trucks have been standard equipment at BAA airports and the Stansted crews I spoke to were very complimentary about the vehicles’ capabilities and very-high serviceability levels. In fact, one commented that if anything, the Kronenburg fire trucks had been: “built too well” and that’s why they had remained in service for nearly 16 years now.
Currently Stansted’s fire service has four Kronenburg MAC 11 fire trucks, one MAC 8 Rapid Intervention Vehicle; two Land Rover Discovery Command vehicles (Fire 1 and Fire 2); a hose layer that can deploy a kilometre-long hose; plus an aerial platform ladder which is design to assist rescues from the upper decks of large airliners such as the Airbus A380. In terms of airfield operations, Stansted has recently achieved Code F status for the purpose of handling A380s that may need to divert from Heathrow. This is turn means that the fire service needs to step up to CAT10 status as and when required.
In terms of equipment, things are about to change and BAA is expected to announce a contract that will deliver a new generation of vehicles to five of its six airports. Southampton is the exception because its vehicles were replaced quite recently. However, it could be that an announcement about new vehicles could be made before these words are read.
Tom Allett witnesses a fire-fighting demonstration at London’s Stansted Airport.