Manchester's White Watch

Martyn Cartledge found out what it takes to be an airport fire fighter by spending a day shift with Manchester’s White Watch.

Condition 2 of a 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 Airport’s Category 10 status requires it to have a certain number of different types of vehicles available.  These are six major foam tenders with two for each station and two held as spares for operations and maintenance.  The major foam tenders at the airport are British-made Carmichael Cobra 2s (at a cost of around £500,000 each).  They hold 3,300gal (12,500lit) of water and 460gal (1,750lit) of foam with an output of 1,200gal (4,550lit) per minute through the C5000 monitor on the top of the vehicle.  Each unit has the ability to provide water through 1.77in (45mm) and 2.75in (70mm) hoses and also has a front-mounted bumper turret which, although designed to provide protection for the vehicle itself, can also be used to provide extra fire fighting capability.

These vehicles actually exceed the capabilities required of them in CAP168 in that they can reach 50mph in 27 seconds (40 seconds required) with a top speed of 75mph (62mph required) – not bad for a 33-tonne behemoth.
The fire fighters are split into four watches – Black, Green, Red and White – each with 26 members working a 12-hour day or night shift from 8am until 8pm on a four-week rotating roster.  They are overseen by senior staff (who work permanent days), comprising a Senior Airport Fire Officer (SAFO), the Deputy SAFO/Training Officer and a fire service administrator.
Each watch is made up of a Station Manager, three Watch Managers, six Crew Managers and 16 Fire Fighters.  Of these, 20 are on duty at any one time – allowing for sickness, annual leave, etc.
Due to the airport having two runways, there is a requirement for two fire stations to maintain the required response times.  To that end (at least) seven personnel take the TL and two of the foam tenders over to the south station with 13 remaining at the main north station along with the senior staff.
The response times stipulate that they must be capable of reaching the furthest part of the airfield in no more than two minutes and to discharge 50% of the media required for the category of the airfield, with any additional resources being on the scene within a further minute.
Emergencies are classified into certain types and although very much in the majority, not all are aircraft-related.
Local Standby – the largest proportion – is where an inbound aircraft is known or is suspected to have developed a defect that would not normally involve any serious difficulty in effecting a safe landing.  An example of this would be a cockpit indication that the aircraft’s landing gear is not fully locked into position for landing.
Aircraft Ground Incidents are 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 hazardous materials, perhaps involving spillages.

Due to the airport having two runways, there is a requirement for two fire stations to maintain the required response times.

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.  However, if Air Traffic Control believes an accident is inevitable then it can be classified as an Aircraft Accident Imminent.
Other types of aircraft emergencies include 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.
Off airport aircraft accidents are also attended.  If it is between one and three kilometres away then two major Foam Tenders would respond from the South Fire Station and the airfield would revert to single runway operations on 05L/23R.  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 undeployed fire fighting capabilities.
Domestic and non-aircraft incidents can encompass anything that a ‘normal’ local authority fire service might handle including domestic fires within the airport terminals, hotels, office buildings, railway station, ancillary services or at the cargo village.
As the author’s nominated transport for the day was the Command vehicle with Station Manager John Sulek driving, we go through some ground rules to follow in case of any incidents during my visit.  As John has already taken the handover from the night shift we go to the first job of the day which is the Watch Briefing.
This covers such items as operational and advisory memos which include fire service specific items like information on training for new equipment.  Next were airside directives dealing with topics such as work in progress around the ramp and taxiways, knowledge of which is critical so that delays can be avoided by taking the best route around such areas.
Following the morning brief comes the daily inspection.  Each person already knows what job on which appliance he/she is doing today (staff rotate through the various roles on a regular basis) and the first one required is to check over the equipment and vehicles pursuant to their role.  This includes driving the vehicles out around to the rear of the fire station to test each of the various water/foam outlets including the main monitor unit atop the Cobra 2s
The Station Manager also checks his vehicle, using the call sign of “Fire Chief” he ensures that the various pieces of communications equipment are all in working order.  One box is used to speak with the fire service and two boxes for communicating on ATC/Aircraft frequencies.  Additionally there is a Sat Nav unit, which might seem strange as one might not think the fire service needed directions to other towns and cities and would know their way around the airfield.  However, it is airport specific and includes such things as stop bars and the runway centerline, in addition to the road and taxiway system.  This is of particular value when the airport is in Low Visibility Procedures (LVP), even more when there is thick fog as it would be invaluable in finding an aircraft in need.
After the daily inspection the tannoy comes to life again announcing the SAFO’s briefing.  This session is more about policy decisions and is often a time for the watch to air their views over decisions that are made further up the fire service ladder, so to speak.  It was obvious to me that staff members are encouraged to put their point across and are obviously at ease in doing this.
It’s 09:30 and the processes of the shift start are completed so it is time to catch up with the Airport Duty Manager (ADM) via mobile phone, something that will be an ongoing process throughout the day as both the Station Manager and ADM work closely together.
Additional Training
The author talked to John Aldread, the Deputy SAFO/Training Officer, about the unit’s role in training other fire fighters.  Not only do they train and assess in-house staff, 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.  Closer to home, Aviation Incident Command courses are run for local authority fire services, which detail what is required when coordinating with the Airport Fire Service in the event of an incident.
At least seven personnel take the Turntable Ladder and two of the foam tenders over to the south station with 13 remaining at the main north station along with the senior staff.

Recent CAA approval has been received for cabin Crew EU ops training involving the use of smoke hoods and hand held appliances.  Part of the ‘equipment’ utilised for this training is the forward cabin section of a retired airliner.  It still has its original seating and galley with the addition of smoke generators and body dummies and is situated just to the rear of the North station.  Airlines such as bmibaby, Jet2 and British Airways have already used these facilities to train their staff.
HSE approved First Aid training is also provided, not only to airport based employees but also to external aviation related companies, as is standard Fire Marshall training.  The vast majority of first aid and trauma training is held over at the south station as its location is well-suited to such training, providing a much quieter environment.
Possibly the most important facet of the training centre and certainly the most interesting is the work done with crews from abroad.  Manchester promotes itself as an aviation-related training centre and is doing so with some considerable success, having secured contracts bringing in fire fighters from places such as Saudi Arabia, the Seychelles and Hong Kong.  Indeed just prior to the visit a group of firefighters from ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia had completed a course and I met two members of the Hong Kong fire service who were due to go to the airport at Chep Lap Kok.  They were spending two weeks at Manchester as an addition to their three-week course at Teesside.  They told me that all airport fire fighters at Hong Kong’s airport are on secondment with Station Officers and above, spending three years there before returning to the city.  Normal fire fighters spend five to eight years at the airport.
The Day
Briefings and inspections over, it was time to do nothing as that is what fire fighters really want from the day – no emergencies to deal with.  That does not mean being idle, as there are always checks, inspections and new procedures to study.  The afternoon was going to be busy with a full crash practice at the large training rig at the airfield.
Without doubt the most impressive piece of training equipment is the B747/B767/MD-11 Dual-fuelled airport rescue and fire fighting training simulator, situated approximately 1,000ft (300m) south of the eastern end of the northerly runway.
It has been supplied by Simulation Ltd, which has supplied fire training simulators to civilian and military airfields throughout the UK and Europe.  This particular type is one of only two in the UK with the other being at Heathrow.  It was acquired due to a requirement to upgrade the existing rescue and fire fighting training facilities to meet the updated requirements of CAP 168.
A contract for the new rig was placed at a cost of £2.6 million (US$4.1m) and subsequently brought on line on November 15, 2006.
At 144ft (44m) long with a wingspan of 84ft (25.7m), it sits 42ft 6in (13m) high and weighs 268 tonnes.  The simulator runs on both LPG and Kerosene, making it quite a rarity as, due to environmental reasons, the vast majority of training centres are unable to burn kerosene (which makes for a much more realistic scenario as LPG just doesn’t burn in the same way as aviation kerosene).
Interestingly, the rig has its own three-zone water deluge system, which literally pours water over the areas that will be exposed to fire, not in any fire fighting capacity, but to protect the rig from the extreme heat that is produced.
It has a number of external fire scenarios which can be selected individually or in combination – including engine, undercarriage, wing and fuselage fires as well as running fuel fires.  Inside, it is not just an empty shell, but has three levels with different layouts from cargo hold/combi cabin through standard cabin and on to the cockpit.  There are 12 zones in total which can be set at three different levels of intensity.  One of the most spectacular and indeed realistic scenarios is the ability to recreate ceiling rollover fires where fire races from one part of the ceiling to another often trapping those below.  Just to make things more difficult there are six smoke generators situated around the rig which can fill the air with thick smoke cutting visibility to zero.
Although the scenarios and layouts are designed for realism, this is just a training rig and therefore health and safety is important and all potential fall areas are guarded, alarmed and monitored as are all entry/exit doors to all levels ensuring control staff are aware of personnel inside the unit.  Temperatures are monitored throughout the simulator as are levels of unburnt LPG and should anything untoward be detected then the system will automatically close the unit down and would also turn on the giant extractor fans at the rear which can remove both smoke and heat from the rig within one minute, something which can also be controlled manually.
The external fires are controlled in conjunction with the Station Manager/Incident Commander who is required to hold down a remote wireless dead man’s switch, without which no fire would light and indeed any fire already lit would go out if this switch were released.  Although monitored from the control room, internal fires are controlled from each level using hand held touch screen control pads.
After lunch the Watch and I got kitted out in fire gear ready to train using the rig, something the crews do on a weekly basis day or night, during which some staff will be assessed on certain roles.  But first we have to get there and although the fire service vehicles and personnel are exempt from security checks when on an emergency call they are just like any other airport personnel at any other time and require going through security checks, the only concession being that the vehicles do not go through one of the standard checkpoints as this could compromise response times if called out whilst going through, so we go through a mobile checkpoint, get frisked, and we are on our way.
Upon arrival, the Watch is completed as we meet up with the crews based at the south station and we all go into the training room for a pre-training briefing session detailing health and safety considerations and information on everybody’s roles during the session and the assessments that will be taking place.
The training rooms are a testament to the commitment of the crews as they have been refurbished completely by fire service staff since their acquisition.
Each pre-planned scenario is run in the same way with two appliances repositioning just off the fire ground which, once the fire scenario is set in motion, are then called in by the incident commander by radio stating the scenario and that it is a training exercise.  Crews are expected to position the vehicles correctly to ensure that the monitor operator can get to work as soon as possible providing protection to the fuselage and therefore giving passengers the maximum chance of escape.  Basic positioning of appliances is to quarter the aircraft facing the fuselage just off the nose and tail.  Whilst the monitor operator is throwing over 550 Imperial gallons (4,500lit) per minute at the fire, crews will disembark and get to work dependant on the job in hand, which not only could involve water and foam but also BCF and dry powder – just like you might find in any business premise.  It extinguishes the fire by smothering and disrupting the chemical reaction taking place and can be introduced through the centre of a cone of water directed at the seat of the fire by having crews in breathing apparatus positioned fore and aft of an undercarriage fire for example and utilising two cones of water spray to encapsulate the fire, or one cone at the front of an engine while another crew member introduces dry powder to snuff out the fire.
We go through a number of different scenarios utilising different crews generally on two vehicles giving the crews a good workout as well as providing tasks for assessment of certain staff members. Following each scenario, the appliances are refilled with water to ensure they are ready for any real emergency should there be any need during the training session.  While this is happening 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.
So what would happen in a real turnout?
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 25% 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.
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 is such that a local authority fire officer takes over.  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 prompts and support to reinforce those given by the incident itself.  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, 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.
As well as potentially initiating a call out, the fire fighter in the watch room 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’s station may have to be temporarily cut.
It is fast approaching 20:00 and I can’t believe how quickly the day has passed and how much has been packed into the 12 hours. It was a good job there was no incident that day as we simply couldn’t have fitted it in!
The author would like John Alldread, Deputy Senior Airport Fire Officer, Station Manager John Sulek and White Watch for their help.
IN ADDITION to the Carmichael Cobra foam tenders detailed in the main text, other equipment includes:

  • One Viper 4×4, which is used for both domestic and airfield operations carrying 1,500gal (5,680lit) of water and 666gal (2,520lit) of foam.  This is the appliance that would initially attend incidents in buildings etc as well as being part of a full turn out to an aviation related incident.
  • A Mitsubishi L200 Emergency Tender (ET) carrying hydraulic and manual cutting gear and spine boards.
  • A Mitsubishi Shogun (for the Station Manager), which is equipped with a variety of communications equipment and it provides a mobile command post or mobility if the incident is stretched over a wide area.
  • Two more support vehicles – one medical trailer and one foam trailer holding 530gal (2,000lit).

All of these are positioned at the Main North Station at the airport while at the south station there is also the Turntable Ladder (TL), which has the ability to reach up to 100ft (30m) high and was purchased specifically for Cat 10 operations.  There is also an onsite maintenance workshop manned by an engineer from Carmichael who can do anything from changing one of the six Cobra 2’s tyres (£2,000 each) to a full annual service.