By Wesley Long
It was shortly after lunch when the afternoon bank of arriving commercial aircraft overtook the skies above my small and humble airport. In and out they came as I proceeded to go about my duties as the only firefighter on shift that day. I heard it when the last couple of flights were transitioning into our airspace. Often with the hum of air traffic all day it is easy to tone out most of everything that is said although sometimes you “feel” a change in the pattern. That’s when the hairs raise on your arm, you become hyper focused, and without fully understanding what is happening yet you find yourself heading toward your bunker gear.
A professional, yet not quite calm, voice came over the tower frequency requesting an Alert 2 activation from fire rescue: “This is Captain Hawthorn on MD80 Flight 2273, 20 miles out. It appears as if we are experiencing systemic hydraulic failure and have begun to go through our checklists for resolution. Can you please notify ARFF to begin their standby?” “Roger,” replied the tower, and the tones immediately dropped. I was ahead of the situation and thereby skipped the crash phone as I, already geared up, mounted Rescue 1, a 1500-gallon ARFF unit, hit the master switch, and then nothing.
Click! I hit the master and ignition switch again to no avail, Rescue 1 was dead in the water. At this time, the tower was relaying the emergency to county dispatch for mutual aid response, which is our standard operating procedure (SOP). Luckily, my station is equipped with two ARFF trucks, so I jumped out of Rescue 1 and straight into Rescue 2. I turned the batteries over, flipped the master switch, hit the ignition, and nothing. “This can’t be possible,” I thought as I yet again cycled through startup procedures in a hard-fought effort to get my rig rolling out the door.
Yet, it was possible because there I sat in my second dead truck while the flying public came my way in an aircraft that may very well need my immediate support—support that I could not offer it as I relayed to the tower to put ARFF out of service and then relayed to dispatch to drop another alarm on the mutual aid response in an effort to make up for my inability to respond—a very embarrassing, unnecessary, and eye-opening inability to respond, I might add. At this point, I watched and listened helplessly as the MD80 went through its procedures and was able to get one of its two independent hydraulic systems partially operational. They were already low on fuel and decided to land—and did so safely with little more than hot brakes to show for it.
Like with most public safety agencies there is a reasonable expectation of service from our customers, and rightfully so. To me this was a major breech of that expectation and the trust that they put in us to be the insurance policy they hope to never have to use. Through diligent after action and improvement planning within my department as well as our maintenance sector, we found the issues that lead to the failure of ARFF response on that less than auspicious day. Rescue 1 experienced an electrical failure of unknown origin, and Rescue 2’s batteries were bone dry. Neither of these issues are acceptable, and, regretfully, partial blame is mine as per our SOP I only checked out the mainline vehicle that morning, Rescue 1, which worked fine with no issues at shift change.
Had I spent the extra time to check both vehicles I would have deduced that Rescue 2 was not operational and a fix could have been established well before the call to service. If we had a more stringent preventive vehicle maintenance program, the battery issue would never have happened in the first place. In some situations and at some organizations, we can blame complacency, apathy, or laziness, although that was not the case here. Quite simply, the case was poorly established SOPs when it came to checking out our rigs and maintaining them properly across the board. Tragedy was averted this time, although there are other case studies where that is absolutely not the case, which needs to be continually discussed in order to keep this topic relevant in discussions on how to run a successful ARFF department.
The crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 on July 6, 2013, comes to mind when I discuss the need for proper emergency vehicle maintenance as well. During the response and mitigation phase of this particular incident, there were outstanding issues regarding previous maintenance of some high-reach extendable turrets (HRET) as they were found to not be operational on scene. Problems of this or similar natures are obviously not tied to a particular department type, region, or resource availability. Some maintenance problems can naturally be attributed to chance, but we have to take it upon ourselves and admit that we may have a culture problem within departments that, well let’s face it, typically have a low call volume regardless of size and scope. Proper maintenance also extends from vehicles to vehicle systems in terms of training and safety as well.
On October 25, 2013, there was a maintenance issue at North Bend Fire Training Academy in Washington state involving ARFF trucks receiving jet fuel instead of water because of potential issues with an older fuel/water separator. The ensuing training rotation was chaos at best and incredibly dangerous at worst. While this topic is a slight departure from ARFF vehicle maintenance itself, it should be considered that training with these apparatus and facilities designed for such training be included in a preventive maintenance discussion. We must remain vigilant of our safety by ensuring our vehicles and training systems are not lacking in the attention they need. By doing so, we can enjoy one less thing we have to worry about once on the incident scene.
Bullet Points of Successful ARFF Truck Operation
- Daily truck checks on all apparatus.
- Truck checks after calls/incidents.
- Weekly truck full functional checks. Make sure to include batteries, nitrogen levels, all fluids, belts, and pressures.
- If something is questionable, have it looked at.
- Install and maintain a continuity plan including utilization of foam, hose, and pump testing, as well as dry chemical fluffing and yearly discharge.
- If your department does not have a specific fire truck technician but relies independently on a standard vehicle maintenance department, it is imperative that you send a representative to learn how to work on your vehicles. It is also a great idea to jointly appoint and send a representative from the ARFF department to the same training. This ensures that you have someone within your department that has inside information on particular vehicle issues and can communicate preventive needs to maintenance ahead of an apparatus breakdown.
- Do not be complacent.
- Keep vehicle maintenance logs and records—track trends in past issues in an effort to reduce future ones
- Vehicle maintenance SOP development and yearly program review.
Ever hear someone close to you say, “Oh he’s a firefighter; he can help,” or “He’s a firefighter; we will be fine!” Being a firefighter is one thing, but without our tools, equipment, and vehicles, there is not much we can do in most situations. It is up to us to ensure that when the time comes to turn a wheel, we can.
WESLEY LONG works at the Glacier Park International Airport (MT) as the fire chief, operations director, and is a certified emergency manager, certified professional manager, ACE trusted agent, and Airport Security Coordinator. Prior to the 13 years he has worked at GPIA, he spent 10 years as a firefighter in the United States Air Force, spending six years in the Pacific Rim and four in Space Command.