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Airport firefighters gain experience using training facility

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

Amid the blistering summer heat, firefighters of the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department Airport Division, at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, donned their uniforms recently, and released fire-fighting foam to extinguish angry flames that consumed a steel aircraft mock-up, inside a 152-foot-wide jet fuel burn pit.

About 16 airport firefighters participated in the annual Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) Burn training exercise, at Hartsfield-Jackson's ARFF training facility, according to Capt. Kenny Ison, of Fire Station No. 48 at the airport.

"It keeps everybody up on their training," he said.

Ison said the exercise began with a practice run that included setting a small tower on fire. Firefighters used water to calm the flames, he said.

Immediately after the warm-up exercise, the aircraft mock-up went up in flames and was hidden in the inferno, according to Ison.

Ison said water alone cannot extinguish the flames on the aircraft, so firefighters used aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) to put it out.

According to Al Snedeker, Capital Improvement Program public relations manager for the airport, the approximately 75-foot-long aircraft simulates airplane fires in seven different areas, such as the wings, engine, wheels and brakes, and broken hydraulic lines. The aircraft has a sprinkler system, to keep it from contorting during long training sessions.

After extinguishing the fire, during the first part of the exercise, firefighters continued the second phase and climbed inside two ARFF trucks, according to Ison.

"The ARFF trucks contain 3,000 gallons of water, 500 gallons of AFFF and 500 pounds of dry chemical," Ison said.

The aircraft was ignited again, and firefighters practiced putting the fire out from inside the trucks, during the "pump and roll" routine, according to Capt. Rick Clemons, of the Airport Fire Administration for the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department.

Firefighters controlled the roof turrets on top of the trucks to aim and release the foam at the blazing aircraft, said Clemons.

"This [pump and roll] is a very popular evolution, because you knock it [a fire] down before you put anybody on the ground," Clemons said.

Clemons said that it is very rare for airplanes to catch on fire, though he has witnessed a couple of aircraft ignite during his tenure of about 13 years in the airport division of the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department.

Alvin George, a firefighter for Station No. 40 at the airport, said the drills conducted at the training facility give him hands-on experience in how to handle, and react, to a variety of incidents.

"When I do trainings like this, I think, ‘What if people were on this aircraft?'" said George, who has been at the division for four years. "And of course, if I am not safe, I can't save anyone."

According to Snedeker, the state-of-the-art ARFF training facility opened in July 2009. The City of Atlanta invested approximately $14 million in the 10-acre facility.

In addition to an aircraft mock-up stationed in a jet fuel pit, the facility includes another aircraft imitation, Snedeker said in a statement. The airplane is principally used for evacuation drills and mass-casualty exercises, Snedeker said. The facility also has a two-story control and observation building, and advanced pollution controls, which include a recycling system for separating waste fuel from reclaimed water, he explained.

Lt. Matthew Holbrook, training officer for the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department Airport Division, said the ARFF Burn training exercise is one of 12 subject areas firefighters of the division train in each month, to meet their annual requirements.

The training exercises allow firefighters to fulfill requirements of the aircraft rescue and firefighter inspection phase, of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Part 139 Airport Certification, according to Holbrook.

"For the airport to operate, firefighters have to train," said Holbrook.

Clemons, of the Airport Fire Administration, said the ARFF training facility has saved the division thousands of dollars in training costs.

Ison, captain of Fire Station No. 48, said the training facility helps keep firefighters close to home. Before the site was created, training was more time consuming and difficult, because firefighters had to travel to either Dobbins Air Reserve Base, in Marietta, or the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth.

"At least here, we are right in our own property," Ison said.