For most airport firefighters, the gritty, grueling kind of work—the kind they love—comes just once a year, courtesy of the Federal Aviation Administration. On those days, firefighters can ditch the weight training schedule, shrug off a zillion disaster management PowerPoints, and get to the good stuff: turning an actual hose against an actual flame.
The FAA requires all airport firefighters to train in at least one “live fire” exercise every 12 months. But even those rare training days have been affected by environmental regulations. Government agencies at all levels have ordered live-fire training facilities to be retrofitted—or torn down and constructed anew—with filters to keep both the fuels that produce practice fires and the agents that extinguish them from leeching into the ground.
Fire departments have replaced Halon, a favorite firefighting agent but an ozone-eating monster, with a more ecologically friendly foam called Halotron. And cheap, smoky fossil fuels like Jet A, widely burned in live-fire practice pits, are being dumped for less polluting alternatives—one in particular. Liquid propane is frequently substituted for jet fuel because it’s cheap and burns without emitting pollutants. Still, most firefighters don’t care for it.
“It lacks the realism,” says Master Sergeant Kevin Matlock, fire chief at Washington state’s McChord Air Force Base, where he trains enlistees. “We’ve got a lot of young firefighters who don’t know how hydrocarbon fuels react, that don’t know that the fire will burn back on you,” he explains.
Unlike jet fuel, propane smokes only if it is burned too lean (with too little oxygen) or too rich. Because it combusts at a much lower temperature than a complex hydrocarbon fuel, it throws off much less heat. Propane fires also burn less chaotically than jet fuel blazes.
“Jet fuel is really unique because it rolls and has fireballs—it’s almost got a mind of its own,” says Bill Hutfilz, the training officer for Clark County Fire Department at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport and vice chairman of an airport firefighters’ group devoted to industry education. “Propane doesn’t. Hydrocarbon burns a lot blacker and it runs and hides. It’s going to get in the cracks in the airplane or cracks in the concrete. Wherever that fuel is, that fire is going to follow.”
Despite the trend toward propane, many FAA-approved firefighter training facilities still burn fossil fuels. But a few have managed to strike a balance between environmental stewardship and the realism of jet fuel without turning to propane. The regional facility at Boston Logan International is among them.
In 2005, Paul Callinan, the airport’s assistant chief for training, oversaw his department’s shift to Tekflame, a hydrocarbon that has been scrubbed of an additive that makes jet fuel burn evenly. The additive, Benzene, also causes much of the smoke that comes from burning fuel.
“I feel that our facility, using Tekflame as the fuel, gives a far more realistic attitude and environment than it would by using propane,” says Callinan. But, he adds, “it’s very, very expensive—double the cost, if not more, of regular fuel. Eight dollars a gallon, compared to the $2.90 a gallon we used to pay for jet fuel.”
Few airports have live-burn facilities, and sending firefighters off-site for training—either with hydrocarbon or propane—is not cheap. During a training exercise, a larger airport fire department may burn as much as 10,000 gallons of fuel. Tack on the price of water, firefighting foam and chemicals, facility use fees, and transportation, and costs can approach $100,000.
Because live-fire training is so expensive, and because so few airports have burn pits, some airport firefighting departments have developed other ways to keep skills sharp between mandated live burns.
At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, firefighters frequently train on what may be the Rolls-Royce of fire props. Unlike the stationary, bare-steel monstrosities set ablaze in pits across the country, Sea-Tac’s 85-foot-long, towable mockup with a 67-foot wingspan is so convincing that flight crews often confuse it for a real aircraft.
According to department lore, the airport’s air traffic controllers will occasionally tell inquisitive visitors that the strange airplane they see parked with its wings folded is a Navy personnel transport. (Because aircraft parking spaces are limited at the airport, the mockup’s wings fold to help it fit into tight parking spaces, and to facilitate towing.)
The mockup’s story began in the mid-1990s, when construction of a new runway took away the fire department’s live-fire training site. For several years, firefighters made do by practicing on traffic cones laid out in the shape of an aircraft. But without an actual object to aim at, nobody could agree on how high, for example, a wing would be and where the hoses and firefighting vehicle turrets should be aimed. In the meantime, the Port of Seattle, which owns the airport, banned live-fire training on airport grounds to prevent environmental damage. Instead, the airport fire department commissioned a $700,000 smoke-only training mockup. Sea-Tac training chief Rick Kruckenberg led the acquisition project. “It addresses all of the job performance requirements of an airport firefighter,” he says, noting that his department runs 18 different drills on the mockup.
Delivered in 2006, the faux airplane is rich in external details: Turbofan engines (they don’t work but have inset fan blades), navigation lights, an auxiliary power unit with exhaust. The department trains with the mockup three times a month to keep skills sharp for the annual live-fire exercise at the Washington State Fire Training Academy. Kruckenberg is able to flood the mockup’s cabin with opaque gray smoke, a challenge to firefighters as they search for dummies representing trapped passengers.
The interior of the mockup is less realistic than the exterior. It has a single row of overhead lights, and started out with two rows of bench seats. To make the training experience more realistic, Kruckenberg has solicited items to make the interior more like the inside of an airliner. Alaska Airlines has donated several rows of passenger seats, for example, as well as two pilots’ seats and evacuation slides.
A final detail signals the direction in which airport firefighting training is headed: The mockup is painted green.
Sam Goldberg is a former Air & Space associate editor.