From an early age, many children dream of one day becoming an astronaut, a pilot, a police officer, but there are also many who want to become a firefighter because they can’t resist big trucks, flashing turn signals and loud sirens. But who would blame them ?! We also wanted to become their colleagues as soon as the guys told us to get in the truck. But it’s still not that easy to become a firefighter at the airport.
In order to become a professional firefighter, you need to graduate from a firefighting school and have a valid medical certificate. After completing the school and taking the theoretical and practical exams, as well as physical fitness test, a firefighter's license is obtained and must be renewed every two years. If not, its owner can no longer be a firefighter.
However, for the job of a firefighter at the airport, it is necessary to undergo additional training for the airport so that each firefighter knows the entire airport in detail, the vehicles, equipment, etc.
In the midst of the crisis, and during the partial suspension of traffic, firefighters at "Franjo Tuđman" Airport in Zagreb were on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in case of any forced landing, fire in the passenger building, etc. During the standby, theoretical classes and practical training are performed, as well as rescue and fire drills and analysis of the exercise (to see if all the parameters of the exercise were met and if anything can be improved).
However, in addition to extinguishing fires, they also participate in its prevention, such as when testing engines after technical works. Firefighters also provide fire safety measures when starting the engine, if fuel or hydraulic oil spills, they remove it... They remove swarms of bees or wasps when they make hives on the aircraft, FOD (Foreign Object Debris), ie any unknown objects that may pose a danger to the aircraft at any stage of flight...
The number of firefighters per shift varies depending on the announced arrival of the aircraft, as does the firefighting category of the aircraft, ie the readiness of the fire brigade to accept a particular aircraft in an emergency. At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, "Franjo Tuđman" Airport in Zagreb had a permanent fire category 6, but due to the constant arrival of cargo aircraft, the fire category was raised as needed.
The firefighting category of the aircraft is determined according to ICAO standards, which are the length of the fuselage and the width of the cabin. We will list the firefighting categories of aircraft coming to Zagreb Airport:
- ATR 42 - Category 4
- ATR 72 - Category 5
- Airbus A318 / A319 / A320, Dash 8-Q400, Boeing 737-700 - Category 6
- Airbus A321, Boeing 737-800 / 900, 757 and 767 - 7th category
- Airbus A300 and A330-200 - 8th category
- Boeing 777-200LR / 777-300ER and 787-9 Dreamliner - 9th category
Who, what, where: gathering information
The first step of a fire brigade in a crisis situation is obviously so clear that it is not worth spending words on - but with a deeper analysis it soon becomes unexpectedly layered and complex.
And that step is to find out what is really going on with the aircraft.
Since fire brigades do not have a direct connection with the aircraft in flight, most of the information comes to them through various airport services, and mostly from air traffic control which directly transmits information from the aircraft crew. Given that such situations require a large engagement of the aircraft crew, it is not always possible to describe in detail the nature of the problem - especially not in a clear and rapid manner in a situation of high stress and great mental and physical exertion. In order to at least partially achieve this, a recommended form of emergency communication has been established at the international level, by which at the first call, the crew can transmit the most basic information necessary to ground services in order to prepare at least a rough outline:
- PAN PAN PAN PAN PAN PAN: if the safety of the aircraft and its occupants is not directly at risk, as in in the event of a minor malfunction requiring precaution or a medical problem (where PAN PAN MEDICAL can also be used)
- MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY / DECLARING EMERGENCY: if the safety of the aircraft and the people in it is directly endangered
- aircraft call sign
- type of problem (eg engine failure or fire, structural damage, loss of critical systems, loss of navigation ability, ...)
- number of passengers
- amount of fuel remaining
- the presence, quantity and, if the situation allows, the type of dangerous goods being transported as cargo
- crew intentions and any other useful information
Here is a fictional example of it:
MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY, Aircompany 999, Engine 1 on fire, 100 pax on board, 5 tons of fuel, 100 kilos of lithium batteries in aft cargo, request immediate descent and return to XYZ
Aircompany flight 999 announces that it is in direct danger due to a fire on engine 1 (on the left wing of two and three engine aircraft, or the outer left of four engine aircraft), carries 100 passengers, has five tons of fuel left (about 6,300 liters), carries 100 kilograms lithium batteries in the rear luggage compartment and that the crew requested an urgent descent and return to XYZ airport. The air traffic control additionally informs the fire brigade about the type of aircraft and the expected time and direction of arrival.
It is important to emphasize that both the form and the content depend on the actual condition of the cockpit crew and the amount of time they have available to communicate.
(In earlier times, the crew would transmit all this information with their exact location, altitude and direction, but modern technologies such as ADS-B have made it unnecessary since air traffic control already receives this data in real time directly from the aircraft system itself).
Using this and similar information, the fire department can better prepare for the situation it will encounter, and in time:
- activate the required number of vehicles and firefighters
- activate vehicles with sufficient water / foam / retardant volume, depending on aircraft size, amount of fuel and cargo (extinguishing a fire on the A320 requires more equipment than on the Cessna 172)
- activate the required number of ambulances
- request additional assistance in the form of general or special vehicles from public or voluntary fire brigades units (such as decontamination vehicles)
- prepare and activate special equipment to fight possible cargo fires, especially if they are hazardous substances involved (since 100 kg of lithium batteries require a significantly different approach than 100 kg of luggage or regular mail)
While all of this represents some minimum that a fire department needs to prepare quickly and efficiently for action, additional information is always welcome, especially if it relates to the condition of critical systems or aircraft type specifics. This (quite broad) group of data can include information such as:
- Passenger and cargo space configurations: “rear luggage compartment” from the example above on the A320 covers the area under the floor at the rear of the cabin, while on the Q400 it marks the space behind the cabin, in the tail
- condition of the landing gear: due to its height and location, the break of the trap on the A320, B737, ATR-72 and Q400 will have different consequences for manageability and structure
- condition of fire-fighting systems on the aircraft itself: if all fire-fighting “bottles” are worn out, all firefighting work is transferred to the fire brigade
- structural conditions: in the case of structural damage in flight, even a “soft landing” with normal force can cause further fracture
- Control surface conditions: Locked flaps, for example, require higher approach speeds, which can be severe close to the maximum certified speeds of the tires themselves
- Brake and tire conditions: partial or complete loss of hydraulic fluid can lead to degradation or even loss of braking, while fire of hydraulic installations or engines, depending on the aircraft configuration, can lead to loosening, ignition or cracking of tires while the trap is still retracted
- condition of secondary aircraft systems: if the nose wheel control system has failed, the aircraft's handling on the ground and at high speed is significantly reduced, which may result in run-off and additional damage
In order to make the most of this information, fire brigades also undergo specialist training on the characteristics of each type of aircraft that operates regularly at a particular airport. Such training allows them to better understand the technical jargon from the cockpit: they themselves identify potentially problematic areas when the information they receive is scanty or there is not enough time for better preparation. Members of Zagreb Airport fire brigade have training for the A32F and Q400 in the Technical Sector of Croatia Airlines, where through theory and a visit to the aircraft, they can easily see the locations of emergency exits, fuel tanks, hydraulic tanks, fire protection systems, cutting points suitable for cutting ...
The final assessment and planning of the intervention, of course, includes the experience of the firefighters themselves, which can often compensate for the lack of information and still ensure rapid action.
- Odra 2: 1995 MAN KAT1 // max. weight 17,000 kg // tank volume 3,500 l // power and drive 500 KS Diesel with permanent 4x4 // light, agile and robust vehicle suitable for operations on poor terrain at and around the airport
- Odra 3 and 4: 1993 MAN F90 // max. weight // tank volume // power and drive // although the oldest vehicles in the unit, both are still very active and can often be found in front of the NPT during rush hour operations
- Odra 5: 2008 MAN / Ziegler Z8 // max. weight 42,000 kg // tank volume 13,500 l // power and drive 1000 hp Diesel with permanent 8x8 // the largest and heaviest naval vehicle at Zagreb Airport, equipped with two separate water and powder tanks
- Odra 6: 2020 Rosenbauer Panther // max. weight 40,000 kg // tank capacity 14,000 l // power and drive 750 hp Diesel with permanent 6x6 // the latest vehicle at Zagreb Airport, top maneuverability and equipped with nozzles that can discharge up to 9-000 liters of water per minute
We would like to thank the entire fire and rescue brigade of "Franjo Tuđman" Airport in Zagreb for being great hosts to us, as well as the company "MZLZ" for making this report possible.