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The Secret Work of Airport Firefighters

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As a volunteer firefighter, Peter understands the importance of fire prevention and fire safety at airports. The role of the airport firefighters has changed. Once perceived as the guy who sits around all day hoping nothing ever happens, airport firefighters are proactively training to understand all the potential aircraft dangers. Wall Street Journal “Middle Seat” columnist Scott Scott McCartney went behind the scenes with firefighters at Dallas-Fort Worth International and Boston’s Logan Airport to see how they train. Peter sat down with McCartney to learn about the training standards and the current state of airport fire safety.

Peter Greenberg: Scott, how did you get interested in investigating airport firefighters?

Scott McCartney: I was struck by what happened during the 787 fire in Boston. After talking to people at Logan Airport, I learned that the firefighters knew exactly where the batteries were. They knew the layout of the 787, they knew exactly what they were up against in terms of fighting the fire and they arrived with a plan on how they were going to fight a fire with the lithium ion batteries. It was an intense fire that could have spread really quickly, but the first responders saved the hull of the airplane and maybe some of the terminal too. They did an amazing job.

The science has changed tremendously. Twenty years ago airport firefighters would show up at a crash site and spray water and that was about all they can do. People survive crashes now and firefighters have to get in there and  have techniques for getting people out of airplanes alive. And they’re doing it and it’s really fascinating stuff.

PG: The old solution was always foam the runway and that never worked. These days when they’re not fighting a fire, airport firefighters are actually studying the interior of each aircraft type to know how to get into each plane. Each plane has a different dynamic and each plane has a different design, which depending on how they hit the ground (or not), will determine how they fight that fire.

SM: It’s fascinating. At Logan, each firefighter has three different training modules to do every 24-hour shift. They do respond to emergency and routine calls—they’ve got work to do—but they are constantly training.

With the 787 fire, there was a crew that was about five gates away working with an airline mechanic going over the logistics of the airplane. These firefighters train, train, train and refresh, refresh, refresh. It’s amazing how quickly they knew exactly what to do.

PG: The little know fact about most airport fire departments is how often they are “rolling.” Any time a little alarm light or warning light goes off in a cockpit these guys are “rolling.” They probably “roll” 20 to 30 times a day and nothing happens and the public doesn’t even know it.

SM: I spent some time with the Dallas Fort Worth International fire department and they’re dealing a grease fire at the grill at the hamburger joint or the hotel where they have fire calls that they respond to. They’ve got warehouses, they’ve got all kinds of stuff besides airplane emergencies. There’s a steady stream of hydraulic problems. Whatever happens they’re involved.

PG: Not to mention, airport firefighters are even delivering the occasional baby.

Don’t miss Peter’s look at the Volunteer Firefighter Heroes of the West, Texas Blast.

By Peter Greenberg for Peter Greenberg Worldwide