Airport Safety Starts with a Fire Drill

By Lenis Rodrigues, Media Relations Staff

Travelers heading into John F. Kennedy International Airport on a recent Monday may have been startled by the sight of a plane engulfed in flames on the runway. What the passengers didn’t know is that the fire was a training session aboard a replica aircraft, used to train members of the Port Authority’s elite Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Unit (ARFF).

During the training exercise, ARFF team members battled the blaze using specialized trucks equipped with foam and hundreds of gallons of water. Then, they strapped on 70 pounds of fire protective gear before extinguishing fires in the engine, wheel well and wing while initiating a rescue operation, all within seconds.

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ARFF is a unique unit of the Port Authority Aviation Department, staffed and operated by police officers trained to serve as firefighters responding to emergencies with aircraft. Each officer assigned to ARFF is a Federal Aviation Administration-certified aircraft rescue firefighter and must requalify twice annually, which exceeds FAA requirements.

“Public safety is a top priority for the Port Authority,” said Chief Security Officer John Bilich. “ARFF plays a critical role in ensuring that travelers flying in and out of our airports have the highest level of protection. The training component, whether visible or invisible, to the public is crucial in keeping the firefighters focused on making quick decisions.”

The goal is that ARFF is always available and rarely needed, but when called to service responds effectively in dangerous situations. During one weekend in March, ARFF responded to a flight that made an emergency landing at Newark Liberty International Airport after a report of fire and smoke onboard. The team evacuated the passengers to the runway via emergency slides; only two minor injuries were sustained.

WABC – Channel 7 recently featured the unit and their training: 

There is also a mutual aid component to the unit’s service. When a small plane crash-landed during the past weekend in a Long Island neighborhood about nine miles from JFK, an ARFF unit was dispatched to assist local fire and rescue personnel.

Training standards are rigorous. “This is the most regulated discipline in fire training in the entire world,” said ARFF Chief Tom Wieczerzack, a 20-year veteran who oversees the unit’s training. “We have to make sure personnel are proficient in their knowledge, skills and ability. On top of that, we have to keep up with regulatory requirements.”

Rapid response could mean the difference between life and death. The challenges ARFF officers face differ from fighting a conventional building fire, from the difficult shape of an aircraft and the rescue challenges it presents, to the fact that planes can be carrying thousands of gallons of fuel, potentially making a bad situation worse.

About 80 percent of aircraft incidents happen within a 3,000-foot radius of the airport, either on take-off, taxiing or landing.  ARFF has about 300 personnel assigned across the Port Authority’s airports, with 24 trucks at its disposal that can be deployed when airport control towers report an aircraft emergency.

Brendan Curley, an ARFF crew chief at JFK with 17 years on the job, takes comfort in the constant training regimen. “To stay sharp, we do have to train so when a real-world incident does occur, we know what we have to do,” he said.

Most training takes place at the JFK training center set up to meet any firefighting situation. A 125-foot diameter pit employs clean-burning propane to simulate a fire, and the center also features a 75-foot aircraft mock-up with a broken wing section. Computer controls allow for the creation of firefighting scenarios that vary in size, difficulty and intensity.

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ARFF Trainer Sgt. Anthony Heinlein demonstrating how the system works to create firefighting scenarios at JFK Training Center

ARFF continuously trains for firefighting and potential emergency rescues from planes   at JFK, Newark Liberty, LaGuardia and Teterboro airports. They also train operations personnel assigned to New York Stewart International Airport, as well as other area airports in aircraft rescue and firefighting.

For many of the unit’s officers, the opportunity to work with ARFF and bring special skills to potentially life-saving situations is a dream come true.

“Many kids have the dream of becoming a cop or a firefighter. But in this job I can be both,” Curley said.

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