If temperatures in the 80s coupled with high humidity makes you sweat, add 60-pounds of oppressive clothing plus a blazing fire and you’ll get an idea of what firefighters were dealing with during a practical exercise held onboard NAS Patuxent River July 24.
The firefighters, all students of the Aircraft Rescue Firefighter class taught through the University of Maryland’s Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI), were being put through the paces during an activity designed to test their newfound knowledge.
“We have a live-fire training partnership with MFRI,” said Naval District Washington/Pax River Battalion Chief John Trossbach. “This is the end of the basic course where [the students] put together what they’ve learned in the classroom, the slides they’ve watched, and the discussions they’ve had. This is the practical final, and they also have a written test they have to pass.”
In charge of the practical was MFRI instructor and NDW/Pax River Firefighter/EMT Mike Fuhrman, with other Pax River firefighters assisting in various roles that included operating the installation’s two mobile aircraft firefighting training devices used to realistically simulate a variety of aircraft fires.
The larger of the two training devices, simply referred to as the MAFTD, is a steel mockup built to mimic a number of different aircraft in one efficient package, with a low-wing side simulating fighter jets and smaller aircraft and a high-wing side for larger aircraft such as C-130s. The smaller and newest device, the Fireblast, is meant to mimic the F-35 Lightning II.
“This is about as good as we can do without actually crashing an airplane,” Trossbach explained. “With the MAFTD, we can simulate three engine fires, an engine fire with a fuel trail coming behind it, as well as fuselage, wheel, cockpit, galley, cabin, and cargo area fires. It’s a bigger prop, so the fires are bigger. With the Fireblast, the fires are all exterior because the [F-35] aircraft really doesn’t have an interior area to go into.”
Fueled by propane, all fire scenarios are triggered and monitored from a “command box” trailer which must be staffed by certified operators like Trossbach. The MAFTD is equipped with gas and heat detectors that prompt an automatic shutdown if unsafe levels are detected, and there are three emergency stops on the interior of the device so the crews themselves can shut it down, if necessary. The operator can also shut down the prop at any time.
“There are cameras that let us see the interior live action from the command box, so if I see someone go down and they can’t get to the emergency stop, I can shut it down from there,” Trossbach noted. “We can also play back the video recordings later for evaluation purposes.”
In addition, following live-fire training safety protocol, there was a fire department apparatus and an ambulance standing by onsite in case of an emergency situation.
The 15 students — a mixture of volunteer and paid firefighters from various Maryland counties and one NDW firefighter from Naval Support Activity Bethesda — suited up and began the day practicing search and rescue by locating and removing 150-pound victim dummies from the interior of the MAFTD. Next up was attack hose line deployment and nozzle operations on the Fireblast fighter jet prop before returning to the more grueling MAFTD for cockpit and interior cabin fires. As the teams completed each phase of the practical, they were met by Fuhrman’s encouraging cheers or stern reprimand and an explanation of what went wrong. Some were immediately told to “go again.”
“With this class, they’re learning how to deal with aircraft fires and how to operate on an airfield,” Trossbach said. “If a military aircraft should crash outside the fence line, the volunteer fire departments will probably arrive first [because of proximity], before we’re able to get there and take charge. This course helps them with what they need to do before we get there: how to control the fire; what hazards to look for, especially with fighter jets if there’s ordnance onboard or external fuel tanks; where the interior passenger compartments are, if there’s anyone to rescue; or what they might encounter if they have to go inside.”
Aircraft fires differ from structural fires because of an aircraft’s moving parts, special metals, composite materials that are extremely toxic and hazardous, and the hotter-burning jet fuel.
“And then there’s the fuel load,” Trossbach added. “Some aircraft carry thousands of gallons of jet fuel and once it crashes, you’ll have an immediate hot-burning fire and the only way to put out these aircraft fires is with foam. Other [community engine] companies don’t have the same capability we have; they have limited quantities. That’s why when there’s any type of aircraft crash outside the gates, we respond as part of our mutual aid agreement, even if it’s not a military aircraft.”
As a certified “train the trainer,” Trossbach can teach other Pax River firefighters how to operate both aircraft firefighting devices, and there are currently about 15 personnel qualified for the job. All firefighters serving Pax River and Webster Outlying Field must be certified aircraft firefighters.
The longstanding partnership between the NDW Fire Department and MFRI has not only enhanced the training programs of both organizations, it has increased the candidate pool of qualified firefighters in the local area. Several graduates of the program have gone on to apply for and become career firefighters assigned to NAS Patuxent River.
While aircraft firefighting is not a requirement for all firefighters, it is another rung on the professional career ladder.
“Education is truly important,” emphasized Trossbach, who has served nearly 20 years at Pax River. “To progress in your career from firefighter up to fire officer, how to lead a crew, manage apparatus, figure out a budget; there are a lot of things you learn in school that you use here. I can’t say it enough – education is a big deal. Even as professionals, we’re constantly training here, not only on aircraft; we have both missions.”
Additional courses are scheduled for November as well as next calendar year.