If you have a job you love, you probably want to be doing it all the time.
I thought about this when I saw photos of that charred Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 sitting in a sea of firefighting foam next to the runway in San Francisco. Airport firefighters are a special breed, trained to put out jet fuel fires and rescue people from burning airplanes. But how often do they actually do that?
Last week, I sat down with some of the men who staff Fire Station 301 at Reagan National Airport. Aircraft fires are rare, allowed Assistant Chief Michael T. Defina Jr. “But when they do occur, they are typically very catastrophic and very quick to spread,” he said.
The last major event that Station 301 worked occurred Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists directed a Boeing 757 into the Pentagon.
“There was no aircraft left, per se, but flammable liquid that was throughout the building,” Defina said.
Defina said many people don’t understand that Station 301 is a full-service fire department, capable of dealing with structure fires, water rescues and hazardous materials, as well as the emergency medical responses that account for the bulk of their runs — up to 80 percent.
“Typically, we respond several times a day,” he said. “We just have one specialty that a lot of folks don’t have.”
That specialty is foam.
If you know anything about kitchen grease fires, you know that squirting water at them just spreads the flames. The same applies to airplane fires. Since firefighters can’t clamp a saucepan lid on a burning 737 or dump a box of baking soda on it, they use foam. It’s the magic weapon of ARFF (aircraft rescue and firefighting). It suppresses burning vapors and smothers the fire.
The station’s three foam trucks can carry 400 gallons of foam concentrate and 3,000 gallons of water. The concentrate and water can be mixed at different ratios, then shot from turrets: one on the roof, another on the front bumper. The idea is to suppress the fire and create an escape path for passengers and crew.
Thankfully, the need to do so is rare. But the firefighters train endlessly, every day, at National and at the three fire stations at Dulles International Airport: 302, 303 and 304. At Dulles, there’s a mock-up of a 737 that can be set on fire. (It’s can’t be seen from the runway, lest it freak out passengers as they taxi past.)
“We run emergencies here you may never hear about,” said Deputy Chief Timothy Lasher, who was among the firefighters interviewed at National.
A pilot radios ahead that a warning light has come on in the cockpit. Is the landing gear down or not? A smoke detector goes off. Is there a fire or was some miscreant puffing in the restroom? The station has to stand ready in either case.
The firefighters I spoke to were mum about the Asiana incident, waiting to hear what the National Transportation Safety Board has to say about the crash and about the unlucky passenger run over by responders.
“We don’t Monday morning quarterback, but we watch to learn and see what others are doing,” Defina said.
Lasher came to National from the Air Force, where plane emergencies are more common.
“When they’re down and they’re on fire, it’s a whole different story,” he said. “You have to react, and you have to react quickly.”
Firefighter Greg Wood said: “I think that’s what drew me to the fire station. It’s never the same thing.”
“And the adrenaline,” Lasher added. “That’s why we train.”
We left the station and went outside. In the distance, planes were landing and taking off. Nearby, some firefighters were fiddling with a new apparatus: the Striker Global, a massive lime green unit built by Oshkosh in Wisconsin. Its turrets — directed by joysticks — can shoot foam up to 250 feet.
“I love that new firetruck smell,” Lasher said as we climbed aboard.
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