Dulles International Airport's management has violated federal safety procedure by cheating on annual drills designed to test how fast airport firefighters and equipment can respond to an emergency, according to airport records and interviews with a dozen firefighters.
The firefighters, three of them high-ranking officers, also charge that their unit is plagued by ancient equipment, lack of manpower and proper training, and a lax attitude toward fire safety on the part of the Federal Aviation Administration, which operates Dulles and National airports.
One result: The men say their unit, while it technically meets FAA standards, is not properly prepared for incidents such as the emergency landing three weeks ago of a crippled Air France Concorde jet with 90 people aboard.
The firefighters, who asked not to be identified, say airport officials have routinely tipped them off to supposedly surprise drills conducted by FAA safety inspectors.
Because fire can quickly engulf an aircraft, FAA regulations since 1973 have required that at least one fire vehicle reach the midpoint of an airport's farthest runway within three minutes after an alarm is sounded. FAA procedure requires that drills be held without advance notice -- a procedure the Faa's own officials at Dulles have violated, according to the firefighters.
"We're told to be in the trucks ready to go with the (station) doors open add the engines ready," said one officer. "It's cheating -- without the warnings we'd never make it."
William Halligan, safety chief for Dulles and National, conceded that management had at times alerted firefighters in advance of the drills. But he said FAA inspectors were aware of the practice and did not object.
FAA airport certification chief Harry Hink, who oversees safety inspections, said the practice violated FAA procedure.
"We don't want the men in the trucks with the engines running," said Hink. "That should not happen. It defeats the whole purpose of the tests."
Firefighters at the airports have been involved in a prolonged dispute with management for several years over manning, overtime and other labor problems. But several of their complaints, backed up by the Faa's own inspection files, indicate problems at Dulles that affect the safety of the 9,000 passengers who use the airport daily:
The Dulles unit's four crash trucks -- its biggest and most important equipment -- date back to 1962 and 1963. The men say the trucks are in frequent need of repairs and a 1977 FAA safety inspection report questioned their reliability in an emergency.
The unit, which had more than 60 firefighters in 1963, now has about 43, even though there are more than 10 times as many flights.
As a result, only 13 men were available to respond to the Concorde emergency, and two of the crash trucks were manned by only one firefighter each who had to both drive the truck and operate its foam-release equipment. Fire experts say -- and Halligan concedes -- that each truck should have had two men.
Neither Dulles nor National have conducted regular "hot" drills, where firefighters put out an actual fire, for at least four years. Most experts suggest such drills at least once a year.
FAA officials concede that equipment at both airports is old -- they say they plan to replace all four crash trucks at Dulles by 1985 -- and that training needs improvement. But they point to the fact that no one was killed or injured in the Concorde emergency as proof that manpower levels are adequate.
"We're capable of doing what has to be done," said Halligan in an interview last week. You're picking on two airports," he said later, "but the same thing happens all over the country."
Dulles and National easily meet FAA safety standards, which require only three firefighting vehicles per airport and state that the vehicles should be adequately manned, without requiring a specific number of personnel. Many experts -- including Halligan -- believe the FAA standards are too minimal.
"You can't live by that [the three vehicle requirement]," said Halligan. "It's too low."
"It [fire safety] is a stepchild," said Gil Hass of the National Fire Protection Association's aircraft rescue committee. "Go to any large city and you're usually overwhelmed by the amount of fire protection. But go out to an airport and it's a joke."
Firefighters at National, where the fire unit consists of about 45 men, have also complained about manning and old equipment. But because the airport is smaller than Dulles, the unit has had no problem meeting the FAA's three-minute requirement.
Dulles has been another story. On one occasion in May 1978, when firefighters there say they did not receive advance warning, FAA records show it took more than four minutes for the first vehicle to reach the middle of runway 30, about three miles from the fire station.
As a result, Hink said, his office required Dulles to place a fire truck in a temporary facility near the runway. Records show that during the latest drill last January, the truck made the run in just over two minutes.
But the Dulles fire unit's officers log notes that prior to the drill, Halligan and another airport official alerted the unit to have the trucks and men ready. A firefighter at the temporary station said he was ordered to be in his truck with the door open and the engine ready when FAA inspector ordered the alarm sounded.
Halligan at one point in last week's interviewed denied the men had been forewarned about the January drill, then later said, "i'm not saying he [the firefighter] wasn't in the truck."
The FAA requires that the 547 U.S. airports that handle commercial flights meet the three-minute standard in order to maintain their license to operate. But FAA's Hink said the agency has not cracked down on airports that haven't met the standard."
"We try the white-hat approach," said Hink. "If we started pulling certifications, it'd really stop up the whole country's transporation system."
The National Fire Protection Association and the Air Line Pilots Association have asked the FAA to toughen its response-time rule to two minutes. But the agency says the requirement would prove too great an economic burden to small airports that might have to build new fire stations in order to meet the standard.
"The whole thing is speed," said Victor Hewes, chairman of the pilot association's air fire rescue committee. "If you can't get to the scene quickly, everybody's going to be dead anyway. You might as well stay in the firehouse and watch television." CAPTION: Picture, A 1977 FAA report questioned the reliability of Dulles' crash trucks, the airport's most important emergency equipment. Two crash trucks are pictured above. By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post