Firefighter Training on Helicopter Simulator


Helicopter training 2   Text and photography: Borut Podgoršek

Unlike their professional colleagues, airport firefighters are often faced with airplanes, helicopters, armament systems and other hazardous materials, which can present additional dangers to their lives. This is exactly the reason why the management of such hazards stands at the heart of their training.

According to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), annual theoretical and practical training is required for professional firefighters. In addition to this, airport firefighters must undertake different kinds of training connected to combating fire on different types of aircrafts, managing various assets, handling hazardous materials and so on. 

Slavko Zupančič, fire safety instructor at Cerklje ob Krki Airport, stated that there are 17 licensed firefighters with five vehicles who take care of fire safety at the 107th air base within the 15th Wing. Four of the vehicles (2 x Kronenburg, a TAM 260 and a TAM 150) are intended for immediate firefighting and rescue when the fire hazard or aircraft accident occurs, while the fifth, an MB Sprinter, offers fast intervention and technical assistance. Lieutenant Zupančič continued, “At the moment we can provide for Category 5 of the needs of the Slovenian Armed Forces, and if necessary, we can, of course in a limited time, provide for all categories up to and including the Category 9. The airport and firefighting categories are determined by the length and width of the aircraft which land at the airport. In the case of military aircraft and standards, the category is also dependent on their equipment, including, for example, armaments and ejection seats.” In 2018 there was a centralised exercise of the Slovenian Armed Forces called Adriatic Strike, in which the firefighting category was raised from Category 5 to Category 9 (out of ten), meaning that there were eleven firefighters on duty instead of five. Transport, school and hunting planes of types C-130, C-17, L-159, F-16, among others, have landed at the airport.

helicopter training 1   

The simulator, based on the Bell 412 helicopter, enables realistic scenarios of firefighting and rescue procedures. The instructor operates the simulator through the control panel, either by manual instruction or remotely. The whole operation of the simulator is constantly controlled by the instructor who can, in the event of complications, easily stop the gas flow and extinguish the fire at any time, so the implementation of such exercises does not represent any great risk. Slavko Zupančič stated: “These types of training are very much welcomed by firefighters and are also necessary, especially since they usually resemble the reality. Each participating firefighter gained some valuable experience. Training should be carried out as often as possible, mainly because of the contact with fire and the real life scenario.” The main firefighting training on the helicopter simulator model Bell 412, which offers display and simulation of various types of fires, was attended by seven airport firefighters. The simulator is owned by Fraport Aviation Academy, whose instructors also prepared and implemented the training. Dejan Gantar, Fraport Aviation Academy instructor, said that this type of simulator offers training for different scenarios, such as fire in the cockpit, fire in the cargo compartment of the helicopter, and fire following fuel spillage. While these exercises focused on the extinguishing and cooling of the helicopter and the rescue of casualties, in the future they intend to improve the simulator by adding additional burning mechanisms, which will also enable training for fires in the engine or missile launchers. 

Implementation of Four Different Exercises
Four different training scenarios were implemented at Cerklje ob Krki Airport. The first involved extinguishing a fire following fuel spillage and rescuing an injured person; the second concerned the rescue of an injured person from the helicopter; and the third involved extinguishing the burning helicopter using a heavy firefighting vehicle with a water cannon. The final exercise was held after the completed training, where firefighters of the Slovenian Armed Forces showed the cooperation and knowledge which they gained during the training. Gantar explained that it is necessary for firefighters to be familiar with the different types of aircraft which have permission to land at the airport: “It is important that firefighters are informed on all the rescue cards of aircraft producers. Knowledge of individual aircraft types and helicopters allows firefighters to correctly handle the crisis situation and easily help the victims without endangering their own lives. The greatest risks for firefighters are presented by rotors, radar radiation and the fuel and hydraulic systems. When talking about military helicopters it is necessary to add, in addition to these risks, all the armoured systems installed on the helicopter.” 

It was the first time that the firefighters of the Slovenian Armed Forces had participated in this type of exercise, since the simulator is the first one in Slovenia. Prior to this, training was with “live fire” and was therefore, due to technical limitations, practically impossible to implement. Zupančič stressed that “Practical training on helicopters, including fire extinguishing, was carried out for the first time, although in the past we carried out rescue exercises. Although we are certified as ARFF firefighters we consider such training to be very important, especially in terms of the correct approach to new techniques and equipment. Exercises focused on rescue from helicopters are carried out regularly.”

Fire Extinguishing and Equipment
When we talk about aviation accidents we are usually dealing with catastrophes. The accident is defined with regard to the type of aircraft which was involved in the accident and the number of casualties; however, with military aircraft there are also other hazards which are not usually considered in accidents with civilian aircraft. Special attention must be given to explosives, for example that in the ejection seat, which can be very dangerous, as well as to other weapons and aircraft armaments. The latter can have an impact on the manner of approach and how various situations are solved.

Helicopter fires are quite rare. The greatest risks of fire are presented by the ignition of the engine or human error made during the procedure of hot refuelling of the helicopter. The firefighters of the Slovenian Armed Forces, who were the most experienced with hot refuelling, were glad to share their experience with colleagues from Fraport Aviation Academy.

During the intervention, the fire can be extinguished in two ways: either directly from a vehicle with a fixed water cannon, or by a classical approach, which means manual extinguishing with an appropriate number of hoses with nozzles. Gantar emphasized that firefighters always work in pairs, so they can help each other during fire extinguishing or rescue. The first firefighter usually manages the hose nozzle, while the second one helps them by dragging the hose towards the fire, opening the doors and rescuing the injured people. The first firefighter must also protect their colleague. The direction of approach depends on the circumstances, specifically the type of helicopter, the direction of the wind, and other factors which are constantly changing. The direction of withdrawal is the same as the direction of approach. In the process of withdrawal, the firefighters are carefully monitoring the situation, since there is the possibility of renewed outbreak of fire or another unexpected situation. 

In addition to completing the personal protection equipment (PPE) of the ARFF firefighter, i.e. intervention clothes, shoes and head protection, each firefighter working on the shift must also possess a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with necessary spare cylinders. At the same time it is also important to prepare joint equipment, which helps to improve the efficiency of the equipment. Zupančič stressed that their fire brigade currently works in inadequate premises, both from the living and the technical points of view. The warehouse for equipment and the premises for cleaning the equipment, the wardrobe and for the firefighting dispatcher are completely inadequate, and the premises are old and run down. Planned new construction will furnish a modern facility, which will comply with the norms set for maintaining the fire services at the airport. According to the latest information the construction of the new facility should start at the end of this year and end in 2019. In addition to that, the firefighters would also like to acquire a new lighting tower and more equipment for accidents with hazardous materials.

Training evaluation
Some of the most common causes of fires in helicopters are engine or gearbox overheating, fuel spillage, cracked pipes in the hydraulic system and human error during the process of hot refuelling. All the training participants were united in saying that such exercises are essential for their work.

ARFF firefighter Ivan Moškon, who started working at the airport in 2005 after he had completed the professional fire school in Ig, said: “All training, especially practical courses, is of extreme importance to ARFF firefighters.” Another firefighter, Miha Božič, added: “The work of firefighters is extremely harduous and carries a lot of responsibility. Training carried out together with firefighters from Aviation Academy is certainly much welcomed; in fact it should be done regularly.” It is possible for there to be no single major intervention in the whole career of an airport firefighter, so every opportunity for real-life training should be used. Lieutenant Slavko Zupančič made it clear when he said, “From this example we can conclude that everyone who takes part in such training gains special experience, especially in appropriate handling in the event of emergency situations. This type of training not only ensures that we remain in contact with reality, but also makes sure that firefighters constantly renew their knowledge and prevent its loss, which is certainly invaluable from their point of view. We had an insight into the process of extinguishing a fire inside a helicopter and gained some experience with regard to the intervention in the event of a burning helicopter.” Instructor Dejan Gantar evaluated the whole exercise as very successful and added: “The participants were highly motivated and carefully followed the instructors’ commands during the whole exercise. The latter was especially noticeable during the analysis and discussion implemented after each part of the training. Each consecutive exercise was performed better than the previous.”

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