Fighting runway fires

'Do-it-yourself' motto governs the people and equipment that take on 1,000-deg. jet -fuel firesDon't let Roy Betts' navy-blue uniform fool you. Though a veteran member of Louisville International Airport's Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) team, Betts also doubles as a truck driver on his days off, hauling postal freight to supplement his income.It's actually his skill as a trucker that paid big dividends

'Do-it-yourself' motto governs the people and equipment that take on 1,000-deg. jet -fuel fires

Don't let Roy Betts' navy-blue uniform fool you. Though a veteran member of Louisville International Airport's Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) team, Betts also doubles as a truck driver on his days off, hauling postal freight to supplement his income.

It's actually his skill as a trucker that paid big dividends for Louisville's ARFF team in a very unusual way. Betts helped design a one-of-a-kind fire truck, at about a third of the typical cost of an airport fire-fighting vehicle.

It's called the 'nurse truck' for short: a 45-ft.-long tanker hauled by a twin axle International tractor originally designed to haul dump trailers.

Weighing in at 93,000 lb. GVW, the tanker carries 6,000 gal. of water and 1,000 gal. of concentrated foam for fighting the intense heat of aircraft fires in two separate compartments. The tanker's primary mission is to reload the airport's fire trucks at a crash site so those vehicles don't have to leave the scene to get more water or foam.

The nurse truck can also fight fires, thanks to a rear-mounted 225-hp. Caterpillar engine that powers its own spray nozzle located on top of the tanker. Drivers maintain directional control of the nozzle with a joystick mounted inside the tractor's cab, enabling them to fight fires in any direction without leaving their seat.

It's a clever piece of engineering, thanks to the 'do-it-yourself' motto of Betts, the ARFF team and the airport's staff of six mechanics, who maintain a total of 100 vehicles for Louisville International and who built the nurse truck from scratch.

"We're fortunate to have leadership here, from the maintenance staff to the fire chief and up, that leans our way when it comes to equipment needs," says Betts.

Riding to the rescue According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there are 17,000 landing facilities in the U. S. serving 226,000 registered aircraft and 500-million passengers a year. In the event of an accident, it's up to ARFF teams to save the day.

Louisville International's 22-member ARFF team relies on a ground fleet of nine vehicles to ride to the rescue, including:

* Three "crash" trucks that spray water and foam to douse fires;

* Two step vans that carry everything from emergency lighting and tools to ventilation gear and haz-mat spill removal equipment;

* The 18-wheeled "nurse truck" tractor-tractor;

* A pickup used to patrol the ramps and airfield;

* A command vehicle - a modified one-ton utility truck that carries 500 lb. of dry powder, 100 gal. of foam, and 150 lb. of halon, as well as medical equipment and tools.

In addition, the rescue unit keeps a crash truck and a step van on hand in case one of the frontline trucks is out of service for maintenance.

The airport's 22 firefighters - each working 24 hours on, 48 hours off - are broken up into three platoons, consisting of a captain, a lieutenant and five firefighters. And 19 of those 22 firefighters are cross-trained as first-response emergency medical technicians.

Louisville International has mutual aid agreements with the airport-based Kentucky Air National Guard, along with the city and county fire departments, in case reinforcements need to be called in for a major incident.

"They're always there for us and we're always here for them," says Captain Wes Smith, a 20-year veteran of Louisville International's ARFF team. "It's as simple as that."

To keep in top form, Louisville's ARFF team trains from an hour-and-a-half to two hours a day. Full-scale simulated air crash and mass casualty exercises are conducted every two years.

"We're constantly checking equipment and procedures, and looking at new developments taking place at other airports," says Smith. "We learn how others cope and apply the lessons here."

Doing it yourself Since airport firefighting equipment is so expensive, maintenance issues take center stage.

Louisville International has a top-of-the-line Oshkosh T-3000, which has a 3,000-gal. capacity for water and 420 gal. for foam. A highly maneuverable boom equipped with video and infrared cameras allows firefighters to "see" inside a burning plane from the safety of the truck cab while dousing the fire at the same time.

Those features don't come cheap; the T-3000 costs about $300,000. The fleet's Triton HPR crash truck, which is equipped with a global positioning satellite system, costs over $500,000. That's why Louisville International's ARFF team developed the nurse truck as a dual-purpose vehicle; it supports its crash trucks and can also help them in the fight to put out fires.

Other airports are also creative when it comes to fleet equipment. At Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., firefighters bought a used beer delivery truck for $5,000 and turned it into a Special Emergency Response Vehicle (SERV) that carries medical supplies and rescue equipment to a crash site. Dubbed SERV 64, the truck holds $7,000 worth of supplies, including an onboard compressor to refill air bottles for the firefighter's breathing apparatus, a small diesel generator to power emergency lights and 1,000 blankets.

Dulles' firefighters also customized the interior of a used Kurbmaster step van for use in haz-mat response. Shelving inside the van - cut and installed by the firefighters themselves - holds everything from a fax machine and computer to haz-mat suits and chemicals used in cleaning up haz-mat spills.

Orlando International Airport follows the 'do-it-yourself' mantra as well. Firefighters there converted a used beverage delivery truck into a re-supply vehicle for medical and rescue equipment.

In addition, they took an old "crew stair" truck - a pickup with a fixed stairway mounted on the back of the chassis - and modified it into a fire truck. Orlando's firefighters use the crew stair truck to roll right up to aircraft doors to offload passengers quickly. Foam and water hose couplings at the top of the stairway provide fire suppression capability at the same time.

Maintenance concerns Keeping Louisville International's ARFF fleet up and running is critical, and that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the airport's maintenance staff. Housed in a 69,777-sq.-ft. facility, the airport's six mechanics must maintain 100 or so vehicles and pieces of equipment for Louisville International, including the ARFF fleet.

With an annual budget of $475,000, the airport's maintenance staff keeps everything from SUVs used by administrative staff to massive 22-ft. high-speed runway plows in tip-top shape. Snow-removal equipment is almost as important as the ARFF fleet when it comes to keeping the airport open, says Lowell Pratte, deputy general manager for the Regional Airport Authority that manages not only Louisville International but nearby Bowman Field as well.

"The Regional Airport Authority prioritizes vehicles as 'critical' or 'creature comfort' in terms of maintenance needs," he says. "The critical vehicles are those used for ARFF operations, snow and ice removal, airport police patrols and pursuit, and customer parking shuttles, in that order. All others are for 'creature comfort,' meaning they save staff from having to walk or ride bicycles."

The 24/7 need for critical vehicles makes preventive maintenance (PM) a top priority, says Pratte. To minimize the disruption caused by PM schedules, the airport maintains "loaner" vehicles, including "dual purpose" equipment. "The 'nurse truck' is one of our more unique pieces of equipment in this regard," explains Pratte.

And as home to United Parcel Service's largest air cargo hub, Louisville International is one of the 10 largest cargo airports in the world. "We not only operate 24 hours a day, but our peak traffic period occurs throughout the night and early morning," says Pratte. "That's why all of our vehicles - especially our ARFF fleet and snow-removal equipment - need to be up and running around the clock."

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