Time never moves slowly at London’s Heathrow Airport. As the largest airport in the UK and the busiest in Europe in terms of passenger traffic, Heathrow has continued to expand at a phenomenal pace over the last decade. No sooner had its Terminal 5 become fully operational – which upon opening in 2008 became the UK’s largest freestanding building – then the £1bn refurbishment of Terminal 2 was unveiled, a project expected to help the airport cater for an additional 30 million passengers a year by 2019.

Such developments pose a distinct challenge to the airport’s in-house firefighting service, which has made notable investment in recent years to upgrade its firefighting equipment and training facilities to match the ongoing expansion of the airport. What makes the firefighting service at Heathrow perhaps more unique than others of its kind across the UK is not only is the department responsible for all aviation-related fire incidents, but it also manages all areas of fire safety inside the approximately 12km² perimeter of the airport. 

As a result the department adheres to both Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) guidelines and National Firefighter operational standards and can be called upon to deal with fire incidents from anywhere on the airport’s runway to inside its cargo hangars and passenger terminal facilities. According to the chief fire officer of Heathrow’s fire service, Gary Moorshead, it is therefore paramount that the firefighting team is continuously kept up to date with all developments across the airport. 

"Everyone plays a key role in fire safety at Heathrow – from the service managers in the terminal through to the firefighters."

"There is a huge amount of change at Heathrow on a daily basis. We have to be involved in the early stages of every development in order to ensure fire safety is a key consideration. Everyone plays a key role in fire safety at Heathrow – from the service managers in the terminal through to the firefighters who might be entering the building to report an incident or extinguish fires," Moorshead says.

"Heathrow can change on an almost weekly basis in its layout and design and we have to keep up to speed that so we don’t delay our response to an incident. It is therefore essential to collaborate with our business partners and the other staff who work within Heathrow to minimise the risk of fire to the travelling public."

Next-generation aviation firefighting

Of all the ongoing developments at Heathrow, it was the introduction of the Airbus A380 to the airport’s runways that has had the most significant impact on firefighting operations in recent years. The sheer size and scale of the next-generation aircraft caused the firefighting service to review its procedures and equipment, which led to the introduction of new aerial ladder platforms.

These large extending ladders allow the firefighting team quick and easy access to any of the doorways on the lower and upper deck of an A380 within a matter of a minutes. Additional staff were also added to the team as the minimum manpower requirement for an incident was increased to meet the size of the A380.

In preparation for the arrival of the Boeing Dreamliner, Heathrow’s fire service is also working closely with Boeing to gain a deeper understanding into the type of materials involved in the construction of the aircraft. This thorough approach will ensure that the fire department immediately has the right equipment in place to deal with incidents involving the new aircraft.  

Making the transition towards dealing with incidents involving next-generation aircrafts all the easier is the airport’s onsite firefighting training facility. The airport operates an in-house maintenance and competence scheme, which ensures that all members of staff routinely undergo skill training exercises.

"It is paramount that the Heathrow firefighting team is continuously kept up to date with all developments across the airport."

Under National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), each member of staff completes a four year training cycle which involves participating in a number of assessments that demonstrate their competency to continue as a firefighter.

Assessments include extinguishing fires, rolling out hoses and operating breathing-apparatus equipment. "We have an extensive training area which also has a fire simulator equivalent to the size of a Boeing 747. It is a strong steel construction which uses a gas simulated rig to offer us about 20 different fire scenarios – ranging from an under carriage fire to an engine fire or internal galley fire," Moorshead says. "We are therefore able to simulate for our team a fire equal to that which could happen on any aircraft that approaches Heathrow. This allows the team to practice vehicle positioning, carry out response time exercises and deploy foam."

Airport Firefighters Equipped for Success

Complimenting the sophisticated training facilities, Heathrow has also invested wisely in the latest and most hi-tech firefighting equipment. In particular, the department has benefited from recent advancements to personnel protective equipment, which have become both safer and significantly lighter. Likewise, new breathing apparatus have been introduced with vast levels of weight reduction – which overall offer a firefighter far greater manoeuvrability during an incident.

One of the department’s ongoing projects, however, is the introduction of new technologies to the firefighting vehicles. "We are currently carrying out a vehicle replacement programme, which will introduce new technologies such as vehicle-mounted monitors. Existing monitor operations are performed by a firefighter outside of the vehicle, who is therefore exposed to the hazardous environment. The new technology will allow the firefighter to instead operate a monitor from inside the vehicle using a joystick and video cameras, which he or she can use to direct the high-powered foam jets," Moorshead says.

"The next stage after that is to incorporate extending boom technology, which is where the monitor will actually be able to extend off the vehicle to anywhere in the aircraft. So if there was a high engine fire on an aircraft, for example, our team would be able to extend the boom to reach the fire as opposed to aim a monitor from the ground at it. Additionally, we are also examining thermal image technology which will be able to identify the seat of the fire internally or the hot spots of the fire externally."

"Heathrow Airport operates an in-house maintenance and competence scheme."

A speedy response

Such advances in technology matched with a continuous focus on staff training will certainly help Heathrow’s fire service in its quest to improve on response times to fire incidents. The firefighting team currently has a target of responding to an incident on any one of the airport’s three runways in two to three minutes. Two fire stations are strategically positioned across the airfield in order to meet this target while the firefighting vehicles possess brake horsepower (bhp) high enough to rival a racing car.

"We are always collaborating with manufacturers of appliance technology and equipment in order to maintain a rapid response to incidents. An important area for the future of aviation firefighting is the development of biofuel technology. Due to environmental pressures, airlines are currently examining biofuel technology and we have been working closely with them to understand what technologies we need to bring in to meet this change," Moorgate says.

"It is also essential that we prepare for the introduction of new European aviation regulations that are expected to be implemented in the UK in 2014. We are working closely with the relevant authorities to ensure that we have the right technology, people and equipment to deal with incidents under the new regulations."