Response and rescue workers at the site of an airplane crash require a specialized training, and when large commercial airliners or military craft go down, that training could mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of people. Because of the large amounts of fuel carried by airplanes, accidents often involve quickly spreading flames from ignited fuel spills; therefore firefighters must be able to analyze the situation almost instantly and then respond accordingly if there is to be any hope for survivors.
Simulating a Crash
One place where aircraft rescue firefighting is being provided is at Lake Superior College, a community and technical college in Duluth, Minnesota. The school's high-tech fire training simulator offers the opportunity for advanced hands-on training.
The simulator is a two-thirds-scale mock up of a 757 airplane that is 75 feet long with a wingspan of 57 feet. There is a burn pit that is 125 feet in diameter. The simulator has 98 computer-controlled burn segments, 13 separate types of fires, and what the schools says is an almost unlimited number of programmable fire scenarios. The maximum flame height is 50 feet, and the internal temperature reaches 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit at the ceiling. In a full burn, the maximum fuel consumption is 1,780 gallons in three minutes. Billowing smoke and 50-foot-high propane-fueled flames bring a terrifying spectacle to mind for an average citizen. "It gets your attention," says Dave Sarazin, the emergency training program director at Lake Superior College, in the typically understated manner of the professional who is accustomed to facing danger.
According to Sarazin, there are probably 30 other types of simulators for this training, but he believes that none of them are as complex as the one at his institution. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appreciates the environmental friendliness of the Minnesota school's simulator, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) likes the safety aspects. Because of the valving system and the use of propane fuel, it can be shut down in two-and-a-half to three seconds.
"The EPA likes it because it doesn't pollute," says Sarazin. "OSHA likes it because it is infinitely controllable."
The Lake Superior College aircraft rescue program also has two classrooms, four equipment bays, a staging/assembly room and a decontamination apparatus instructional area. Support facilities include a control tower, wastewater treatment facility, holding pond and propane storage tanks. With support from approximately $15 million in grants from the Federal Aviation Administration, the 95-acre site was opened in 1994.
Classes in the program include an eight-hour course on spill fires and wheel, baggage and cabin fires. A two-day refresher class is geared toward situations involving large-frame aircraft. The 40-hour aircraft rescue firefighting course includes two-and-a-half days of live fire training and classroom instruction on basic knowledge of aircraft systems, military aircraft, tools and safety. There is also a 16-hour class on aircraft rescue firefighting vehicles.
The aircraft rescue and firefighting program at Lake Superior has not just drawn trainees from Minnesota. Firefighters have come to the school from across the United States, and sometimes even from beyond our borders. Among the countries that have sent firefighters for training at the facility are Canada, England, France, Mongolia and countries in Central and South America.
Securing a Safe Future
Democratic Congressman James Oberstar represents Minnesota's Eighth District, which includes Duluth. He is on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and was involved in the legislation for federalization of airport security screeners and universal baggage screening. Oberstar is one of those supporting legislation to incorporate existing training centers into "Homeland Security. …