Friday, April 04, 2014

Phoenix Fire Department's plane-fire drill frighteningly real

The screams of people in agony were as fake as the plastic mannequins that Phoenix firefighters dragged from a burning airplane fuselage in a recent drill.

But the human imagination is a powerful force that can defy reason, and it was hard not to picture a horrific scene of dozens of people burning alive.

Such an elaborate and macabre make-believe is part of federally mandated training that 127 airport-certified Phoenix firefighters go through every year. The purpose of the seven-day training course is to keep crew members mentally focused in case they ever breach a real burning plane to rescue actual burn victims.

"(It) gets your adrenaline going faster," said Joe Teixeira, who started the scream recording with the push of a button.

Teixeira, a contractor who helps stage the simulations, said the screams also force the fire crews to communicate by using hand signals. "You can't communicate because of all the screaming and the noise going on," he said.

The airplane fuselage that firefighters trained on is owned by Kellogg Community College of Battle Creek, Mich. It's shuttled around the country behind an 18-wheeler so fire departments can train their crews to fight jet-fuel blazes and extract victims, among other things. Last year, it visited 33 cities and helped train about 2,000 firefighters.

City may buy own prop

The 21-year-old fuselage prop is in high demand. This is the first year that the simulator has visited the Valley. The Phoenix Fire Department usually pays $300,000 a year to fly its airport crews out of state to practice on other departments' props.

Deputy Chief Elizabeth Hendel, who oversees fire operations at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, hopes to change that and has proposed the department buy its own fake fuselage.

"I've been wanting to get one of these props for a while," she said. "They're pretty costly ... but we spend a lot of money every year going out of state."

Crews usually fly as far as Texas or California.

"We've even gone to Arkansas and Washington," Hendel said.

The airfare, room and board and overtime that's required to replace those firefighters while they're out of town come from a tax that every airport customer is charged when he or she buys a ticket.

"So it's not the taxpayers' money that's paying for this, it's the traveling public that's paying," Hendel said.

The simulators are much more expensive than the annual cost of flying firefighters out of state, ranging from $2 million to $3 million. But the long-term savings the city would achieve, as well as the revenue from local departments that would pay Phoenix to practice on the fake fuselage, would likely pay the bill off quickly, Hendel said.

"It could be as soon as four years," she said, adding that the department could have its own fuselage prop as early as 2017.

Surging adrenaline

During the recent drill at the Fire Training Academy, 2425 W. Lower Buckeye Road, Capt. David Sanchez watched as a group of trainees prepared to extinguish the flames from a simulated fuel spill on the ground. With the words "fire up," flames shot 15 to 25 feet into the air from a circuit of pipes containing liquid propane.

A blast of heat and water mist from the responding fire hoses could be felt 30 feet away.

"They (practice) the right pattern to sequester the flames and kind of push them away from the fuselage and the occupants," Sanchez said. "Everybody on this hose line will take a turn on the nozzle so they learn how to use their (correct) pattern, how to sweep, how to push the fuel away. It's kind of like when you're sweeping leaves off your carport. It's the same principle."

This time, winds shot a rare 50-foot "fire tornado" into the air, Teixeira said.

"If they hit the pans just right, it will get it swirling and it will just take right off," he said. "The most I've seen these (go) up is about 40 feet in the air with no wind at all."

Firefighters Tim Short and Christopher Garry walked off the concourse after the drill. Short pulled off his helmet, sweating so much that he looked like he just took a shower.

"Your natural reaction is to back up," he said, talking about the intense heat from the flames. "But once your adrenaline's rushing, you just want to go in there and put out the fire any way you can."

"It kind of feels like you're out camping and you're too close to the fire," Garry said.

Both men said the adrenaline rush was exhilarating.

"There's no brief burst," Garry said. "It's the entire time."

Mobile Aircraft Fire Training Simulator

History:The fuselage prop used by Phoenix Fire Department instructors is the first mobile aircraft-fire simulator approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. The simulator is a mock-up of a Beechcraft 1900. In 2013, the prop visited 33 airports and helped train about 2,000 firefighters.


Owner: Kellogg Community College's Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting program in Battle Creek, Mich.

Length:50 feet

Max temperature:2,000 degrees

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