Fight or flight

Published:  07 March, 2013

In this first installment of a two-part series on cooperation between flight crew and fire crew, Zoltán Szilvási addresses non-technical-skills, including communication, decision making, leadership, and the associated regulatory training issues.

It is a common saying that every second counts, but when the aircraft fuselage burns through in 60 seconds, it really does!

Studies of aircraft accidents and evacuations all point out how much depends on the cooperation of the different classes of professionals involved.

Pilots and flight attendants usually know each other well, having carried out mandatory CRM (Crew Resource Managament) and safety training several times in order to cooperate and understand each others' roles better.

On the other side of the coin, although the training and operational procedures for ARFF crew are regulated by ICAO (and FAA) to a certain degree, this training is less standardised than it is for flight crew.

It is safe to say that in practice we know very little of how the other team works. Bearing this in mind, how is it possible to create a smoothly operating team during an emergency – and in a matter of seconds?

The aviation industry has learned the importance of human performance the hard way, and the result is CRM training – which has been improving continuously for a long period of time. It is now time to put under the spotlight the relationship between pilots, cabin crew, and firefighters (ATC).


First we have to look at the regulations: basically we all work by the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) regulations –  but that is only part of the story.

These regulations – namely Annex 14 (Aerodromes) regulating airports, and doc 9137 Part One (Airport Rescue Fire Fighting) – are partly mandatory, but other paragraphs are only recommended practice. These documents are updated infrequently following changes in the industry, and in some aspects are not very detailed compared to other aviation regulations.

On this side of the pond (Europe) we will soon be regulated by the EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) Aerodrome Ops (Jan 2014), and within this document there is scope for flexibility in compliance, called AMC (acceptable means of compliance). Although this document is based on ICAO documents, there are a few noticeable improvements, for example in human-factors training and communication issues.

In the US, the situation is somewhat similar with the federal regulations (FARs) and relevant Advisory Circulars. On a national level regulations are very different in each country: from the very detailed and comprehensive to the virtually non-existent.


There are certain preconceptions on both sides (flight crew and firefighters). Do pilots hide problems, or do firefighters exaggerate them? We often face the fact that our communications begin with a preconception, especially if we do not have any (real-life) experience with the other party. This is especially true with pilots (guys just pushing the buttons, courting the stewardesses, and taking the big buck), and airport firefighters (playing volleyball for 23.5 hours a day and scaring the passengers with their spacesuits and loud sirens for the remaining 30 minutes).

This preconception can – and should – be modified to create mutual understanding and respect towards each other via joint training and/or meetings. I have had very positive experiences in providing training for pilots about the Airport Fire Service, and vice versa.

The language problem

All pilots and ATC personnel are required to speak English (minimum ICAO level 4) but ARFF crews do not speak English everywhere, as there is no requirement in ICAO regulations.

The use of a dedicated communication method between parties involved in the emergency (mainly flight crew and fire crew) makes communication and management of a crisis much easier. Everyone gets the required information quickly and correctly, in the most direct manner, and everyone also knows the intentions of the others.

Apart from the language problem, this communication method has to be introduced along with the technical, regulatory and training requirements of both sides (plus Air Traffic Control).

The use of a discrete emergency frequency is now included in US Regulations, and will be included in the European regulations. Presently, only a few countries use this procedure, including the US, United Kingdom, Germany, and Switzerland.

The new regulations will mandate the use of a discrete emergency frequency, in which case a basic English language skill should also be required. The benefits of using a discrete emergency frequency are diminished otherwise.

Hand signals

The language problem can be somewhat overcome by firefighter emergency hand signals – if they know how to use and understand them. This set of four signals originated in the US, and now it is an ICAO standard contained in Annex 14.

In my personal experience neither firefighters nor flight crews generally train in this procedure.

It has to be mentioned that these alternative communication methods are intended to complement and improve the old-fashioned communication-via-relay of the ATC controllers, to avoid the information being altered in the process (what shall we ask and what shall we listen to – technical competence). For the same purpose, following a Mayday call air traffic controllers need to have some basic understanding of what is happening on the flight deck and the fire truck.

Leadership and decision making

Who is in charge? It is fairly obvious onboard an airplane or at the fireground. But what if the aircraft itself is the accident scene?

International and local regulations are contradictory. The pilot in command is responsible for the airplane and its occupants – but the fire chief/officer-in-charge is responsible for the response scene, and both parties carry legal and moral responsibilities.

To confuse things even more, some airports dedicate an airport duty manager to act as incident commander (with minimal training and experience in this role).

Where and when do the flight crew’s responsibilities end? The aircraft commander may decide – and order – an evacuation, but some questions arise: (s)he needs information for a good decision based on conditions, such as fire, smoke, damage, hazards – which come mainly from the fire crew.

Secondly, the commander may be physically unable to make a decision or even communicate the order to the aircraft occupants. So the cabin crew and also the fire crew must be prepared to make the decision, communicate it, and carry it out.

From the moment the commander initiates an evacuation he has little influence on the process, so the command should be placed in the hands of the fire chief/officer in charge.

In real life sometimes there is a thin line between the definition of a technical problem, an incident and an emergency.

Just a few examples: an air turnback or air diversion for any technical or operational reason is not an emergency in itself (think of a cracked window or instrument failure). But if the landing will be grossly overweight due to this reason – that is another issue.

A landing due to medical emergency is not a cause for the fire alarm at the fire station. But for me, as a pilot, it is a stressful emergency, and I also might need the fire crew to provide quick access onboard for the medical crew, or if the landing is overweight and the brakes are cherry-red.

On the ground a similar case might be a fuel leak from a tank vent (a common occurence). Depending on the quantity of fuel, the circumstances and the weather, the fire crew may evaluate it differently. These are just a few examples of my own experiences but there are many others.

During these days of strict financial constraints, the budget for training is always lean. But consider the following, learnt from an airline expert during an international flight safety conference: a major aircraft carrier calculated one evacuation (without any aircraft damage) costs as much as 50-100 thousand US dollars depending on aircraft type, due to spare parts, aircraft on ground, passenger rerouting, schedule disruption etc. If this evacuation occured on the runway, thereby halting airport operations for hours, the losses for all airlines and the airport would rise rather sharply.

In conclusion, even if the regulations are not universal or perfect, and sometimes hard to find, they do contain relevant information in how the training of airport fire services should be improved upon in terms of non-technical skills, also known as Crew Resource Management in other areas of the aviation community.

This training provides a really valuable tool that complements our technical knowledge and experience (not to mention expensive equipment) and which provides a safer flying environment. This training should be supervised; standardised by the national authorities; and harmonised at least within the EU, because the flying public deserves the same level of safety in all corners of the continent.

In the long term, training will prove a good financial investment, improving the effectiveness of incident response and reducing airline and airport delays (and related losses and costs).

In the second part Zoltan will discuss training and more technical subjects such as aircraft familiarisation, interoperability, and multi-agency operations.

  • Operation Florian

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