The Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting Service - Part 1

This is an edited transcript of a talk presented to the Civil Aviation Historical Society in August 1989 by Mr Henry Gascoigne.

Mr Gasciogne joined DCA in 1955 as a Motor Driver, Fire Tender. Following one week of training on fire equipment, he was appointed Fire Captain at the new Adelaide Airport, where he established a Fire Crew unit prior to airline operations commencing. He worked his way up through the Service to finally retire as Director of Fire Services in June 1984.

In the early 1950s the Airport Crash Crews did not have a coordinated service or structure. It operated at the International capital city and at some alternate airports.

At major centres the fire crews were backed-up by Auxiliary Firemen who were recruited from employees on the airport, such as airline, oil company and Departmental staff. At other locations such as Daly Waters (once an alternate aerodrome), the Fire Crew consisted mainly of Departmental groundstaff and mechanics, and the local airline agent.

Equipment in use at this time consisted of ex-WWII fire tenders, both 4x2 and 4x4 drive vehicles, and water tankers. Click here to see some photos of the Sydney Airport Fire Service c.1947-48. In some cases, trailer pumps were used to transfer water to the foam tenders. In the early 1950s street-cleaning tanker vehicles were purchased and modified to be capable of producing foam though handlines and foam-making branchpipes. These converted street-sweeping tankers were built on a 4x2 drive Shelvoke and Drewry chassis, with a four cylinder low powered engine. Consequently with a liquid load of 1,000 gallons of water plus 40 gallons of foaming agent, they were a very slow vehicle and as soon as they ventured off hard standing they became bogged.

At Kallang (Singapore) Airport a major aircraft accident occurred in 1954. Thirty-three people lost their lives, and a United Kingdom Home Office Colonial Enquiry was conducted. Findings of the enquiry severely criticised both the airline company involved, and the airport authority for operating, or permitting operations, at an airport at which adequate provisions to deal with an emergency situation were not available. At the time one factor which attracted adverse comment was the absence of an internationally agreed scale of facilities appropriate to air transport operations.

In the latter part of 1954 the Director General of the Department of Civil Aviation (Richard Williams) placed a minute on file directing that if the Department was to have a fire service, it had to be established on formal lines and be an efficient operational service, and not be subject to criticism as in the Kallang affair.

The Fire Service Branch was subsequently created early in 1955.

Due to the urgency of the situation at the time, decisions were made on an ad-hoc basis as to the type of equipment which should be ordered to replace the obsolete fire fighting and rescue appliances. Considerable sums of money were provided in the Estimates for each financial year to meet the required commitments.

With the introduction of seventeen new fire tenders into service much of the early urgency, which characterised the early development of the Fire Service, had gone. A properly coordinated plan for further development was submitted for approval.

To ensure there would be standardisation throughout, it was essential to establish a Central Training School, and a Training Annexe at Port Moresby. The Central Training School was located at Sydney Airport in the old Gun Club building, adjacent to Cook’s River. Number 1 Course was scheduled to be an Airport Fire Officer’s Course but due to the lack of some facilities was changed to a Senior Fireman’s Course and commenced in March 1957. No.2 Course held from 29 April to 24 May 1957 then became the first Airport Fire Officer’s Course. All early Courses were used as a ‘Trade Test’ to assess the capabilities of the Fire Officers and the Senior Firemen.

In 1955 ICAO introduced for the first time guidance material on the provision of rescue and fire fighting services at airports. The material included proposals on the scale of facilities considered to be appropriate for the aircraft types that were grouped at that time by weight. It was an empirical approach and the tables have subsequently been extended from time to time to cater for larger aircraft types as they were introduced into service.

In anticipation of the advent of a new family of wide-bodied jets, ICAO appointed a panel of experts in 1969 to review the existing material. Over three hundred accidents in which fire had been a factor were analysed to establish the effectiveness of the measures which had been advocated to that date. Some Member States undertook large-scale tests to evaluate equipment and extinguishing agents and the survivability factors of a modern transport aircraft exposed to severe external fire conditions. The Panel made its final report in 1972, and following examination and comments from all States, minor amendments were effected and new Guidance Material was published.

Since 1957, Australia has applied the ICAO proposals at its international airports. Comparable facilities are provided at busier domestic airports. At other airports, DCA provided cover on the basis of the statistical probability of an accident arising. Facilities were to be provided at airports handling an average of eight daily movements of F27 or larger aircraft.

When the Fire Service was developed in the early years, one of the aims was to spread the protection being provided over the greatest number of fare-paying passengers. The need for economy of operation resulted in the development of a policy of ‘nucleus’ manning. This meant the employment of the minimum number of full-time staff, backed by the use of Auxiliary Firemen recruited and drawn from Departmental, Airline and Oil Companies working on the airport. This called for an effective training programme and company staff being released by their employer in groups to make the training efficient.

In the early days, the auxiliary manning system consisted of 250 full-time staff, which was considered compatible with the efficient maintenance of the rescue and fire fighting equipment. Auxiliary Firemen at this time numbered approximately 1,100 and each Auxiliary Fireman was paid a retainer of £13 per annum, subject to a satisfactory performance at the monthly drill, after qualifying training.

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