ARFF Training Center at PHL Is One of a Kind

On a pleasantly cool, sunny morning in mid-September, nine members of the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard gathered in a classroom at the Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting Training Center on the western edge of Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). At the front of the room, Captain Dave Kearney of Engine 78, the Philadelphia Fire Department’s unit of specially trained fire fighters assigned to the airport, explains the day’s program outlined on a whiteboard: Wheel/brake, Wing/Engine, Walkthrough, SAFT Interior, Transition to Pits, Hot Wash, Distribute Certs.

The outline is shorthand for the training mandated annually by the Federal Aviation Administration for all fire fighters who work at airports and aviation facilities. The 177th Fighter Wing personnel are one of at least seven airport or aviation affiliated fire companies from throughout the region who travel to the ARFF Center at PHL every year to do their required training.

Kearney finishes by telling the group to “gear up” and they retreat to their vehicles to retrieve their fire-fighting apparatus and put on their protective suits. Their first stop is the Special Aircraft Fire Trainer. From the outside, the SAFT resembles an aircraft; inside – accessible by stairs in three sections – is a galley, passenger cabin, cargo area and lavatory all made of steel. There’s a removable hatch and an opening at the top of the fuselage.

The fire fighters are now ready for the wheel/brake fire scenario. Manipulating a device that allows him to activate propane liquid and vapor from a nearby 30,000-gallon tank, Kearney can control the intensity of the flames, create smoke and produce popping sounds to mimic a real fire. Taking turns, three fire fighters at a time approach the flaming wheel and brake with a fire hose, the leader twirling the hose to water down the wing and fuselage before dousing the flames on the target. (Water, instead of foam, is used during training sessions due to cost and environmental factors).

A similar scene unfolds for the engine fire drill, this time with Kearney choosing an option that sends thick white smoke billowing into the air.

After a short break and a walk through the SAFT, the fire fighters are now ready to tackle a blaze in the makeshift cargo hold and under a passenger seat. Before this part of the exercise, Kearney and Captain Samuel Gollapalli, the ARFF Training Logistics Officer, took an observer on a tour of the SAFT and the sophisticated equipment and technology that can simulate fires under the seats and in the overhead bins, ceiling, lavatory trash can, galley and cargo hold. Temperatures near the floor can be as high as 500 degrees; more than 1,000 near the ceiling.

Again taking turns, a group of fire fighters at a time wielding a hose enter the SAFT through the door near the galley while another group hoists a ladder beside the wing and enter through the removable hatch door. The intensity of fighting an interior fire is obvious in the body language of the team, a nod to the SAFT’s capabilities of presenting a real-life incident.

The SAFT portion of the training complete, the 177th fire fighters walk a short distance to the “Burn Pit,” the Fuel Spill Fire Trainer on which sits a darkened steel fuselage surrounded by “zones” that can be manipulated to ignite a simulated fuel spill fire. For this exercise, Kearney and Gollapalli retreat to a control room overlooking the facility. From one computer screen, Kearney can select different zones to activate, which are indicated in red; a second computer shows the same layout, with the selected zones turning to green once they’ve been extinguished.

Since this drill will send thick plumes of black smoke billowing toward the sky, Kearney notifies the FAA Air Traffic Control Tower that the exercise is underway. Then Kearney gives the go-ahead to Foxtrot 5 – one of Engine 78’s specially outfitted trucks – to do a demo by circling the pit, aiming turrets shooting water on the fires. While Foxtrot 5 is in action, a group of trainees can be seen talking among themselves.

“They’re discussing strategy and tactics,” Kearney notes. “How to approach it, where to aim the turrets.”

The 177th team are fast learners, finish the exercise, do the hot wash and collect their certificates – their required training completed for the year.

Three days later, the program repeats itself as another group of 177th fire fighters and a team from Lehigh Valley International Airport come to the ARFF center to fulfill their “live burn” obligations.

Opened in 2002, the PHL ARFF Training Center’s strategic location makes it convenient to provide FAA Part 139 training and Department of Defense Compliant training to the aforementioned companies, Atlantic City International Airport, Trenton Mercer Airport, Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Connecticut, Boeing Aircraft in neighboring Ridley Park, Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin in Coatesville as well as Engine 78. The nearest ARFF training facilities are in Pittsburgh, Metro New York City, and Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Training costs average $600 per fire fighter.

The mandatory “live burn” drills offer a glimpse into the specialized training that is required of the fire fighters assigned to aviation-related facilities and airports like Engine 78 at PHL. Before fire fighters assume ARFF duties, they must complete initial ARFF training that is specific to airports and aviation environments.

“It is not acceptable to simply take structural firefighters and assign them to ARFF duties without the necessary additional training,” said Gollapalli, who like Kearney, started in the Fire Department as a medic before moving to fire operations and then to the airport. “Initial training enables personnel to identify and interpret advanced theories, facts, concepts, principles, requirements, procedures, equipment, and components of ARFF.  Trainees must also be able to apply these principles to the aircraft serving the airport and demonstrate all required tasks safely and accurately and in accordance with established procedures. The goal is to provide sufficient training and instruction such that firefighters can function well as part of a team.

"Once ARFF firefighters have completed initial training, they must receive recurrent instruction every 12 consecutive calendar months to maintain a satisfactory level of proficiency. The ongoing training scheme reinforces their initial training and includes a live fire training exercise on top of classroom and hands on training sessions specific to airports and ARFF environments.”

The intense training in several areas often requires coordination with airlines, other organizations on the local airport, and mutual aid agencies.

The training is broken down into several categories:

  • Airport Familiarization
  • Aircraft Familiarization
  • Rescue and Firefighting Personnel Safety
  • Emergency Communications Systems on the Airport, including Fire Alarms
  • Use of Fire Hoses, Nozzles, Turrets, and Other Appliances
  • Applications of Extinguishing Agents
  • Emergency Aircraft Evacuation Assistance
  • Firefighting Operations
  • Adapting and Using Structural Rescue and Firefighting Equipment for Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting
  • Aircraft Cargo Hazards and Dangerous Goods
  • Familiarization with Firefighters’ Duties under the Airport Emergency Plan

Additionally, members receive ongoing training in operating ARFF vehicles and High Reach Extendable Turret units and are required to complete continuing education to maintain Emergency Medical Services certifications, including CPR certification. Engine 78 members with full-duty status must complete training in areas such as extinguishing agents, airport emergency plans, communications, safe vehicle operations, dangerous goods/cargo, and many more PFD specific programs.

“What we would like to do is to expand this into the 40-hour Pro Board Certification which is the national standard for ARFF certification training,” said Engine 78 Chief Marc Bofinger. “People would spend 40 hours here with us training them and doing their burn so it’s 40 hours of classroom and practical exercises, which is what you’re witnessing today – the burn pit and the SAFT training. That’s one of the long-term goals here.”


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Christine Ottow
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Heather Redfern
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