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Fire-rescue IDs gap in aircraft response

As YVR expands, training to deal with crashes has 'eroded'

Richmond's firefighters urgently need training to deal with aircraft emergencies, before their ability to respond falls even further behind.

A "service gap" in coping with such incidents has been identified by Richmond Fire-Rescue (RFR). It says their members' present ability to respond to emergencies has lessened over the years.

Apparently, firefighters, who were once fully trained and certified, do not have the opportunity to maintain their skills and have moved to new responsibilities within the department or have retired.

And, with an eye on the ever-expanding Vancouver Airport, deputy fire chief Tim Wilkinson said in his report there's a "need to train personnel and deliver aircraft emergency response in Richmond.

"RFR's current ability to respond to and mitigate aircraft emergencies has eroded with time.

RFR currently has limited capacity to respond to these types of emergencies."

RFR's review of YVR statistics and future plans identify the potential for an increased number of larger aircraft incidents based on an increased volume of air traffic, as well as the desire of the airport to attract more air carriers who fly to a greater number of destinations with increased passenger volumes.

In his report to city council's community safety committee this week, Wilkinson pointed to how the city's aircraft emergency response capabilities are served by two distinct units; one from the airport's airside team and one from the city's fire department.

The two units often provide a combined response, seen to its best effect last October when a small aircraft crashlanded onto Russ Baker Way, resulting in the airside units tackling the ensuing fire from the airport boundary and the city's firefighters at the scene.

"While emergency incidents involving aircraft travel remain at low levels, RFR do respond to an average of 45 declared aircraft emergencies per year, coupled with serious aircraft related events occur-ring within the city ... on a regular occasion," wrote Wilkinson.

With the widening service gap in mind, the fire department identified three potential options to fill the void.

The first was to remain with the status quo, with training provided only to structural building firefighters.

A second option involved training and maintaining staff to full Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) training accreditation, as identified within the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs).

However, this option is not seen as reasonable as this standard is designed for employees whose primary job is that of airport firefighter where the principal area of responsibility is airside.

Also, the city would incur significant costs, approximately $800,000 per year, to bring the department up to that level of expertise.

The final option, most favoured by RFR, would see firefighters increasing their knowledge and skills to the level where all members would be able to "recognize and mitigate aircraft specific hazards" and take appropriate fire attack action and passenger extrication strategies.

"This strategy would also allow RFR personnel to understand the practices and work more effectively with YVR emergency services personnel," said Wilkinson.

"Secondarily, when incidents of this nature occur within the City of Richmond, RFR staff will be able to manage these events with greater effectiveness and efficiency, providing a safer community for the citizens of Richmond."

Wilkinson said RFR is currently investigating external service providers who could train the staff to the levels required.

The annual cost to train all RFR firefighters under option three is estimated at $84,730 per year and would be funded through the existing budget.