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AFOA webinar focuses on managing airport rescue and firefighting services during COVID-19 pandemic

25 April 2021

THE AIRPORT Fire Officers Association (AFOA) recently held a webinar on managing airport rescue and firefighting services through the COVID-19 pandemic. The online event was attended by upwards of 100 delegates including airport fire officers and emergency planners from across the UK.

Notably, the information-sharing exercise highlighted the importance of strong partnership working and communication with staff, training providers and other agencies (including regulators) in order to adapt to the enormous challenges presented by the pandemic and also inform future resilience planning.

Dublin Airport Fire and Rescue Service provides domestic fire and medical response for the airport’s facilities, including an operational emergency ambulance. Its crews comprise 100 staff on four watches, 25 of whom are trained paramedics. During the webinar, Gerry Keogh (chief fire officer at Dublin Airport) explained what procedures were put into place to keep this vital transport hub open for essential travel and twice-daily deliveries of medical supplies during the pandemic.

When the Government’s advice changed to ‘Stay at Home’, all non-essential airport staff stayed at home. Health Service information desks for passengers still travelling were set up at the airport. The staff manning these desks were not medical professionals, so if passengers presented with symptoms of COVID-19, they were sent to an isolation room where airport ambulance crews were tasked with evaluating them.  

Ambulance crews in full PPE responded to over 100 such episodes. After each call-out, crew members had a shower and a full change of uniform was required in a new decontamination room established back at the airport’s fire station.

The daily checks now required all appliances and the ambulance to be fogged and sanitised. Social distancing measures were quickly put in place across the station. As you can imagine, this new way of operating necessarily created a significant amount of additional work.

Critical stage

At one critical stage between mid-March and mid-April last year, a number of firefighters contracted COVID-19 and were off duty. Contingency plans had to be made for a scenario where an entire watch was out of action. Military resources were also placed on standby and a call was nearly made to activate those resources.

A Fire and Rescue crew from Cork Airport was drafted in, based at a remote location airside, and worked very well for a number of weeks. The crew members isolated in a local hotel and did not come into the station. No switches were allowed and neither was overtime working permitted. A series of 21 additional Health and Safety measures were introduced at the station which subsequently proved to be successful in preventing the spread of the virus.

Fire training has since resumed with selected risk-assessed drills. All paramedics have now been vaccinated and asymptomatic testing takes place for all staff every Thursday. Pleasingly, there have been no further cases of COVID in the Dublin Airport Fire and Rescue Service since June 2020. Some staff members have experienced issues with fatigue and a new medical term called ‘long COVID’ which has required some adjustments to working patterns.

Warton Aerodrome experience

Based at Warton Aerodrome on the Fylde in Lancashire, BAE Systems (Operations) Ltd operates civilian flights as well as being a designated base for the manufacture and testing of Hawk and Typhoon aircraft.

A total of 24 Fire and Rescue staff located at the site also provide the medical response for 7,500 on-site staff. During the AFOA webinar, chief fire officer Kieran Merriman shared his key learnings from the past 12 months.

On 18 March last year, BAE Systems suspended all corporate air travel and evacuated the site within three hours. Staff working on key Government contracts were designated keyworkers and remained at the location.

An emergency planning centre was established comprising staff from the security team, the Fire and Rescue Service and senior managers. From a business continuity perspective, it was important to avoid cross-contamination between crews. That being so, a ban on covering holidays was introduced.

BAE Systems consulted with its clinical governance provider who was very helpful regarding PPE advice. The workplace was made COVID-secure with new cleaning procedures and the disinfection of cabs. Much of this procedural work will now remain in place, playing a long-term role in infection control at the station and helping to prevent the spread of seasonal flu, for example.

A major challenge to social distancing was the layout of the fire station with its common walkways so a second fire station was set up. Carrying out such a project in the middle of a pandemic and ensuring it was both COVID-secure and met all operational requirements was an enormous task.

Key detail of the project

Thermal image temperature screening and cleaning stations were introduced and guidance issued to staff members in digestible formats such as presentations so that they knew what to expect when coming to site. Being ‘wrapped in cotton wool’ was a quite an alien experience for them, but ultimately resulted in some positive changes to workplace culture.

A Degradation Plan was devised to give clarity and confidence to staff on what to do if departmental managers became incapacitated. This now forms an important part of the Business Continuity Plan going forward.

Recruiting staff in a pandemic also presented challenges. Selection testing could not be carried out at the site in the usual way. Instead, online psychometric tests were used to rank candidates. This new approach represented an improved method of selection, although making use of remote interviewing procedures and evidence from training records proved to be a somewhat less reliable means of assessing candidates’ physical and practical aptitude.

Training was adapted using the 20% easement guidance from the Civil Aviation Authority. External induction training was replaced with a local training course and all training was subject to risk assessments to limit exposure. Laptops were issued to enable individuals to complete e-Learning and reduce the infection risk of shared IT.

Training exercises took longer due to the additional PPE required (half face mask respirators are required for drivers spending time in appliance cabs, for example). All of these changes required a good level of understanding and partnership working with the International Fire Training Centre as well as Trade Unions, BAE Systems Health and Safety consultants, management and regulators alike.

There is now a rigorous four-stage process to approve anyone applying for a residential training course which creates additional workload. However, some of the changes made to training protocols have resulted in cost-efficiencies and will be taken forward post-pandemic.

During the pandemic, BAE Systems supported the UK ventilator challenge, flying 3D-printed parts to engineers for manufacture. The company also kept open a vital airbridge and supported the defence of other nations which afforded the crew members a real sense of pride and achievement.

Civil Aviation Authority input 

Civil Aviation Authority inspector Andy Fraser used the webinar as a platform to remind all delegates that Version 1.6 of Easements for Rescue and Fire Fighting Services at Licensed or Certified Aerodromes now resides on the AFOA website. This document is a concession based on COVID-19 impacts and covers both financial and operational necessities. It’s not a safety initiative.

Visits by the regulator will gradually be resuming. There are two types: Public Health Visits and Assurance Restart Visits, the latter of which will involve rescue and firefighting services. Fraser encouraged the continuation of emergency planning meetings and discussions in the meantime.

*A full recording of the AFOA webinar can be accessed here

**Formed in 1988. the Airport Fire Officers Association is a technical body dedicated to promoting and maintaining the professional image and status of airport Fire and Rescue Services within the UK and Ireland, ensuring continued communications between them through an ongoing dialogue and sharing of knowledge and Best Practice on all relevant technical and operational matters. Membership is open to airport fire officers of all ranks as well as local authority liaison officers, manufacturers, training providers and equipment suppliers with whom AFOA regularly collaborates on projects. Further information is available online at www.afoa.org.uk