The discussion on how West Sussex County Council cuts to the fire and rescue service have affected the response to emergencies at Gatwick Airport has thrown up some worrying misconceptions. Not least from County Councillors and, apparently, some fire service officers. This seems to revolve around unrealistic expectations of the airport’s fire and rescue service. Irresponsibly there are those that claim they can deal with any major incident on their own, so let’s look at the facts.
The requirement on the airport operator comes from the Civil Aviation Authority’s ‘CAP 168’, Licensing of Aerodromes, which is based on the International Civil Aviation Organization’s agreed guidance. That says the airport fire service is provided to, “create and maintain survivable conditions, to provide egress routes for occupants and to initiate the rescue of those occupants unable to make their escape without direct aid.”
You will note that for rescue it only requires them to “initiate” rescue. They go on to say that “the saving of those occupants unable to make their escape without direct aid may be a long and arduous task”. They also make clear that on occasions this will involve the use of specialized equipment and personnel not part of the airport fire service. Something that was well illustrated by the Kegworth crash that required over 100 local authority firefighters and 22 fire engines.
That is why there are several references in CAP 168 to “Local Authority Fire Services”. The CAA does not require airports to provide resources to fully deal with crashes, just to provide the immediate response. It even reminds airport operators that, “At all incidents it should be remembered that the Local Authority Fire Service has statutory obligations to fulfil.” Something that West Sussex County Council has tried to ignore.
The emphasis in CAP 168 is on an airport fire service that can arrive quickly and extinguish any fire that results from a crash. The number of vehicles and personnel required are determined by that objective. In some cases that will be sufficient to allow all survivors to escape unaided, but where there is significant damage, then rapid reinforcement of the airport fire service will be essential.
There is no requirement for the airport to have the sort of heavy duty rescue equipment that is carried on the West Sussex Heavy Rescue Tenders (HRT). That is why the failure to ensure that Crawley’s HRT attends warnings of aircraft in trouble is so worrying. Made worse by the fact that, when an alert is received, all the personnel from Crawley are sent on their standard fire engines, which leaves the HRT with no crew. So, if there is a crash, another HRT will have to travel at least 35 miles to the airport.
It also needs to be remembered that there is a busy railway line at the end of the runway. The potential for an aircraft to hit one or more commuter trains is ever present. There could be many hundreds of casualties as a result, yet WSCC’s cuts culture is deemed more important than the survival of passengers and crew in a crash at Gatwick. The reduction in the response to the most serious warning, “Aircraft Accident Imminent”, from 10 to just 6 fire engines is wholly unjustified.
Gatwick Airport, for the most part, meet their obligations under CAP 168. The main concern is that they may not have adjusted their emergency plan to take account of both the cuts and WSCC’s dreadful failure to properly crew their remaining fire engines. With part time crewed fire engines often being unavailable, resources will have to travel much further and take far too long to arrive.
The removal of the HRT and other special vehicles from the response to alerts that aircraft are in trouble flies in the face of proper risk assessment. West Sussex send an Aerial Ladder Platform from Horsham or Worthing to warnings of aircraft in trouble, just in case the aircraft is an A380. That is fair enough, but to not send the HRT that would be essential for a serious crash involving any aircraft suggests a total lack of logic when carrying out risk assessments, or a complete lack of understanding of aircraft crashes.
A Gatwick Airport spokesperson is reported to have said, "Gatwick has its own on-airport fire service that is fully equipped and resourced to deal with major incidents." A spokesperson who clearly has no idea of CAP 168, of the potential scale of an aircraft crash, or of the level of resources at the airport. No doubt WSCC will also soon provide false, unsubstantiated reassurance to the public with yet more ‘spin’.