Firefighters train with live burn

Margaret Allen
Hays Fire Department firefighters on Monday douse the propane flames on a simulation prop to meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements for the airport.

Hays firefighters on Monday at Hays Regional Airport were getting the same training as firefighters at NASA’s Cape Canaveral and Johnson Space Center in Houston.

With a steel prop styled like an airplane fuselage, 19 members of the Hays Fire Department were completing recertification training.

The prop and training are provided by the University of Missouri Fire and Rescue Training Institute in Columbia, Mo., in partnership with the Kansas Fire and Rescue Training Institute in Lawrence.

The annual live burn is required each year by the Federal Aviation Administration. HFD has been doing it for nearly a dozen years, according to Fire Chief Ryan Hagans.

“The prop itself runs off propane, so that simulates the fire,” Hagans said Monday at the airport. “It simulates electrical and aircraft fuel fires.”

The 50-foot steel mobile fuselage, mounted on wheels, was pulled onto the airport tarmac by a semi-tractor trailer outfitted with a propane tank and control center.

“The prop is able to simulate engine fires over and above the wing and below and above the rear of the plane,” Hagans said. “It’s able to simulate spilt-fuel fires, so there’s fire on the ground, fires inside the cabin, and the cockpit, and the cargo area.”

Adjunct instructors Richard Kuhn from Columbia, Mo., and Ken Balsmeier, of Lawrence, were setting up the prop early Monday.

They take the small frame aircraft prop to about 30 airports a year, Kuhn said.

“So we do everywhere from Cape Canaveral to Houston, to Liberal, Kan., and Hays, Kan.,” Kuhn said.

The prop is similar in size to the 46-seat Bomarbardier CRJ-200 flown for the Hays Regional Airport’s daily commercial service by United Express contractor SkyWest.

The daylong exercises burn up about 300 to 400 gallons of propane, Kuhn said.

With three trainers, one is in the control unit, one on the ground calling the fires, and a safety person.

Fires are lit in the galley, the flight deck, the cabin, cargo area, engine wheel and fuselage.

“They are fireplaces, and you can compare it to your water heater,” Kuhn said. “So we have a pilot, and when the pilot says it’s ready to go, it sends a signal and we just turn on gas to it.”

Before starting, HFD firefighters sprayed water into the grates of each box, filling each one with water to help the propane flow, Kuhn said.

“That also helps keep the heat down on these boxes,” he said. “Otherwise they’d just burn up.”

Unlike propane, aircraft fuel is more flammable, so it burns hotter and quicker, Pagans said.

Likewise, propane burns pretty much without smoke, so the trainers have a smoke machine.

“It’s a different type of smoke than what a fuel fire would produce,” Kuhn said. “This is a non-toxic smoke, while that is obviously a deadly gas. But it does the same thing, it obscures visibility inside the aircraft.”

There’s another difference between a house fire and the aircraft, Hagans said.

“The main one here could be the potential for the amount of people that are on the plane,” he said, “and the amount of fuel they could be carrying.”

There’s no special equipment required, he said, noting “our bunker gear is fully capable of handling this type of situation.”

The firefighters Monday were spraying water on the fires, but they would normally use a foam solution, Hagans said. Basically a soap solution, the foam snuffs out the oxygen, he said.

The firefighters don’t actually put out the simulated fires, said Kuhn.

“Once we see proper technique, we’re on headphones and we tell the person to shut it down,” Kuhn said. “They can’t put the fire out on their own.”

Each firefighter takes turns making entry to the plane, being on the nozzle and being on the hose team, Hagans said.

The trainers light up different areas after each crew rotation.

“We just burn all day,” Kuhn said.

Hays Fire Department firefighters on Monday douse the propane flames on a simulation prop to meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements for the airport.