County Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting Unit Has Kept Flyers Safe for Over 40 Years

by Devyn Giannetti , Communications Specialist, Cuyahoga County Department of Communications
A group of Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting Unit personnel standing around Simulated Aircraft Fire Equipment TrainersThe Cuyahoga County Airport at Robert D. Shea Field has a small specialized firehouse staffed by the Aircraft Rescue & Fire Fighting (ARFF) Unit. This unit handles emergencies or potential emergencies to help operations at the Airport run smoothly. There are eight trained and equipped personnel standing by 24/7 for takeoffs and landings, ready to respond if an emergency arises. Calls are heard through the air traffic control radio, rather than 9-1-1.

The ARFF unit was established in tandem with the opening of the Safety Building in 1975 and was originally called the Crash, Fire and Rescue Team.

This building is strategically located mid-field, allowing for rapid response to the Airport’s runway. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) designated the Cuyahoga County Airport as a General Aviation Reliever Airport and is considered an ARFF Index A airport. This rating means that Cuyahoga County Airport does not have commercial air-carrier service and primarily provides services for general aviation and business aircrafts. The rating also determines the equipment and extinguishing agents required to meet the most probable emergency situations and is based on the aircraft routinely using the airport.

A group of Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting Unit personnel standing in front of Simulated Aircraft Fire Equipment TrainersSince 2014 the Airport has had a total of 117,527 landing or takeoff operations, which is an average of 23,505 per year. This means the ARFF Unit responds to just 1.27 alerts per 10,000 operations on average.

The Cuyahoga County Airport has a “Fast Attack” truck that is designed to meet the requirements of Index A emergencies. This Ford 550 has a bumper turret that can dispense 350 gallons of water at a pressure of 75 pounds per square inch. The truck also carries 500 pounds of “Purple K,” a brand of potassium bicarbonate used as a dry-chemical extinguishing agent which is effective on both fuel and hydraulic fluid fires. The truck can also inject Aqueous Film Forming Foam to create a vapor-suppressing film across the surface of a fuel spill fire.

When an aircraft pilot declares an emergency at the Airport, the ARFF unit is alerted, and they have three minutes to respond to an alert as per FAA requirements. Emergencies are categorized based on a specific level of hazard and response.

Aircraft Rescue & Fire Fighting Unit firefighters standing in front of a fire truckAn Alert I, or Local Standby Alert, is called when a pilot believes the aircraft has an operational defect but is not serious enough to interfere with a normal landing. For example, a pilot may believe there is a landing gear problem, or a situation exists or is perceived to exist that may result in an incident or accident. This includes situations where it is unknown if an incident or accident emergency may actually occur.

An Alert II, or Full Emergency, is called when an aircraft is known or suspected to have an operational defect that affects normal flight operations to the extent that there is danger of an accident.

An Alert III, or Aircraft Accidental Alert, is called when an aircraft accident has occurred on or near the airport.

There have been 15 Alerts since 2014. Eleven of the calls were Alert I, two were Alert IIs and two were Alert IIIs. There have been no fatalities on the airport, but the ARFF unit did respond to the August 25, 2014 off-airport crash that claimed the lives of four Case Western Reserve University students. With only two Alert IIIs in five years, that makes for just 0.17 accidents per 10,000 operations.

“What this means is that operators are working in a safe manner, but accidents do happen,” said Robert Hartigan, Airport Operations and Planning Manager. “Our primary mission is for safe and efficient operations.”

The ARFF Unit will continue to stand by for any emergencies to ensure everyone flying in and out of the Cuyahoga County Airport is safe.