The Firefighter as Passenger in
an In-Flight Fire Emergency
BY JOHN MCLOUGHLIN
UNLIKE THE OCCASIONAL AIRLINE FLIGHT WHERE YOU might hear a request for a medical professional to assist the crew with a medical issue, you will never
hear, “Is there a firefighter onboard?” Panic at 35,000 feet
would be a bad first step. Without a doubt, in-flight fires
have always been a major concern of the airline industry,
and the advent of increased electronic items onboard the
aircraft has substantially increased this concern. Therefore,
a trained firefighter, who already possesses certain skills
and knows the procedures and the onboard equipment for
fighting in-flight fires, would certainly be beneficial in such
Obviously, the seriousness of in-flight emergencies can differ
according to type. For example, smoke in the aircraft cabin
could be from an equipment problem the pilots can isolate and
control, such as the overheating of the air-conditioning system.
A fire in the aircraft cabin is a completely different scenario
and may need a firefighter’s experience and training. Time is
of the essence, and the situation likely will be unlike any other
fire to which you responded. There is no “surround and drown”
option. You must quickly win this one!
One example of the utmost necessity for quick response is the
fatal flight of Swissair MD- 11 on September 2, 1998, from JFK
airport in New York City. Shortly after taking off, there was an
interior fire, and it was estimated that the cabin became nonsur-
vivable in 16 minutes. All of the 229 people onboard perished.
The steps taken during an in-flight fire are crucial. You, as
a firefighter, could take certain steps that would contribute
significantly in this unlikely event. Identifying yourself as a
trained firefighter to a uniformed flight crew member could be
an important resource to the crew. Your assistance may not be
needed, but at least you informed them that you are available.
Your first line of defense would be the aircraft’s handheld
fire extinguishers. The flight attendants know where they are
stored. Ask them to get all the available extinguishers immediately. The most common aircraft extinguisher is a handheld
halon, which operates like a standard dry chemical extinguisher. Even though halon has not been manufactured since
1994, the aviation industry was granted an exemption to use it.
As you probably know, halon is a Class BC extinguisher with
limited Class A capabilities. It works by interrupting the chemical reaction of the fire. It is discharged mostly as a liquid that
quickly vaporizes. The vaporized halon is effective on Classes B
and C fires and has a range of approximately 10 feet. Halon will
initially knock down a Class A fire but will not provide much
protection from reignition. You need to follow up Class A fires
with a nonflammable liquid. Hopefully, the aircraft will have
water fire extinguishers available.
The aircraft water fire extinguishers are very different from
those with which you are familiar (photo 1). The extinguisher
is pressurized using a carbon dioxide (CO2) cartridge that you
must activate before discharging the water.
To operate the water extinguisher, do the following:
1. Rotate the handle clockwise as far as it will go. This will
cause the CO2 cartridge in the handle to pressurize the water
extinguisher. (You might hear the CO2 pressurizing the water
chamber, and the handle will get cold.)
2. Hold the extinguisher upright and aim at the base of the fire.
3. To discharge water, squeeze the lever on top of the extin-
guisher with your thumb.
A convenient aspect about the water extinguisher is that you
can recharge it in flight. To recharge it, first ensure that all of
the pressure is out of the unit. Unscrew the handle and the top
of the extinguisher. Fill the canister with water and screw the
top back on. Replace the CO2 cartridge in the handle. You may
be able to obtain a new cartridge from a life vest on the aircraft
3 ( 1) Aircraft water and halon fire
( 2) Rotate the
to charge the
( 3) Squeeze the
lever on top of