ARFF in the ATC Zero World

by Kevin Garber

As an Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighter, you are trained to listen for the Crash Phone to ring and alert you of an aircraft emergency.  What happens now when no one is there to pull the crash phone to alert you!  This is Air Traffic Control “ATC Zero”, this occurrence can be predicted as with some of the tower staff reductions, or an unplanned closure which is harder to predict. ATC zero has been occurring more and more around the county, and ARFF departments are not being notified of the situation.  

In early March 2020, when the Coronavirus (COVID-19) started to spike in the United States and the economic impact on air travel began to negatively affect airports and airlines, the FAA decided to reduce staffing hours in approximately 100 control towers nationwide. Per an FAA Regulatory Updates due to Coronavirus (2020) website:

These facilities have seen a significant reduction in flights, especially during the evening and nighttime hours, since the pandemic began. Adjusting the operating hours will further protect our employees and reduce the possibility of temporary tower closures from COVID-19 exposures by ensuring enough controllers are available to staff the facilities during peak hours. It also will enable us to allocate difficult-to-source supplies where they are most needed.

Most of the towers are historically closed at night, during which time the radar facility with oversight assumes the airspace. The FAA expects the adjustments will not have any operational effects. The agency plans to begin adjusting facility hours later this month.

The FAA will continue to monitor traffic volume at all of these facilities and may make future adjustments to operating hours as appropriate.

The FAA will continually assess the operating environment throughout the National Airspace System (NAS). The FAA will ensure there is adequate staffing to meet traffic needs. As operational traffic counts and our resource factors associated with COVID-19 change, FAA will make appropriate adjustments consistent with the agency’s mandate to operate the NAS safely and efficiently.

The FAA coordinated with airports and other stakeholders before making any final decisions, allowing airports to plan for the ATC closures and allowing time for ARFF departments to develop how they were going cope with this situation.  Some ARFF Departments had to monitor portable tower (FAA) radios to keep their staff abreast of changing situations, other ARFF departments had to change daily schedules to make sure staff were not working long hours to monitor these radios.  

How did “ATC Zero” impact the ARFF world? ARFF departments never faced anything quite like this before.  The lifeline of the crash phone became null and void in these situations. The crash phone simply could not nor cannot work anymore because there was no one in the tower to relay the emergency information to the ARFF Station.  This has occurred at over 100 airports around the country and the number of “ATC Zero” is growing daily. FAA employees are testing positive for the coronavirus, and immediate closures were scheduled to close facilities to deep clean them to help prevent the spread of the virus. These scenarios have occurred at several large airports in the past months with Chicago Midway Airport, Indianapolis, and Las Vegas airports to name a few.  On July 6, 2020 the FAA published a safety alert to airport operators, warning them that some airspace may be left uncontrolled, or monitored by a different facility.  The FAA recommends pilots, airlines, and aircraft operators take additional safety measures in case an ATC must close due for unexpected reasons.  A map of the United States depicts the FAA towers affected by a closure.


The closure of ATC facilities around the world requires nontypical operations for communications between flight crew, airlines, airport operations and ARFF personnel.  ARFF Departments and airports have created different ways to alert their ARFF personnel of an emergency. Some airports have placed into service a watch desk to visually watch the field for emergencies. Others now monitor an aviation radio for the air traffic operations on their field and track what is landing and departing to make sure an aircraft emergency does not occur. An ARFF Department’s goal is to respond quickly, effectively and efficiently to begin fire suppression and rescue operations at an aircraft emergency. Make sure your department and your airport have plans in place to ensure they can meet these goals during periods of time when their local ATC facility is not in operation.


Regulatory Updates due to Coronavirus. Federal Aviation Administration. Retrieved August 5, 2020, from Retrieved July 18, 2020 from

About the Author: Kevin Garber is the Interim Fire chief of Richmond International Airport in Richmond, Virginia.  He was hired 15 years ago, as a basic ARFF Firefighter. Garber progressed through the ranks to the current position, also teaches for the Virginia Department Fire Programs as an ARFF Instructor.  Additionally, he was the led along the way by some great Legends of the ARFF Community to help promote the science and improve the ARFF Industry.