My Journey from Structural Firefighting to ARFF Firefighting.

After 20 years working in Salt Lake City’s busy downtown station houses, dealing with back-to-back calls every other night, trudging through bedbug-infested flophouses, phantom fire alarms, endless medical calls, some ripping fires, extrications, and handling some dicey hazmat scenes; an opportunity to bid the Red 1 ARFF Captain spot at the Salt Lake City International Airport fell on my plate.

Piece o’ cake, I thought. I’d been through it all as a structural firefighter. In fact, I took the ARFF Specialty Course 18 years earlier and even worked as an aircraft rescue firefighter briefly and thought it was very interesting.

Now, I had heard the rumors of life at the airport stations so I figured, I’d watch airplanes take off, sleep in a bit, and impress my Facebook friends by battling simulated airplane fires at our ARFF Training Center. But, my dream of an easy transition turned out to be an intense challenge with a myriad of new responsibilities and duties that are not easily learned and applied in a fortnight. While I wasn’t battling bedbugs or pulling people from burning buildings, the airport’s massive influx of travelers, cargo, and jet planes; the omniscient control tower and security force; and the  labyrinth-like infrastructure presented a whole new learning opportunity to reignite (pun intended) my 46-year-old brain cells.

This article, number one in a series, will touch on the roles and responsibilities that the ARFF specialty presents for those transitioning from a structural firefighter role to an ARFF position. In this series I will discuss how I utilized my experience as a front line structural firefighter and applied it in my role as an Aircraft Rescue Firefighter.

On the bright side, the transition to an Aircraft Rescue Firefighter position had an air of familiarity and routine. Apparatus and equipment checks start off the day along with the traditional coffee and morning paper. The usual firehouse banter and camaraderie develops through time with the added influence of the unique roles and responsibilities we all fulfill as emergency responders at the airport. My familiarity with the fire house routine was one of the few things that I clung to as I found that I was now dealing with a whole new ball game.

That game includes some specific rules and practices that are critical in enabling you to do your job professionally and responsibly. The first and most apparent difference is that we are operating in a tightly controlled environment. Security has been at the forefront of airport operations for decades and we are held to a high standard of accountability of understanding the rules and operating procedures as it relates to our job. It begins with paperwork and a background check that is followed by an intensive education of procedures regarding the Secure  Identification Display Areas (SIDA) of the airport. Cameras are everywhere and one must understand and navigate through the many secured doors that have specific protocol for entry and exit to each portion of the airport. One of the first training priorities were provided by the Airport Badging Office enabling us to access the movement areas on the secure side of the airport.  We were required to do a total of 10 hours of driving on the movement areas to demonstrate our ability to navigate the airfield, 5 hours of daytime and 5 hours of nighttime driving with supervision were required. Accompanied with some incredibly, horribly, arduously, long presentations made for what seemed like a long process to get certified. When you have a quiz at the end of every presentation with the threat of having to start “all over” you somehow find the will power to pay attention to the details.

Understanding of the signage and access features along the runways and taxiways becomes critical. One stupid mistake and we could be the cause for airplane delays and, in a worst case scenario, put lives at risk. To have a runway or taxiway incursion is serious business. Waiting at the hold short line trying to get air time from ground control, while responding to a medical emergency can be incredibly frustrating speaking from experience. What are my options? Contact OPS, go through the tower, and find a solution. Just like as a structural firefighter that is what we are paid to do, find solutions. On the streets of Salt Lake City, the fire engine was top dog with the right of way through intersections, along streets and freeways, drivers typically pulled over. But a 75-ton Boeing 737 barreling down the runway at 130 knots can’t and doesn’t stop for some 12-ton emergency vehicle that took the wrong turn, mass prevails. Requesting permission and communicating to the tower and control centers are essential to ensuring not only our safety but the overall safety of airport employees and travelers.

I don’t ever want to find myself again like I did my first week at 0300; alarms blaring; when I couldn’t get through a secured area inside the terminal due to my lack of knowledge and the fact that the master key I was relying on did not work. The solution was as simple as knowing alternate routes to the fire panel. I felt frustrated and almost a little helpless as I called over the radio to have maintenance get me access. I was pretty disappointed when maintenance showed up and their massive ring of 100 plus keys didn’t work either. My firefighters investigating the smoke detectors were probably thinking, what the heck is taking him so long? Understanding what potential obstacles we may encounter and how to overcome them is paramount to being able to function professionally. Some of those obstacles are our level of familiarity with occupancies, aircraft, and other airport facilities and services.

One benefit of working at the airport is most people have two specific reasons to be there: travel and work. sounds simple, right? People move from the mass transit stop or parking garage to the terminal, to the gate, and on to the aircraft. Airplanes and equipment move from hangers to terminal, to the tarmac. Service vehicles travel across the tarmac to baggage claim, fuel farms and glycol plants. Movement continues in rain, sleet, sun and snow…at all hours…every single day…with thousands of time-crunched, busy, often jet-lagged people at the center of it all. Wait a minute…this sounds a lot like a city, with all the hazards I encountered while working as a structural firefighter! Well, maybe not the risk of bedbugs, but you never know. They travel, too.

Wow! This is an eye-opening experience, one I am excited to share as I navigate my way through my transition from structural firefighter to aircraft rescue firefighter. In the next article I’ll write about some of the challenges represented from the communications and Incident Command side in regards to how there are many similarities that allow us to use our previous experiences but also talk about some differences that we need to be accustomed to in order to do an effective and professional job.


About the Author:  Captain Michael Harp has been with the Salt Lake City Fire Department since 1997. He has served in a variety of roles within the fire department including Firefighter, Engineer, Media Technician and Public Information Officer (PIO). Mike recently accepted the position as ARFF Captain at the Salt Lake City International Airport and has served as an officer for over ten years. Captain Harp is an Instructor at the Salt Lake City ARFF Training Center and looks forward to assisting in the continued growth of the training center. Captain Harp served with Utah Task Force 1 for ten years and was deployed to New York following the September 11th attacks.