At 10:46:23 am on Wednesday, June 21, 2017, HFD Medic 70 was dispatched to a laceration at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas with Engine 93 as a First Responder. While these units were responding to the location, the call was upgraded and a District Chief was added to the assignment due to the patient being a pilot who had ejected from a F-16 during takeoff. Upon arrival, HFD members met with the Fire Chief and Assistant Fire Chiefs of the Ellington Field F.D. and were advised that the F-16 had gone down at the end of the runway and that the engine was still running. We were also told that the aircraft was armed with ordnance. A rapid assessment of the situation determined that two actions needed to occur immediately: first, due to the complexity of an incident involving multiple agencies from different jurisdictions, a Unified Command System needed to be established. Second, a “hot” or danger zone needed to be established and all persons evacuated. Both actions occurred quickly and were instrumental in the successful mitigation of the incident.
After agreeing that the hot zone would consist of a 5,200-foot radius in all directions from the aircraft, the task of evacuating persons was given to the Houston Police Department. Roads within the hot zone were closed to all traffic and businesses were evacuated as well. With the immediate life-hazard having been addressed, it was now time to develop an Incident Action Plan (IAP).
As with all Incident Action Plans, a risk-versus-benefit analysis was conducted and it was determined to be too much of a risk to allow someone to approach the aircraft and shut off the engine. This was because the aircraft was armed and the condition of the ordnance was unknown. The only option left was to allow the engine to run out of fuel, which presented another challenge: after running out of fuel, the aircraft’s Emergency Power Unit (EPU) would activate, emitting hot exhaust gases. Since the aircraft had come to a rest in a grassy area with its landing gear up, there was concern that the hot EPU exhaust could ignite the grass and result in a fire which could then ignite the composite aircraft. It was felt, however, that this option was still preferred over the risk of allowing someone to approach the still-running and armed aircraft.
It is worth mentioning that these types of incidents will always generate a certain amount of public interest and the media will begin to arrive at some point in the incident. There are two important considerations: first, a safe place should be designated for the media to gather that is both outside of the hot zone and far enough away from the command post so as not to impede operations. Second, it is beneficial to appoint a Public Information Officer (PIO) early in the incident. I have always believed that there should only be one Public Information Officer. This will prevent the release of conflicting information and improve communication between the Command Staff and the media, which translates into accurate information and directions being released to the public faster and more efficiently. In the case of a military aircraft, a member of the military should either assume the role of Public Information Officer or at least brief the civilian Public Information Officer to prevent the inadvertent release of classified military information.
As with all aircraft incidents occurring within the city, the Houston Airport System (HAS) along with the HFD ARFF staff responded and brought the Houston Airport System’s Command Van to the scene. The roof-mounted camera on the Command Van was used to view the aircraft from a safe distance and monitor the situation, particularly when the EPU activated. While this camera provided the command staff with a decent overall view of the scene, it was determined that a recently-purchased drone would provide an even closer inspection. The HFD-operated drone was requested and, upon its arrival, clearance was given by the tower to fly the drone over the airport. There was, however, a problem: the software in the drone recognized the location as a secure area and, therefore, prevented the drone from lifting off and flying. Since there was no immediate solution to this, the drone was put away and the roof-mounted camera on the Command Van again became the primary observation point. The only indication that it was safe to approach the aircraft came hours later, when the light mounted atop the vertical stabilizer ceased blinking, indicating that the EPU had too exhausted its fuel supply and there was now no power to the aircraft.
As an incident progresses through the different phases of response, mitigation, and recovery, the priorities will change and this will result in different organizations having a greater or lesser role in managing the incident. One of the great advantages of the Unified Command System is that, as the incident progresses through these phases, different agencies can “take the lead” when their expertise and authority is needed most. For instance, the evacuation of civilians is almost always a law enforcement operation and when the decision was made to evacuate a 5,200-foot radius of the aircraft, the Houston Police Department took the lead and handled this task exceptionally well. Following this line of thought, once the aircrafts engine and EPU shut down, there was no fire hazard and the Houston Fire Department & Ellington Field Fire Departments then handed the “lead” over to the military Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians, who promptly “safed” the ordnance and firing systems aboard the aircraft.
Once the aircraft was safed, there was only one incident priority left: decontamination of the aircraft and personnel. The Houston Fire Department maintains several “Decontamination Task Forces” throughout the city. These consist of a pickup truck pulling a large trailer that houses all the equipment needed to safely and efficiently decontaminate both responders and civilians. The biggest concern at this point was the hydrazine fuel that the EPU utilizes to provide emergency power to the aircraft. The Houston Fire Department supplied one of the Decontamination Task Force units and completed decontamination of those who had approached the aircraft. Once this was done, the situation was deemed under control and the demobilization of the Unified Command System occurred.
Fortunately, the incident was brought to a successful conclusion with no reported injuries to emergency responders. There are, however, three points that are worth mentioning. First, the value of having a drone at an incident of this type is immeasurable- but only if it can fly. I am confident that this will be considered by the Special Projects Team at HFD, if it hasn’t already been addressed. Second, if a Command Van will be utilized, it should be large enough to comfortably accommodate as many people as the incident requires. A larger incident will certainly require a larger command van and many jurisdictions have entered agreements to purchase one command van to be shared at large-scale incidents. My suggestion is to consider the types of hazards faced in your jurisdiction, the required response to a potential scenario, and then determine what type of vehicle you will need and the best method for procuring it. Third, when faced with a long-term (hours, days, etc.) incident, responders must be fed, replenished with fluids, and allowed to rest and recover between rotations. The early designation of a Logistics Section/Service Branch (which includes a Communication Unit, Medical Unit, and Food Unit) should be considered. At our incident, we felt that the designation of an Operations Section was enough to mitigate the situation but it later became necessary to feed responders and it took a little longer than we liked to get the food to the scene.
Here is a final thought: The Unified Command System, like the single-agency Incident Command System (now also referred to as the Incident Management System) can and should be implemented whenever needed, even at smaller incidents. Use it every chance you get. Police Officers, Firefighters, and EMS providers are taught from day one to practice their skills constantly to achieve mastery and this is certainly no different. We must believe that the ‘big one” will happen on a day that we’re working and preparation and practice are paramount. Stay safe and look out for each other.
About the Author: Joseph E. Boening is a native Houstonian and 25-year veteran of the Houston Fire Department. He currently holds the rank of District Chief and is assigned to Fire Station 70 in the Sagemont area of southeast Houston. His certifications include Master Structural Firefighter, Level II Fire Service Instructor, and Basic ARFF from the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. In his spare time, he enjoys building scale models of fire apparatus, reading, and, of course, spending time with family.