Simon Petts, AFOA chairman, welcomed delegates to the AFOA 2022 conference, giving a summary of activities undertaken by the association in the last 12 months before introducing the day’s programme of eight speakers, covering a diversity of emerging issues for the aviation firefighting sector. He also confirmed that he would be standing down as Chairman and that Barry Alderslade has agreed to take over as chair for a period of one year.

Keynote: Transition and cultural change within organisations

Capita Fire & Rescue’s CFO Alex Clark explored transition and cultural change with reference to both his involvement in the creation of the single Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in 2013 and more recently Capita Fire & Rescue’s Defence Fire & Rescue Project.

The greater challenge in the formation of the Scottish Fire and Rescue service was in bringing together the people and culture of eight different services, rather than the organisational change. A cultural audit was carried out. Initially, each of the eight pre-existing services thought they were the best and there was very little travel and engagement over old boundaries.

Communication is key to delivering the required cultural change. You need to lead everyone on the journey towards the new organisation. Moving and promoting people across old regions was not always popular but did help to develop cultural change. New recruits also played a key role in developing the new culture and steadily the value of the single service began to be demonstrated.

The very different task at Capita has been to modernise service delivery across 27 UK and nine international Ministry of Defence locations under the Defence Fire & Rescue Project. Carried out in times heavily affected by the Covid pandemic, this had many parallels with Scottish Fire, as well as differences. The military environment is a very different one, and firefighters went from military to civilian roles under the project. Face-to-face communications were restricted by Covid. Nevertheless, a full communications plan was deployed to keep people fully engaged, with weekly huddles and monthly cascades.

During the process 138 new vehicles were deployed and all PPE was replaced. 600 people were trained, with more than 50 new recruits and 70 promotions, while an ARFF training capability was established at the training college. A further key factor for success was the better use of data to inform management decisions.

Looking at both projects the approach had to be customised to your organisation and be able to reset in the light of events, such as Covid.

Civil Aviation Authority policy update

Principal Aerodrome Inspector Neil Gray advised delegates of two new recruits to the CAA team, Ian Fisher has joined as Aerodrome Inspector and Graham Day has the new dual role of Aerodrome Inspector and Policy Specialist.

Neil then continued by summarising recent developments in post-Brexit RFFS policy workstreams at the CAA. On fuels, the CAA is developing policy in the context of the general drive towards decarbonisation to cover conventional fuels, sustainable fuels, electricity and hybrid.

As a collaborative process, the CAA is reintroducing a common qualification framework for training. Chapters 8 and 9 of CAP 168 are also being refreshed. The CAA is also developing policy for spaceports like Newquay, helidecks at hospitals and elsewhere and vertiports for emerging electric VTOL aircraft.

Finally, Neil also clarified the position with regard to the recent ICAO State letter regarding RFFS for general aviation operation. All UK airports are licenced or certificated for commercial air transport. Unlicensed UK aerodromes are not permitted to handle passengers anyway, so no changes are need to current regulations.

NFCC Air Transportation Group update

Jon Lacey, CFO of Suffolk FRS, introduced delegates to the NFCC, its focus on leadership and role in measurement as the voice of the fire service before going on to outline the work currently being undertaken in setting standards and defining risk.

In its key role of professionalising the fire service, the NFCC is establishing the College of Fire, based on the model of the College of Policing. He also reminded delegates of the recent work published by the Fire Standards Board including dwelling fires, high-bay warehousing and nuclear installations.

He then moved on to his own specialist area of the NFCC Air Transportation Group workstream, which is currently undertaking a definition of risk project for air transportation. The NFCC has signed a memorandum of understanding with the AAIB and established a military liaison to cover rare civil and military incidents. Jon also thanked AFOA for its supporting work for the Air Transportation group workstream.

They are also looking at FRS air support for tackling the growing problem of wildfires. Training has been identified as a key area of importance, with local authority fire services training at both civil and military airfields. The NFCC has a working group working on lithium-ion batteries and other emerging challenges, such as spaceports.

Live fire simulators

Main sponsor Steve Fahey, managing director of Simulation Alpine Metal Tech gave delegates an overview of its comprehensive range of live fire simulators. During the pandemic downtime the company took the opportunity to invest heavily in new product development, now launching some 54 new products including the new V22 Osprey aircraft and a new mobile aircraft fire trainer that does not require planning permission.

He also introduced the company’s 20ft and 40ft mobile container-based training units, the defence miliary simulator and the combined fire and water simulator. Further innovations include a Grassland and Forest Fire training facility, an SUV vehicle fire simulator. The company is also currently working on a new hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO) simulator to simulate biodiesel fires.

Hazards from EV and alternatively fuelled vehicles

In a fascinating hour-long presentation Martin Lown of the FireWise UK Learning Academy, took delegates through the fast-changing world of alternatively fuelled electric vehicles and the different risks they present in the airport environment. Fire training for EVs, charging infrastructure and other alternatively fuelled vehicles should be incorporated into emergency planning, exercises and all airport firefighter training.

Airport car parks have a mix of EV and ICE car types with the potential for disruptive smoke plumes in the event of fire. In multi-storey car parks there are the added risks of poisonous gasses and higher temperatures caused by containment.

Hydrogen-fuelled cars present unique risks and fire characteristics but are still rare due to the lack of fuelling infrastructure. Fuel-cell EVs with hydrogen range extenders, present hydrogen and battery risks in the same vehicles. Airports are already served by hydrogen-powered buses and trains, while CNG and LNG buses are also growing more common. Cargo centres may feature with LNG, CNG, electric and diesel-powered vehicles, any of which may also have lithium-ion battery cargoes.

While other battery chemistries are currently in development, current EVs mostly use lithium-ion batteries. All types of vehicles are now fitted with them including e-bikes, hover boards, scooters, cars, vans, buses, as well as ground-service vehicles. E-taxis can present an elevated fire risk due to battery abuse because users seek multiple fast charges per day.

Distinguishing the power source of vehicles can be a challenge. The green tab on electric vehicle number plates is not mandatory, design features such as lack of visible exhaust are not always conclusive, and even vintage vehicles are now being retrofitted with battery electric drive.

EVs are less likely to catch fire than ICE vehicles and are generally far safer, but any fires that do occur are longer duration and higher impact. Factors include quality of battery, abuse, overcharging, overheating, vehicle impact damage, water ingress and submersion.

Fire behaviour is different and starts with off-gassing, then transition to flame and can then move to a projectile stage. The ‘smoke’ seen from cells is actually toxic vapour. State of charge is a factor, with a higher state of charge producing a more vigorous fire.

Firefighters need to be aware of risks, trained and equipped. Think about where charge points are located at air terminals and identifying the associated risks. Lots of high-voltage components in EVs present risk and are not always that easy to identify. Fire blankets are useful for EV cars and bus-sized versions are becoming available.

The key messages are: to deal with fire and then deal with the battery pack, applying water. Reignition can occur in EV fires, with the longest recorded case taking place after 68 days.

Working with a neurodiverse workforce in the fire sector

Miriam Heppell has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which is often associated with neurodiversity, as well as joint hypermobility and pain. This hasn’t held her back from a distinguished career in HR, most recently as Assistant Director of Learning and Development at London Fire Brigade where is playing a key role in supporting neurodiverse employees within the service.

Neurodiverse people are not necessarily disabled and can have superpowers. They may have one or several of the following conditions: autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and Tourette’s syndrome. These are often undiagnosed and in women tend to be under diagnosed. (One reason for this is that a lot of the research into neurodiversity is based on men.) Also, women with autism tend to be creative and voracious readers, whereas men with autism are more likely to be computer programmers.

By supporting deficit areas in the neurodiverse, employers can benefit from their superpowers which include strategic thinking (thinking differently), empathy, innovation, creativity, observation skills (seeing things that others miss) and being keen problem solvers.

Miriam stressed the importance of understanding and accommodation. Employers should avoid aggressive performance management in deficit areas, instead providing understanding, support, recognition, reasonable adjustments, sensitivity, awareness and flexibility. In return you will be rewarded with passion, loyalty, delivery, honesty, depth of thinking, attention to detail and much more.

The aim should be for supportive handling of neurodiversity to become normal in the workplace. Estimates of the proportion of the population who are neurodiverse range from 0.2% to 20%. The neurodiverse appear to be attracted to the fire service and 30% of the London Fire Brigade are neurodiverse.

Cancer risks from ultrafine particulates

Abby Hannah Biomedical Scientist at Steadfast, took delegates through the risks associated with ultrafine particles in aviation settings. Airport combustion gases create ultrafine particles, 36 times smaller than a grain of sand with jet fuel and diesel combustion creates high levels at airports. These are linked to chronic disease and higher rates of cancer in firefighters.

Multiple mechanisms are thought to play a role including inhalation, absorption and ingestion. Areas of weakness in current PPE include hoods which leave an area of exposure and allow particulates to contact skin. The greatest areas of absorption align with cancers: the front and back of neck, jaw and hands.

Among mitigation measures, Schiphol airport is currently trialling the use of mist to reduce ultrafine particles. Otherwise, Abby recommended the use of particulate-blocking PPE including, FFP2 masks and blocking hoods.

UAV & airspace management

David Row, Air Traffic Controller at Cranfield Airport, updated delegates on the work being undertaken at Cranfield University on UAVs and airspace management as drone use continues to diversify and grow. Cranfield are using their Centrik audit system to prove the abilities of drones and develop policy and regulations for safe airspace management.

How do drones talk to air traffic control? And how do drones fit into routine airport procedures, such as runway inspection? Current regulations rely on eyes and size and are based on aircraft with people in them, whereas UAVs are smaller and, of course, unmanned. The regulations are based on model aircraft and require closure of an area of airspace when going beyond current visual line of sight, which is not viable in the long term as drone sue grows.

Future applications for UAVs include firefighting incident management, infrastructure inspection, solar farms, noise research and beyond airports. Eventually we will reach a world of Amazon UAV delivered trainers, but it’s some way off yet.

In March 2023, AFOA is planning to return to its traditional two-day conference and exhibition format with CPD-accredited working groups embedded in the conference. Dates and more details will be announced to members as soon as they have been confirmed.

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