How About A Little Fire?

May 1, 2004

Tony Vasko gets "fueled up" about fire extinguishers!

May 2004

Fire extinguishers are one of those things that are just "there". They only cause concern when an auditor comes around and finds one overdue for inspection or blocked in by boxes or plain missing from a vehicle. If it is a company auditor the manager pays for it in embarrassment and a lashing from the VP. If it's the fire department or OSHA it can cost hard cash or at least a lot of letter writing and beating of breasts. There is a burst of activity and then often a fall back to benign neglect. At least, that is, until there is a fire.

At that point embarrassment is the least of the problems. Fire is one of those things where a little first aid at the beginning does more good than a fleet of fire trucks later on. A plainly marked and available extinguisher that works is worth maybe millions if it saves an airplane and even more if it is a life.

Time have changed. Ramp personnel had a far greater familiarity with fire extinguishers when big round engines dominated the ramp. A trickle of Jet A is more of an EPA problem for contaminating the environment than a fire hazard. I can tell you from experience it was not that way with gasoline. Although there is nothing to choose between 115/145, 108/135, 100 or 87 octane as far as flammability it always seemed that the high test stuff presented a greater fire hazard. Maybe it was because the biggest engines used the high end in larger quantities.

Consider starting. You had to be daft to start a cold piston engine without a fire guard. As a newbie on the ramp you got to drag the big wheeled CO2 extinguisher to the side of the engine to be started but not too close. CO2 extinguishers do not have much of a throw range which was one reason they were fitted with a pipe and an expansion horn that reached out from the trigger and nozzle. That way you got to get the horn up close while you stayed clear of the fire.

Making sure you were clear of the prop the signal man near the nose gave the okay for the crew to crank the engine. It would lump over until enough blades had turned to prove it did not have a slug of oil in a cylinder. Then prime was operated and the little pipe sticking out from the side of the cowling would start streaming fuel. The engine might belch a few times and spit out flame from an exhaust stack. As long as flame from stack and fuel from the blower drain did not get together all was well.

Usually of course the engine started in a blast of smoke and noise. However if it was recalcitrant the engine would load up with fuel. Often flight crews came from warmer climates and were not up on cold-weather starting. Then the fun started where liquid fuel got into the exhaust pipes. Now fuel and fire had a meeting.

The engine would almost gurgle and sometimes, burp and throw out burning fuel. It leaked out of the cold exhaust joints and now you had fire in the cowling too and maybe on the ground as well. On an inboard engine there was a gaping wheelwell right behind the engine and fire in there could do some interesting things. And here you were with a cart full of CO2, a hose and a trigger. Naturally since we are trained professionals it went well. You opened the main valve and directed the horn at the base of the fire and triggered a blast of CO2 at the fire. If the engine was burning you might try blanketing the area of the cowl flaps with a snort and hope the engine caught and blew out the flames.

The point is of course that fire extinguishers were used a lot more around round engined airplanes than on turbines. With the decline in the need for "fire guards" the extinguishers receded from view and from the memories. There are now a generation of people who have never seen a fire on the ramp. And yet there is still a big need. It is no fun to look for an extinguisher and not find one. Sometimes too technology advances are a little questionable. Like replacing all the ramp CO2 extinguishers with dry powder. Admittedly dry powder is a far more effective extinguisher but there is a little matter of residue.

Take Harold, a tech supervisor who was walking the Eastern ramp at JFK and noticed a wisp of smoke curling up from the open entrance door of a DC-9. The airplane was sitting unattended, an external power cart attached and running and airstairs extended. He did all the right things. He immediately sent someone to call the fire department. That is a must in any fire situation. You ALWAYS call the fire department. He told another to kill the ground power unit and he went partially up the airstairs and found a lot of smoke coming from the behind the bulkhead inside just forward of the entrance door. He knew the electrical power was distributed from there.

A rampie had come up with a wheeled fire extinguisher. A screwdriver was used to peel back the bulkhead and a big blast of dry powder extinguisher was blown inside the electrical power center. It was what firefighters call, a "good hit". Fire out. The crash trucks arrived, things were opened up and all was great. The cause was the dimmer for the cabin lights which had cooked as they sometimes did and flared up and set fire to things around it inside the wall area.

After a week of cleaning up the mess and the electrical busses and replacing cooked wiring and parts, power was put back on the airplane. Checkouts proceeded and the repairs were bought off. Everything worked perfectly in the dryness of the heated hangar. The airplane went outside into a damp atmosphere and sat with power on. After a time it began to emit smoke from, where else, behind that damn bulkhead. On checking, we found short circuits everywhere, from the middle of an insulator block to anywhere else. HUH!! They certainly had not been there before and how do you get electrical continuity from one insulator to another.

Developed that, although we had vacuumed and blown away all the visible dry powder extinguisher material, a film had remained. Our local fire equipment vendor was a helpful Harry. If Purple K, the specified material was a good B and C extinguishing agent, then an all purpose ABC powder was better. He had serviced our ramp units with this. Unfortunately it becomes conductive when damp hence the shorts. It took two weeks to replace all the circuit breakers, relays and other components and washing with distilled water for hours to remove the stuff. Lesson - only use what is specified in the extinguishers.

Of course they tried to hang the tech supervisor for using a powder extinguisher instead of going on the airplane and getting a Halon extinguisher and using it instead. I was his manager and publicly declared that I was a volunteer fireman and in fact a chief at that time and I would be damned if I was going to bypass 150 pounds of available extinguisher to go into a smoke-filled and burning airplane to look for five pounds of halon. He had in fact saved the airplane from more serious damage for it was on the point of catching on big time and spreading into the ceiling area. Grudgingly they allowed that maybe I was right and looked for another scalp.

The ground equipment manager took care of ground equipment and fire extinguishers were ground equipment and so we might as well chew him out. So the wrath fell on him. Hate to sound preachy but, do you know where your fire extinguishers are?