Airport fire department waiting, ever waiting

Deer Lake’s airport firefighters doing more than just fighting fires

Paul Hutchings
Published on March 11, 2013
Airport technician John Ryan checks the chemical levels on one of the fire trucks at the Deer Lake Airport’s fire department.
— Star photo by Paul Hutchings

DEER LAKE Zipping down the runway at 120 km/hour in a 50-ton fire truck is the stuff of a little boy’s dream, as well as some girls. It’s interesting that the truck is built by the same company that probably made that little boy’s clothes.

The new fire truck owned by the Deer Lake Regional Airport was built by the OshKosh Truck Corporation in Wisconsin. Don’t let the name fool you. Oshkosh builds some tough vehicles.

The $850,000 vehicle was purchased by the airport last year. It’s a 2012 Striker model that holds massive amounts of water, chemicals and foam for any kind of fire. It has hoses on top and at the front, packs more safety gear and equipment than you can imagine and it’s fast.

Man, is it fast.

Airport technician John Ryan is burning down the runway at a speed approaching 130 km/hr with what looks like a little smile on his face. He turns the wheel slightly and a light that looks like a graph goes off on the dashboard, accompanied by an alarm.

“That’s the tilt monitor,” he said, voice slightly raised over the 700-plus horsepower 12-cylinder engine.

“With so much liquid on board, if you turn you could tip over pretty easy. You don’t want to tip these over.”

Indeed. Several years ago the United States government made it a requirement for airport fire trucks to be this fast, and here in Canada we can see the rewards.

Not that our airport has seen much in the way of fires or crashes (you can almost hear the collective knocking on wood from firefighters reading that sentence), but the Deer Lake Regional Airport still has to maintain a comprehensive list of equipment for any scenario. Most plane crashes take place within either take-off or landing, and firefighters have to be on standby every time a plane is in the vicinity of the airport.

It’s not just crashes they’re looking for. They need to be on alert when planes are refueling. Regular gasoline is flammable enough, but jets take a kerosene mixture. They need to be prepared if a plane has a potential landing gear issue. They help cut down on animal strikes by clearing birds and animals out of the way.

The Transportation Safety Board divides airports into categories depending on the type of flights they receive. The Deer Lake facility is considered a category six because of the size of planes and amount of passengers it receives each year. By comparison Toronto’s Pearson Airport, Canada’s busiest, is a category nine.

Deer Lake’s facility can take planes meant for category seven airports with some notice, meaning firefighters, also called airport technicians, end up looking after larger planes with much more fuel on board, like two weeks ago when three airplanes were rerouted from St. John’s due to bad weather.

“We have to be prepared for anything here,” said Ryan. “We have to keep our equipment and training up to date and just hope that we’re not needed.”

The airport has two of those big trucks, the other one a couple of years older, along with a third smaller vehicle. Technicians aren’t just performing firefighting duties, they’re doing various maintenance duties as well. In fact, according to technician Rod Reid, they’ll do whatever needs to be done.

“We’re also mechanics, welders, whatever it takes,” said Reid. “The ideal person for this job is someone who can do everything and is qualified for everything.”

Ryan said it would be more difficult and much more expensive to run the airport if technicians could only do one thing. The Deer Lake Regional Airport has expanded massively over the last decade, he said, a part of that is the fact that most jobs can be done in-house by people with various skills.