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It takes 3 minutes for an airplane skin to burn. They train so it never happens here

Bellingham International Airport fire emergency training

Airport rescue firefighters participate in live-fire training at Bellingham International Airport in Bellingham, Wash., on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.
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Airport rescue firefighters participate in live-fire training at Bellingham International Airport in Bellingham, Wash., on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.

This week’s live-fire training at the Bellingham International Airport helped ensure first responders can get to an airplane in trouble within three minutes, according to Airport Operations Manager Aaron Collins.

Those three minutes matter. That’s the time it takes for an airplane skin to burn through.

Ten airport rescue firefighters and four airport operations managers were tested over the course of five days with a series of drills and proficiency tests in an empty parking lot a few blocks from the airport. While they train weekly, the annual training offers experience dealing with live fire.

The most common emergencies are fuel spills, according to Collins. On average, the Bellingham airport has up to three private plane incidents a year, Collins said. Other incidents can range from a flat tire or overheated brakes to a plane off the runway.

In each scenario, liquid petroleum gas lines run to parts of the training aircraft, allowing the operator to determine where, and how large, the fire will be. The primary goal for the responding firefighters is to protect passengers, even if fuel is burning, unless the fire area is affecting passenger evacuation routes.

The second part of training involves a partnership with about 120 firefighters from the Bellingham Fire Department.

When a serious emergency such as an airplane crash is reported, Bellingham Fire responds.

During the training, Bellingham firefighters entered the fuselage with an airport firefighter to rescue simulated passengers.

“They are our mutual aid partners,” Collins said. “We are the first responders, and they are the manpower that comes in and assists.”

Lacey Young is a visual journalist who interned at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, NASA’S Goddard Space Flight Center and Minnesota Public Radio. She’s a University of Montana graduate and life-long Washingtonian.


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