Cost cutting threatens airport fire services

There are a lot of terrifying places to encounter a fire, but one of the worst has to be in or around an aircraft carrying 15,000 litres of fuel.

Aviation rescue firefighters are there to make sure you don’t have to, and if all the fail-safes don’t work, they are there to save your life. Like other firefighters and paramedics, they are facing government cutbacks.

Research conducted by Boeing indicates that 61 percent of serious air crashes occur during take-off or landing, and that the greatest danger passengers and crew face isn’t the impact. It’s fire.

Aircraft design is a marvel of modern engineering, with fabrics inside that are designed to be as resistant to fire as possible, and fuel tanks built tough to prevent explosion. But this design doesn’t protect people forever in a serious crash.

Aviation design aims to buy time: enough time for firefighters to respond. The goal is to keep passengers alive for five minutes – long enough for the uninjured to evacuate, and for firefighters to arrive and extinguish fires or save those too injured to escape under their own power.

Firefighters have to be on scene within three minutes if this critical timeline is to work. This is why 26 of Australia’s airports are staffed by firefighters equipped with state-of-the-art 30 tonne fire trucks. Between them they attend 6,700 aircraft and airport incidents and emergencies each year, varying from small fuel spills to major engine fires and light plane crashes, all the while training for the nightmare scenario of a jet airliner crashing.

Or at least, that’s the state of play today.

The federal government is planning cuts to aviation rescue firefighter funding. This will lead to an end of these services at Coffs Harbour, Uluru, Gladstone, Broome and Newman airports. Any future airport emergencies that occur in those locations will be left in the hands of country firefighters without specialised aviation training.

Potentially even worse, the government is planning to reduce overnight shifts at Sydney International Airport from 17 firefighters and six trucks to eight firefighters and three trucks. While Sydney shouldn’t have scheduled flights landing during those hours, aircraft diverted in an emergency can land at any time and are the most likely to require firefighters on hand.

The proposed cuts come in a context of aviation rescue firefighters already often working double shifts and sleeping in improvised beds at the airport.

Society needs firefighters specialised in city fires, in aircraft fires, in marine fires and in rural fires. It doesn’t need corporate or government bean counters looking to save every cent they can to boost profits for privately run airports.

For more information about the fight to save aviation firefighting services, visit the United Firefighters Union campaign site at