Environmental legislation against foam causes extreme challenges for firefighters at airports - and could put passengers at risk
The alleged environmental hazards of firefighting foams has been debated for several years, and recent environmental legislation against the use of foam has created a challenging and difficult situation for airports.
Current legislation is already risking airports being left with virtually no effective way to extinguish fires in large air carriers, and a push for even more stringent laws could create a real crisis for firefighting in all toxic or fuel related emergency situations:
"We in CTIF believe that the environmental hazards, along with the obvious other safety hazards, of letting airplanes or other large vehicles, continue to burn because we cannot effectively extinguish them, outweighs the risk and possible environmental damage from the use of foam", says Ole Hansen, vice president of The CTIF International Association of Fire Services, and also also a member of the CTIF international Commission for Firefighting at Airports.
Catch 22: Flouride is the hazardous ingredient - but also the only known effective extinguishing agent
The standard airport firefighting foam AFFF is on its way out and will likely be banned completely. A new type of foam is becoming established as a replacement, called FF, which is a foam type with less flouride. This means that FF is less toxic for the environment, but also a less effective extinguishing agent:
"The problem is that flouride is not able to break down naturally in nature, and none of these new "flouride free" extinguishers are entirely flouride free. On the other hand, from a firefighting perspective; the less flouride component, the less effective the foams are at extinguishing an airplane fire", says Ole Hansen.
Foam soon banned for training purposes all over Europe
Foam is an essential part of extinguishing certain types of fires, like for instance fuel fires, and fires where large volumes of plastics are involved. It is also an important extinguishing agent in hazardous materials fires, where water could cause leakage of toxic materials from the fire, or produced by the fire such as creosote and many other toxins produced in any oxygen deprived combustion situation.
Already since years back, heavy restrictions are in place on using foam for large scale firefighting and for airports during training.
"Foam for training purposes will likely be completely banned. This means that all new firefighters will have practiced only with water or not at all, and won´t know how to apply the foam effectively when eventually faced with needing to make quick and crucial decisions during a real fire", says Ole Hansen.
Not all left over foam can be collected even at the most modern airports
A modern airport is in most cases built according to extremely stringent environmental standards. This means that they are constructed so that extinguishing water and fuel leakages can be collected in a way that it minimizes the impact on the surrounding environment, away from groundwater sources and sensitive habitats.
However, most of our most modern airports were still built before the more recent discoveries about the environmental impact of firefighting foam. Foam lingers longer than water in the environment and not all of the foam spillage can be effectively collected and sanitized.
Even though foam can extinguish quicker and thereby reducing other environmental damage from fire and traditional extinguishing water, those pushing for legislation argue that the damage from proven harmful ingredients in the foam itself (mainly flouride) is enough to ban foam altogether.
In order to meet safety standards in the absence of an adequate alternative, the response from both legislators and manufacturers has so far been to lower the amount of flouride in the foam products.
"However, if the foam is to work at all, it needs to contain some flouride. Also, to extinguish a fire with low flouride foam, more product may be needed, making the total effect on the environment the same, but with a less effective result on the fire", says Ole Hansen.
"There are forces on an International and European level working for a complete ban of firefighting foam for any purpose, and if this happens, fire fighting at airports could face a real crisis".
Dry powder also in question as an alternative at airports
Dry powder is a very effective extinguishing method for fires in enclosed spaces, like engine rooms and wheel houses:
"However, currently the aircraft manufacturers are claiming that the powders are destroying the planes more than the fires themselves, and are asking us not to use them", says Ole Hansen.
The problem with powders is that they can be carried by the wind and corrode the airplane in parts not affected by the fire, therefore causing the entire aircraft needing to be scrapped rather than just the engine or other small parts replaced after the fire. However; the fact remains the same: Without an effective means of putting out the fire, the damage to any plane, in most cases of fire, will be extensive regardless.
"Mixing the powder into foam solves the problem with the powder spreading with the wind, bu if we lose the right to use foam altogether, we may not be able to use powder either, and that would be a real challenge that would put both airports and passengers at real risk", says Ole Hansen.
Text by Björn Ulfsson, CTIF Communications Coordinator
The CTIF Commission For Firefighting at Airports was started in 1971 and has worked continuously since then for the safety and effectiveness of firefighters both professionally stationed, and in standby service, at airports around the world.
The Commission is currently lead by Mr Veli-Matti Saaskilahti, Finland, and was previously chaired by Ole Hansen, Norway.
The Commision´s stand on the issue of the use of firefighting foam is as follows:
Although measures needs to be taken to minimize foam´s negative effects of the environments, firefighters should be allowed to both use it and practice with it, until an effective alternative has been tested and is ready to be mass produced at a reasonable cost.
Cover Photo: (Above) Manas International Airport firefighter Stas Suleymanov demonstrates to Airmen the use of the Kyrgyz AA-60 fire engine water canon using water pumped from a 376th Air Expeditionary Wing fire truck. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Daniel Nathaniel). Wikipedia Commons License.