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Home > Topics > EMS Training
December 09, 2013

Report: Rescue leaders at SF crash lacked training

Fire commanders at the Asiana Airline crash had never taken aircraft disaster training; it is not required by FAA

San Francisco Chronicle 

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Three Fire Department commanders who directed firefighting and rescue efforts after the crash of an Asiana Airlines jetliner at San Francisco International Airport in July had never taken a training course required of rank-and-file first responders at aircraft disasters, The Chronicle has learned.

Unlike the firefighters they were supervising, two of the San Francisco Fire Department commanders were not required under Federal Aviation Administration rules to take the course because they were not stationed at the airport. The third, a captain who oversees firefighters at SFO, was scheduled to be trained but had been on the job for just one month.

Although the federal rules don't require commanders to take any special aircraft-disaster training, fire departments around the country have typically chosen airport supervisors from among firefighters who have taken a basic, weeklong course, experts say. In several other countries, all fire commanders must undergo both basic and advanced training.

The S.F. Fire Department's reliance on commanders who had not undergone the basic air disaster training has come under scrutiny because of an incident during the Asiana crash response in which an airport fire rig ran over and killed a survivor who had been left on the ground near the burning fuselage.

Firefighters who operate the foam-spraying rigs must undergo the disaster training, which includes instruction in maneuvering the bulky, poor-visibility rigs, some of which are 10 feet wide and 45 feet long. The Fire Department does not use the rigs on city streets.

Federal hearing

The death of the Asiana passenger, 16-year-old Ye Meng Yuan, is expected to be one of the topics covered in a two-day National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the crash this week in Washington, D.C.

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said it wasn't vital that commanders take the disaster course, calling it "very specialized training" useful mainly to firefighters directly involved in saving lives after a plane crashes.

The response to the Asiana crash July 6, in which three people died and 181 were injured, wasn't hindered because the commanders hadn't taken the disaster training, the chief said. If they needed help, "there was someone at the command post" who had been trained and could step in, she said.

"Our response followed all the requirements," Hayes-White said. "We've had years of green-light, thumbs-up reports from the FAA regarding our training compliance in annual inspections."

Training helps

However, a retired Federal Aviation Administration official said commanders responding to an airport disaster ought to have the specialized skills required of fire crews.

"During the actual disaster - when you are putting fires out and getting the people extricated - you definitely need someone (in charge) with that type of training, without a doubt," said Benedict Castellano, who was acting manager of airport safety when he left the agency in 2009 after 34 years.

He said the federal government should consider requiring top fire officials to take the training, given what happened in San Francisco.

"I'm hoping that FAA is looking at that carefully," Castellano said, and "looking for any adjustments to prevent that from happening again."

Covered in foam

Ye, the crash survivor who was crushed by an airport fire rig, ended up on the ground near the plane's left wing and was covered with flame-retardant foam before she was run over.

By that time, the field commanders were Battalion Chief Mark Johnson, who is normally stationed in the Bayview district, and Assistant Chief Tom Siragusa, who was overseeing all operations in the southern half of the city the day of the crash.

They had assumed command at the scene from Capt. Anthony Robinson, who is based at the airport and was in charge for the first several minutes after the Boeing 777 crashed.

None of the three commanders had taken the training, including Robinson, who had been out on medical leave for several months before being assigned to the airport a month before the crash, fire officials say.

Johnson was the commander directing the foam-spraying rigs' movements as the fuselage burned, while Siragusa was in charge of the overall response. Footage from Johnson's helmet camera, reviewed by The Chronicle, clearly shows he made a series of decisions without being accompanied by any firefighters certified in airport disaster response.

Hayes-White said that wasn't a problem. "It is my understanding that there is no regulatory requirement that (the incident commander) be trained," she said.

She declined to say whether the commanders' lack of disaster training could have played a role in the events leading to Ye's death, which she has called "a tragic accident."

"We look forward to the (federal safety board) hearing," Hayes-White said, "where we can have a dialogue and offer our input on what we faced that day."

The chief added, "On the other hand, we look forward to hearing any constructive feedback."

Who gets training

The Fire Department sends the roughly 80 firefighters and paramedics assigned to the airport to the training program at a cost of about $2,000 per trainee. Under Federal Aviation Administration rules, firefighters at larger airports must go back each year for eight hours of refresher training, which includes fighting a fire at a mockup crash scene.

David Whitaker, a retired chief of the Memphis, Fire Department who oversees the international Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Working Group - which represents 500 airport firefighting agencies worldwide - said responding to crashes and other airport emergencies demands specialized training.

"Having that knowledge and training certainly helps you understand the complexity of the incident," said Whitaker, who is expected to testify before the National Transportation Safety Board hearing. "There is a unique complexity to these types of incidents."

The training typically involves four days of classroom instruction about types of aircraft used in domestic and international fleets, and exercises intended to teach firefighters how to maneuver around a crash site without injuring others or damaging evidence.

Firefighters also are instructed to mark any area where there are victims - living or dead - or potentially hazardous debris.

How girl was killed

On July 6, Johnson was directing fire rigs spraying foam on the burning plane, which had come up short of the runway, struck a seawall and lost its tail section before bursting into flames.

Ye had been sitting in the back of the plane, near the other two teenage girls from China who died in the crash. It has never been clear how Ye ended up on the ground near the aircraft's left wing.

Two firefighters in a foam-spraying rig had spotted her there, however, lying in the fetal position, and alerted other firefighters who were on foot.

Sources familiar with the investigation have said at least one firefighter on the ground, Lt. Christine Emmons, determined that Ye was dead. The San Mateo County coroner later concluded that, at the time, the girl was alive.

Covered in foam

Neither Emmons nor any other firefighter told Johnson about the discovery, footage from the battalion chief's helmet camera shows. Ye gradually became covered in foam, and Johnson eventually directed a fire rig into the area where she lay.

The rig, which unlike most at the airport was not equipped with heat sensors that might have detected an obscured body, ran over Ye, killing her.

Jason Graber, a firefighter who has been stationed at airports for 11 years and who serves as the education and training officer with Whitaker's airport firefighting group, said he hopes the San Francisco incident will spur new training standards.

In Sweden, he said, airport incident commanders must undergo several weeks of disaster training. Commanders at airports in England, Australia and Singapore similarly must participate in training programs, Graber said.

But no training standard for airport commanders has emerged in the U.S.

"My hope is that what comes out of this whole incident is that we get additional command officer training," Graber said. "It's important to have a basis of knowledge you can pull from in an instant, to pull the proverbial tool from the tool box."

Copyright 2013 San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service


All Rights Reserved

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