‘Speed and strength” differentiates airport fire vehicles from their relatively puny municipal equivalents, said James Paterson, chief of fire services at Erik Neilsen Whitehorse International Airport, while showing off the facility’s new $800,000, Striker firefighting vehicle.
“It sounds like a lot of money for a crash truck that will hopefully never get used, but it only takes that one time for people to be thankful that they invested in their airport fire department,” said Paterson.
Airport fire trucks need to have the horsepower and heartiness to attend to an emergency no matter where a plane decides to come down.
“It doesn’t always occur on a runway, it could happen in the ravines, it could happen in a forest area, it could happen in some houses — anywhere,” said James Paterson, chief of fire services at Whitehorse International Airport.
Therefore, airport trucks need horsepower, copious amounts of onboard water (6,150 litres —four average-sized hot tubs’ worth), and an off-road capability rivaled only by a mountain goat on steroids.
A rich assortment of onboard gadgets and tricks give the Striker an almost batmobile-esque aura.
The Striker’s onboard infrared cameras give firefighters the ability to drive without even looking out the windows. The camera is so sensitive, that it can show the heat difference between painted and unpainted asphalt, allowing drivers to even see the painted lines on the ground.
Dual remote-controlled hoses are mounted on the front of the rigs, ready to spew out torrents of fire fighting chemical and water.
The firefighters who operate these trucks must also be among a chosen elite.
“To get into the airport fire service, you need to a structural firefighter — and that’s just the basis,” said Paterson.
Then, recruits must master the specifics of “aircraft-fire rescue” by completing training at specialized facilities located internationally.
“A lot of people ask us, ‘What do we do up here all the time?’” said Paterson.
In addition to aircraft emergencies, the fire service also responds to on-site medical and hazardous-materials calls.
And if the airport terminal itself catches fire, they would obviously lend a hand to municipal fire trucks.
In the past year, airport fire services have responded to 50 calls.
“Not a lot of these calls make the news, but at the same time we’re out there, we discreetly respond — and then we come back to the station and keep training,” said Paterson.
Training is the key activity of the airport firefighter.
“We’re training for that one situation that no one in the Yukon ever believes is going to happen,” he said.
“But when it does happen, they’re going to expect us to react to it as if we do it every single day,” he added.
The truck replaced by the Striker, in service since 1988, has racked up more than 50,000 kilometres in its relatively uneventful service history — most of it in training exercises.
Skills and response times must be kept top-notch and, as with all firefighters, Paterson’s team needs to keep in peak physical condition.
“When you think about it, we’re going out to one call that’s going to make a difference potentially, in our 30-year career — we’d better not have a heart attack on the way to the scene,” said Paterson.
Proper emergency response capabilities is not only a life-saving contingency — it is a cost of doing business to ensure that the Whitehorse airport catches the eye of global connector flights.
“To get international companies to come here, we need to ensure that we can get a certain amount of water to a crash scene in under three minutes,” said Paterson.
“And if we’re not able to do that, then those companies are not interested in coming to Whitehorse,” he said.
Before Condor approved its Frankfurt-to-Whitehorse flight, Condor officials meticulously inspected the equipment, personnel and training regimen of the airport fire service.
Transport Canada mandates that the Whitehorse airport firefighters must be able to respond to any call within three minutes — although Paterson boasts that his department maintains a response-time average that’s 48 seconds below par.
“If we were to hit the crash alarm right now, both my primary trucks would race out of here, they would both be out of here in 30 seconds, and they’d be on scene anywhere on the scene in about two minutes and 12 seconds,” said Paterson.
Time is the sworn enemy of all who choose to fight fire — but seconds and microseconds become all the more important when dealing with an air crash.
“You’ve got a huge amount of jet fuel — which is very flammable — and you’re got a huge amount of passengers — 100, sometimes 280 — separated by only millimetres of aluminum,” said Paterson.
“That’s a bad mix-up, isn’t it? You’d never be able to build a building like that,” he said.
“When an aircraft fuselage starts to break up, the fuel starts to mist, and it’s on fire even before it comes to a stop, so our trucks have got to be able to start rolling out and throwing foam and water and dry chemical down on the scene while the aircraft is still moving,” said Paterson.
Airport fire officials need to respond so quickly that they aren’t even connected to 911 — it’s too slow, explains Paterson.
Once, a MAYDAY report was forwarded by an aircraft that was going down near Yukon College. Airport trucks immediately began racing to the scene, while 911 officials were still on the phone getting more precise information about location and the nature of the incident.
“All we need is a general location, we’ll keep our eyes open and we’ll pick up information as we’re moving,” said Paterson.
The jurisdiction of the airport fire service does not end at the chain-linked boundaries of the airport. If an aircraft declares an emergency, and the airport fire service thinks they can make a difference, they rush to the scene, wherever it may be.
“Even if a plane goes down around Cousins air strip, we’re still gonna go if we believe we can make a difference,” said Paterson.
“The trucks are licensed and ready to go — but it’s not like anybody’s going to stop us,” he said.
Contact Tristin Hopper at