Flames on a plane: fire crews learning to deal with aviation fires at IFTC's Durham Tees Valley Airport site © Ian Cooper

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It is an aspect of air travel that many passengers prefer not think about, although it is vital to their safety: how do firefighting teams train to rescue people from burning aircraft?

In such situations there is not a second to lose if lives are to be saved and the firefighters’ own safety protected. Intensive training and regular refreshing of skills — which everyone hopes will never be needed — are the key.

This is the role played by Serco’s International Fire Training Centre, which has won a Queen’s Award for export. The centre trains UK and overseas firefighters at its Durham Tees Valley Airport site, in the north-east of England, and also sends instructors abroad.

Last week Polish and Austrian firefighting crews were training at Serco’s base, while in the coming weeks the IFTC will be welcoming firefighting teams from Nato and the Saudi ministry of the interior.

“Some people do find it traumatic. [They] have real difficulty with the confined space training,” says Gary Watson, the IFTC’s business operations manager, about the training exercises. “Imagine a metal container filled with smoke. We’ve put in meshed rat-runs, so people have to crawl through it.”

Serco, a public services provider with global operations, bought the safety training business in 1996 from the UK Civil Aviation Authority. The CAA had opened the centre in 1981 in response to the inadequate availability of airfield fire training at that time.

Since then, the IFTC has trained firefighters from more than 80 countries. Export sales account for £2m of its £4.5m annual turnover. It carries out regular specialist firefighting training for a number of the UK’s biggest airports, as well as smaller ones. In total, it trains 10,000 people a year.

An important part of what IFTC offers is its range of facilities. This includes new firefighting appliances, virtual reality training suites and accommodation.

After initial training, visiting crews move on to a fire ground within the airport. This has 14 aircraft simulators on which they practise rescues and firefighting. Split-second timing, balls of flames, dense smoke, confined spaces and dummy bodies make the practices feel frighteningly authentic.

For the practices, the rescuers wear heavy breathing apparatus. In real life, they may also have to deal with injured, terrified or unconscious passengers. “It’s a really physically and mentally demanding test,” says Mr Watson. The “aircraft” are simulations designed to resemble A380, 747 and 737 aircraft.

The nature of air travel, with many people in a confined space, is a particular challenge. “It would be very unusual to have a building the size of an aircraft with that many people crammed in,” says Mr Watson.

Full-length firefighting courses can take up to six weeks. Shorter training is available for those with previous fire brigade or military experience, as well as one-week refreshers.

For industrial clients, there are structures with walkways, pipes and networks of internal rooms that simulate offshore platforms and chemical plants.

There are also two helicopter simulators, and a real helicopter from which trainees practise extricating passengers, while another on a life-sized helideck can be used to rehearse landings and take-offs from oil and gas platforms.

“The training for airport firefighters needs to be particularly authentic as they may only respond to a fire once or twice in their careers. We need to make sure, when they get the ‘hot training’, [that] it’s a really physically and mentally demanding test,” says Mr Watson.

A list of this year’s winners and a guide to applying for a Queen’s Award are available at www.gov.uk/queens-awards-for-enterprise

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