When fires occur in ground support equipment (GSE), it can become extremely costly, very quickly. Airport operations are immediately affected, employees and passengers may be in danger, equipment can suffer months of downtime or could be a total loss, and reputational damage could occur from viral media coverage. This post will give you an understanding of the common fire hazards surrounding GSE equipment and help you assess your risks.
Fire hazards for GSE
GSE has two categories, fixed GSE and GSE vehicles. For both, it is common to use equipment for more than ten years. The age of the equipment combined with heavy use is contributing factors making them more vulnerable to fire. While preventative maintenance programs address many of the issues encountered with continual wear, fire is always a risk.
Fixed GSE and GSE vehicles have fuel-based engines and in some cases can be running all day, creating an extremely hot environment. While running, the fuel, hydraulic, and deicing lines carry the necessary liquids to keep the equipment running. These fluids are extremely flammable. If a line cracks, liquid sprays out onto the hot equipment, which can cause a flash fire.
Batteries and electrical connections are also a fire hazard. Leaky and loose batteries pose a fire risk when electrolyte vapor mixed with hydrogen escapes the plastic shell. If a battery is not secured, it can short and ignite a fire. If electrical connections are not properly secured, they can also arc or short which can cause a fire.
Understanding the fire dangers
All GSE, fixed or vehicles, have some level of vulnerability and risk of fire. Each type of equipment should have an assessment of factors contributing to their fire risk level.
GSE vehicles require powerful engines and robust hydraulics, which makes them susceptible to electrical, hydraulic, and engine fires. Common GSE vehicles include:
- Baggage/Cargo Tractors
- Catering Trucks
- Conventional Tug/Pushback Tractor
- Fueling Trucks
- Lavatory Trucks
- Passenger/Boarding Stair Trucks
- Towbarless Tugs
GSE vehicle fires are particularly dangerous because they often occur in inaccessible locations, making them difficult to extinguish. When a fire occurs inside a closed compartment, an employee cannot safely reach the fire. If an employee opens a closed compartment to access a fire, oxygen may feed the fire, causing it to become more dangerous. If direct access to the fire is not possible, then using handheld and wheeled extinguishers is not feasible.
Interfacing GSE, or GSE that operate near an aircraft, create a heightened risk due to the possibility of damaging the aircraft and putting passengers and crew members in harm’s way. An example of this was in June of 2018 when a towbarless tug caught fire at the Frankfurt airport. This fire sent ten people to the hospital, made global news, and caused a hull loss of an Airbus A340, an aircraft costing over $150 million.
Open-air GSE vehicles
Belt loaders and cargo loaders are open-air GSE vehicles. Compared with GSE vehicles that have closed compartments, open-air GSE vehicles are similarly susceptible to fire but do not require a person to open a compartment in order to fight the fire. However, these fires are especially dangerous to employees, because they can leave people with no egress route. To operate a cargo loader, a crew member must stand on top of the equipment, which puts them at higher risk of injury if a fire occurs. An operator could become stranded on the equipment during the fire and have to jump up to 18 feet onto the tarmac. A situation like this occurred in Orlando in 2016, which left two employees with third-degree burns and one of them with two broken legs.
Fixed or stationary GSE is near an aircraft and includes air conditioning units (ACUs), air start units (ASUs), fueling carts, ground power units (GPUs), and heaters. This equipment, which is susceptible to electrical, hydraulic, and engine fires, is in continuous use and unattended. In the event of a fire in this equipment, operations at the airport are immediately affected. It is difficult, if not impossible, to extinguish the fire with a handheld or wheeled extinguisher because most of this equipment contains closed compartments. With the equipment running unattended, if a fire does start, it takes additional time to shut down the equipment, all while the fire grows.
Preventative maintenance programs for fixed GSE and GSE vehicles help to address many of the issues due to continual usage. However, fire risks still remain. Even a minor fire can result in weeks of downtime, disruption to the day to day operations, and may put flight crew, ground crew, and passengers in danger.