Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) is a special category of firefighting that involves the response, hazard mitigation, evacuation and possible rescue of passengers and crew of an aircraft involved in (typically) an airport ground emergency. Airport ARFF operations are mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at all U.S. airports that serve scheduled passenger air carriers and are the only civilian fire protection services that are specifically regulated by any governmental entity.
Airports required to have ARFF services are inspected at least annually by the FAA for compliance with FAR, Part 139. Military ARFF operations must meet the mission requirements for their individual branch of the service. International airports may have regulatory oversight by an arm of their individual national governments or voluntarily under standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Due to the mass casualty potential of an aviation emergency, the speed with which emergency response equipment and personnel arrive at the scene of the emergency is of paramount importance. Their arrival and initial mission to secure the aircraft against all hazards (read: fire) increases the survivability of the passengers and crew on board. Airport firefighters have advanced training in the application of firefighting foams, dry chemical and clean agents used to extinguish burning hydrocarbons in and around an aircraft in order to maintain a path for evacuating passengers to exit the fire hazard area. Further, should fire either be encountered in the cabin or extend there from an external fire, the ARFF responders must work to control/extinguish these fires as well.
Specialized fire apparatus are required for the ARFF function, the design of which is predicated on many factors but primarily: speed, water-carrying capacity, off-road performance and agent discharge rates. Since there is no necessarily pre-determined location for the accident to occur, sufficient water and other agents must be carried on board the vehicle to contain the fire event to allow for the best possibility of extinguishment, maximum possibility for evacuation and/or until additional resources arrive on the scene.
Due to the intense radiant heat generated by burning fuels, firefighters wear protective ensembles that are coated with a silver-resembling substance to reflect this heat load away from their bodies. They also must wear self-contained breathing apparatus to provide a source of clean air to breathe should smoke or other super-heated gases be encountered, particularly should they be required to make entry into the burning cabin of an aircraft.
Secondary to the hazard mitigation and safe evacuation of ambulatory passengers is the need to perform rescue operations. Disabled or trapped passengers must be extricated and removed from the aircraft and be provided immediate medical care. This process is extremely labor-intensive, requiring not only firefighters but also many support personnel. Due to the nature of a mass casualty incident, a strategy for coping must be employed that classifies the survivability of victims in order for the most serious to be treated before the less injured: in a word, triage.
Subsequent to the emergency being declared under control, the ARFF function reverts to one of protecting the scene, eliminating any peripheral or slowly evolving hazards and assisting to preserve the scene for investigators. In many cases the FAA will perform the investigatory duties but in instances where significant injuries or any fatal accident the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will investigate and the ARFF contingent will assist where needed.