HARLINGEN — Train for the worst, hope for the best.
That’s the philosophy of the fire and rescue operation at Valley International Airport. They hope their training remains just that — training.
“Harlingen has some of the best airport firefighting equipment south of San Antonio,” said Bryan Wren, assistant director of aviation at VIA.
Valley International has been improving its firefighting capabilities, meeting standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration on Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting, known by its acronym ARFF.
Airports are required to meet federal standards on ARFF capabilities based on several factors, including the aircraft most used at that airport. For Harlingen, the safety standards are based on rescue requirements for the short- to medium-range, twin-engine Boeing 737.
Equipment can’t replace training. But Valley International now has two state-of-the-art ARFF vehicles, both of which were purchased within the past two years.
Meet Charlie 2, and Charlie 1.
The yellow-green monsters are not your standard fire trucks.
Charlie 2 was the first truck to be delivered to the airport in 2014. The Oshkosh Striker 4×4 was the more expensive of the two, at $830,000, due to its optional high reach extendable turret. It has spray nozzles on an extendable arm, and comes with a spear-like fuselage penetrator to quickly gain entry to passengers inside a stricken airplane.
Charlie 1, known as the Titan Force, was delivered in June, and cost $560,000. This vehicle, manufactured by E-ONE, is similar to the other Charlie, but doesn’t have the extendable turret with a fuselage penetrator on top.
Both trucks can spray out their 1,500-gallon tanks in about a minute, and also contain smaller tanks that spray fire-smothering foam.
“We actually get the best of both worlds with the applications we have on the units,” said Capt. David Lompra, who oversees rescue and firefighting at Valley International.
“The way they were set up, they respond together, and we’re graded on that response time in conjunction with each other,” Lompra added. “The first unit must arrive within the first three minutes of an incident, and the second unit must arrive and be showing water within four minutes.”
“Showing water” is a phrase airport firefighters use to describe how fast they get the powerful water flows from their tanker trucks on a fire, or a simulated fire. Valley International, he said, is beating that three-minute standard.
While they do use the new trucks to practice, much of their training makes use of a simulator, much like the ones airline pilots use to train and keep in flying form.
Valley International was the first airport to receive a funded simulator approved by the FAA. The FAA paid for 90 percent of the cost of the $21,000 fire and rescue simulator, and Valley International paid the rest, Wren said.
“The simulator was purchased through Oshkosh,” Lompra said. “There are a number of different simulators out there, but the main advantage to this simulator is that it mirrors the exact same control system mounted in the truck (Charlie 2).”
Lompra and Wren both said the simulator’s advantage is that it is far more versatile when it comes to challenging training firefighters.
“I can throw different scenarios at them, like collapsing the landing gear while they’re on it, or firing off an engine fire at the same time,” Lompra said. “That gives us the ability to create an operational scenario that’s much more realistic.”
So the next item on the agenda is making the two Charlies feel right at home.
Wren said the airport will be sending out a notice for bids to construct a new building for the rescue and firefighting trucks. The $3 million project — 90 percent of it funded by an FAA grant, the rest by the Passenger Facility Charge — includes living quarters for firefighters, and will be just under 10,000 square feet. Bids will go out in May, and he said construction should begin by August.