close
close

Firefighters warn Canadian airport fire regulations are putting passengers’ lives at risk

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which sets global standards for air safety and is headquartered in Montreal, requires airport firefighters to rescue passengers in emergencies as soon as possible.

However, Transport Canada assigns airport firefighters tasks whose primary responsibility is to provide passengers and crew with a fire-free escape route, It should be noted that this standard is not intended to limit the ability of emergency services to provide additional services.

In practice, says Philippe Gagnon, president of the Montreal Airport Firefighters Association, staffing levels mean airport firefighters have to wait for reinforcements from the municipal police to rescue plane passengers.

We would not be able to carry out the rescue operation in the time required by international organizations, he said. We would have managed to put out the flames, but then we would have had to wait before getting on the plane.

He fears that waiting could cost him his life. There is a risk of death.

A rescue team works at the scene where a Japan Coast Guard aircraft collided with a Japan Airlines (JAL) passenger plane on the tarmac at Tokyo International Airport in Haneda on January 2. Five people on board the Japan Coast Guard aircraft were killed.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images/Richard A. Brooks

Passenger safety ‘unnecessarily’ endangered

The government is investigating the issue but has declined to provide a specific outcome.

In December, the House of Commons passed a private motion by Liberal MP Ken Hardie calling on the government to improve Canada’s aviation regulations, warning that significant regulatory shortcomings was unnecessarily compromising passenger safety.

The proposal would bring Canadian regulations into line with international standards, requiring firefighters at Canada’s major airports to perform both rescue and firefighting duties; requiring rescue equipment to take no more than three minutes to reach any point on the runway; and specifying the number of personnel required to meet firefighting standards.

After the motion was passed, Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez informed the Standing Committee on Transport that the government examining the financial, operational and potential safety impacts of proposed changes to Canadian aviation regulations.

However, in a letter sent in May and seen by CBC, he wrote: We cannot give a clear answer at this time.

Rodriguez was not available for further comment.

Waiting for city firefighters to arrive at the airport in an emergency could cost lives, according to Chris Ross, president of the Montreal Firefighters Association and representative of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Olivier Plante

Minimum standards vary

Putting airport firefighters in charge of rescuing passengers from inside aircraft would require more staffing at many Canadian airports.

ICAO guidelines specify the minimum number of personnel needed to operate rescue equipment — for example, 10 firefighters to operate four fire trucks. Aviation standards set by the U.S. National Fire Protection Association suggest that an airport the size of Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver should have at least 15 airport firefighters on duty at all times, while an airport the size of Ottawa should have 12.

Airport advocates say Canadian airports meet minimum federal standards but do not meet stricter international regulations.

The Ottawa airport has at least four firefighters on duty, with five scheduled as normal, a spokesman said. The Toronto airport has at least 11 firefighters on duty, a spokesman said. The Montreal airport declined to provide a minimum staffing level, but Gagnon said it has scheduled five firefighters, sometimes down to four.

Only Vancouver Airport comes close to international standards in terms of staffing. An airport spokesman said there are between 12 and 19 firefighters on duty at any given time.

These minimum staffing levels are sufficient to operate fire trucks, but boarding an aircraft requires additional firefighters. In emergencies, airport firefighters call in reinforcements from city firefighters.

“Our Canadian aviation system is safe”

This causes delays, Gagnon said, adding that at Montréal-Trudeau International Airport, it can take an average of seven to 12 minutes to escort the fire department to the scene.

Response times at Ottawa’s Macdonald-Cartier International Airport can be even longer, he said, with city firefighters taking up to 15 minutes to arrive at the scene. An Ottawa airport spokesman said response times vary.

If Canada decides to adopt international safety standards, it will be necessary to increase the number of fire crews at airports.

Photo: Olivier Plante

According to Chris Ross, president of the Montreal Firefighters Association and a representative of the International Association of Firefighters, the fire could consume the plane in a much shorter time than the delays would suggest. We can talk about evacuation and rescue, but there is no need for evacuation or rescue anymore when these teams arrive on site, he said.

Municipal firefighters called to respond to airport incidents may not have completed the training necessary to respond to such situations, requiring improvisation, Ross said.

A passenger rights group representing airports says there is no cause for concern.

Our Canadian aviation system is safe, said Monette Pasher, president of the Airports Council of Canada.

This is It is the government’s duty to establish these regulations and the responsibility of airports to comply with these regulations, she added.

We comply with Canadian safety regulations and safety is at the heart of everything we do.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Estelle Côté-Sroka (new window)· Journalist

Estelle Côté-Sroka is a journalist at Radio-Canada in Ottawa. She covers federal public service issues. She can be reached at [email protected].