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Passenger Cabin Fire

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Article Information
Category: Fire Smoke and Fumes Fire Smoke and Fumes
Content source: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
Content control: Air Pilots The Honourable Company of Air Pilots

General

Crews should follow company approved emergency procedures and manufacturers' guidance regarding the conduct of the flight, management of aircraft systems, identification of the source of a suspected fire, and fire fighting. Company procedures can vary greatly so it is important to learn and to be familiar with your own particular company procedures.

Description

This article considers some aspects of airmanship which are applicable to all aircraft and situations.

Effects

A significant Fire in the passenger cabin, a lavatory, galley, or luggage compartment within the cabin during flight is among the worst situations that crew can be faced with.

  • Crew Incapacitation. Heat, toxic smoke, and fumes building up in this confined space can quickly incapacitate the crew and passengers and may lead to death by suffocation or the inhalation of toxic gasses.
  • Loss of Control.
    • Panic among passengers, rushing to either end of the aeroplane may create an out of balance condition making the aircraft difficult to control.
    • Aircraft systems may be damaged leading to a loss of control situation.

Time may be critical - an established in-flight fire is difficult to bring under control, so every effort, using immediate and aggressive action, must be made to extinguish the fire as soon as it is detected. See the article Fire in the Air.

Types of Cabin Fire

Most North American and European carriers prohibit smoking in the aircraft. This, coupled with the use of fire resistant materials, has reduced the likelihood of a seat or trim fire caused by a cigarette. Nevertheless, despite highly publicised criminal charges being made against offenders, a small minority of passengers continue to smoke in the lavatories.

  • Galley fire. Airlines comment that most in-flight and ground fire/smoke events relate to the galley and involve some kind of electrical equipment. Oven fires may occur because of inappropriate items being placed inside the oven or because of overheating of food items, or an electrical malfunction. In addition to ovens, there is a lot of equipment in the galley which could cause a fire (e.g. coffee makers/water heaters, especially if selected on with no or insufficient water, and trash compactors).
  • Electrical fire. Electrical fires can be quickly controlled by cutting off power to the piece of equipment concerned. However, the source of the smoke and/or fire, and the electrical system concerned, may not always be easily identified, or accessible.
  • Lavatory fire. Lavatory fires are often caused by burning cigarettes being placed in the waste paper bin, but there is also electrical equipment inside a lavatory which may cause a fire (e.g. toilet flush, lights, etc)
  • Waste container fire. Waste container fires may have many different causes: burning cigarettes, excessive heat due to spilt hot drinks or hot plates, or chemical reactions. Waste container fires are normally easily contained.
  • Seat fire. In flight seat fires are rare because of the fire resistance of materials used in construction and are easy to identify. Increasingly complex entertainment systems and services supplied to individual seats do present the possibility of an electrical fire in a seat.
  • Passenger PED Fire. PEDs are more likely to be a fire source when in use or being charged than when in an overhead locker.

Aircraft Equipment

  • Smoke detectors. Optical Smoke Detectors are installed in aircraft toilets and usually in cargo compartments as well. They are usually only activated by a significant reduction in visibility attributable to thick smoke from, say, a waste bin fire. Cigarette Smoke will not usually activate them.
  • Portable fire extinguishers. Portable extinguishers are to be found in the cockpit and in the cabin. They are designed to fight small fires and, as such, their capacity is limited. The portable fire extinguishers may contain HALON 1211 (BCF), Water Glycol, or CO2 as extinguishing agents.
  • Automatic fire extinguishing systems. Some aircraft have automatic fire suppression systems in the lavatory waste bins. Cargo compartment systems usually require a deliberate action from the crew to discharge. On long range aircraft, the cargo fire suppression agents are usually slow release in order to afford protection long enough for the crew to fly to an airport from the worst case position (e.g. where an aircraft has a 180 minutes ETOPS capability).
  • Fire/crash axe/crowbar. Fire axes were provided to obtain emergency access to areas and parts of the airplane which are not easily accessible (e.g. behind sidewall, electrical or ceiling panels). The handle is insulated to protect against electric shock. In the past, fire axes might be found in the flight deck and in the passenger cabin but on most carriers, in compliance with anti-terrorism regulations and procedures, axes are no longer carried and have been replaced by insulated crowbars in the passenger/cargo compartment.
  • Fire protection gloves. These gauntlet-type gloves are kept in the flight deck and/or in the cabin to protect the user against heat/fire. They can also be used to handle hot or sharp objects. Furthermore they will provide protection from evaporative cooling at the portable fire extinguisher nozzle during discharge.
  • Smoke protection devices. There are several different smoke protection devices for cabin and flight deck crews. Protective Breathing Equipment) (PBE) most commonly referred to as a Smoke Hood, incorporates a small oxygen generator or cylinder, which provides the wearer with oxygen for a limited amount of time, typically 15-20 minutes. Portable oxygen bottles with full face masks are also carried in aircraft cabinsand some flight decks. Full face masks are primarily used for fire fighting because they provide a tight seal keeping smoke out and preventing oxygen from leaking out.
  • Smoke goggles. Smoke goggles may be found in the flight deck for use with PBE. Some aircraft are equipped with oxygen masks with integral smoke goggles.
  • Fire Blankets. Some operators have fire proof blankets onboard which can be used to suffocate a fire by cutting off the supply of oxygen.

Fighting the Fire

Firstly identify the type of fire. This is determined by the fuel being combusted.

  • Detection of fires within the aircraft cabin or flight deck usually depends on the ability of the cabin or flight crew member to see or smell smoke. Detecting the location of the seat of the fire can be particularly difficult due to air flow distribution within the aircraft.
  • Experience shows that fires can start in inaccessible locations, making it difficult or impossible to extinguish the fire. A fire in the ‘attic’ of Swissair Flight 111 spread rapidly without the ability of the crew to extinguish it due to its location. There was no means to direct a fire-extinguishing agent at the source of the fire in the area above the interior ceiling.
  • The inability to access the source of the fire is a serious limitation that significantly reduces the likelihood of successfully extinguishing it. All fire extinguishers work best when they are discharged at the base of the fire. The Flight Attendants on Air Canada flight 797 observed the increase of smoke as the fire progressed behind the lavatory wall but recognised that the fire was inaccessible.

Types of Fire

SOLID fuels such as paper/wood, fabric, plastic are best extinguished by H2O/Glycol extinguishes which will smother/saturate/cool the fuel.

LIQUID fuels such as petroleum based fluids are best extinguished by smothering agents such as Dry Powder, CO2, Foam, BCF. But not water extinguishers.

GAS fires are extinguished by smothering agents such as CO2, BCF or Fire Blanket.

METAL fires e.g. Batteries once burning are extremely difficult to control and can only be extinguished using specialized Gel agents that smother and cool after first attacking the fire with BCF.

Basic Fire Fighting Principles

  • FIND AND IDENTIFY type and source of fire or smoke
  • EXTINGUISH fire immediately and aggressively
  • COMMUNICATE with the flight crew
  • COLLECT all necessary fire fighting equipment
  • WATCH for re-ignition
  • PASSENGERS - re-seat away from fire/heat, instruct to protect nose and mouth with tissues.
    • CAUTION: If moving passengers away from the source of the fire, consideration should be given to the effect this might have on the centre of gravity of the aircraft - this is particularly the case with smaller regional turboprop aircraft. If moving passengers to new seating, the cabin crew must keep the flight crew informed of their actions.

Aggressive fire fighting and timely communication is essential.

In some airlines, the flight attendant who discovers the fire "owns" the fire - they are the primary fire fighter. The second flight attendant on the scene assumes the role of "communicator". The communicator's first responsibility is to make the rest of the cabin crew aware of the problem and they respond by bringing all of the fire fighting equipment to the site to back up the fight. Second (immediate) priority is to advise the flight crew.

As soon as the flight crew is made aware of smoke in the cabin, they will go into the QRH Smoke/Fire checklist. Immediate actions may include turning off the cabin recirculation fans and going to override on the avionics blower and extract valves, in order to start eliminating the smoke, and turning the power to the galleys and cabin accessories off. Most critically, if the source of the smoke cannot be positively identified or the fire immediately extinguished, the flight crew may initiate diversion, ditching or landing off-airfield .

Communication

Communication with the flight crew is very important since the captain will need to make a judgment as to whether to continue the flight to destination, land at the nearest suitable airport, or, in extreme circumstances, where the aircraft may soon become uncontrollable, land off-airfield.

Security Considerations

Communication between flight crew and cabin crew has been made all the more difficult by the security requirement to keep the flight deck door closed. The captain might consider it appropriate for one of the pilots, especially if there is a third pilot/second officer, to go into the cabin in order to assess the situation. If so, security procedures should be strictly adhered to as it is possible the fire was started by someone deliberately to gain access to the flight deck. Furthermore, in a smoke and fumes situation, keeping the flight deck door closed can reduce the amount of smoke on the flight deck.

Accidents and Serious Incidents

The following events which feature a fire in the passenger cabin are included in the SKYbrary Accident and Incident database:

Fire - Cabin Baggage origin

  • A320, vicinity New York JFK NY USA, 2007 (A320 diversion to KJFK after signs of smoke from an overhead locker. The source of the fire was a lithium battery in passenger hand luggage.)
  • B738, en-route, Colorado Springs CO USA, 2006 (B738 diversion into KCOS following in-flight fire. The fire started after a passenger's air purifier device caught fire whilst in use during the flight. The user received minor burns and the aircraft cabin sustained minor damage.)


Fire - Galley origin

None on SKYbrary

Related Articles

Further Reading

RAeS and Air Pilots The Royal Aeronautical Society and Honorable Company of Air Pilots jointly revised and re-issued valuable reference documents on this topic, which should be used as first references for flight crew on this topic:

FAA

UK CAA

Airbus

FSF

ATSB

IATA