At 3pm on a Friday afternoon, the alarm goes off and instinctively you know what to do. Leaving your tea half drunk and your PowerPoint presentation open on the desktop, you grab your bag and coat (even though you’re told not to) and head outside to have your head counted by a colleague in an attractive high vis jacket.
Though everyone knows how important it is to treat every office fire drill like a real event and get out quickly, your job doesn’t depend on your performance. On the other hand, if you’re cabin crew, fire and smoke training is a very different experience! Right from the start, crews on initial training courses are put through their paces and must pass all their fire and smoke (FAS) exams to earn their wings to fly.
I’m an instructor so I get to experience a lot of FAS days. A recent one started with a 3.30 am alarm call. After tip toeing around as not to wake the household I managed to find and put on my ‘sky suit’ (my make-up and my smile), before heading in to report for duty at 5 am! It’s a tough start to the day, but since a great deal of our impeccable safety record comes down to training (well I would say that because I teach it!) it’s a necessary evil.
A fire and smoke day usually starts at the fire station with a presentation, delivered by a Fire Officer. After a thorough recap of theory and protocols, we get down to the nitty gritty of putting out real fires under controlled conditions. A mockup of various aircraft locations i.e. an overhead locker, a seat or a toilet was set alight using real fire under controlled conditions. In real life, we’d be using gas fire extinguishers, but during practice we just use water. It might sound a teeny bit obvious but the trick to using the fire extinguishers is to hold the trigger the right way round otherwise you will fire it in your face… and that’s not nice!
At our Luton HQ we have our own cabin training facility where we carry out the crew and pilot practical exercises. The cabin trainer basically mimics the inside of an aircraft cabin and is based on a single aisle aircraft, 6 seats across (three either side) with 9 rows in total. There are the usual windows, blinds and overhead lockers you’d expect, plus a dummy toilet compartment, a galley at each end with trolleys, cupboards full of equipment and also galley electrics to operate the real aircraft ovens.
On top of that, the doors are fully functional, with standard aircraft exit and emergency doors. As we operate several different aircraft, the mock up features a variety of doors so we can practice on them, including Boeing 757, A321 and A320 doors. One of the safety requirements is that crews practice opening doors and exits not normally used in everyday circumstances. This gives everybody the opportunity to refresh on the actual size, operation and weight of the exits.
In order to satisfy regulatory requirements, cabin crews must complete firefighting scenarios wearing portable breathing equipment such as smoke hoods. Crews demonstrate the fire fighting, communication skills and teamwork protocols that they’ve learned in class. To spice things up, we introduce cosmetic smoke into the cabin trainer to make the conditions confusing and stressful, to see how crew will cope. Those crew not directly involved in the fire fighting are briefed to act as passengers, some of whom panic and generally cause a commotion. That’s when the Oscar winning performances kick in!
As we all know, smoke travels, so the instructor running the exercises needs to make sure the smoke exhaust is turned on so smoke doesn’t escape into the surrounding offices. If someone forgets (as happened once in the past) the fire alarms are set off and the whole of the HQ building is evacuated! A bit embarrassing to say the least to have to explain this to fire safety officers when the CEO and Managing Director are stood outside in the pouring rain! (Before you ask I’m not guilty of that one!)
It’s fair to say when a fire and smoke day appears on your roster, it’s dreaded, because these days usually prove to be long, tiring and challenging. However, the crews absorb a vast amount of information within a few short weeks and demonstrate key skills to a high standard. They have to be proficient firefighters and paramedics as well as highly trained in customer service by the end of their training and thankfully we come out of it confident in ourselves and in each other, which is so important for teamwork in an emergency.
Thanks for reading, Lisa
Lisa will be back in a couple of weeks with another interesting story about life as cabin crew. If you’ve got any questions or comments, please let us know!