Passenger safety at risk
When you’re adjusting your tray table and strapping your seat belt as your plane prepares to land, you assume that on the ground at the airport, there is a fully functioning firefighting team that meets all international standards and regulations ready and waiting.
Just in case.
Australian passengers would be alarmed to discover that not always what’s really happening.
The aviation branch of the United Firefighters Union (UFU) has sounded the alarm after aviation regulators failed to maintain a safe level of fire safety at airports. Staff cutbacks during the pandemic have left firefighting numbers short and with distressing consequences.
UFU Aviation Branch Secretary Wes Garrett told On the Job that passengers’ safety is the sole focus of his members, and that the systemic understaffing of firefighters was putting the lives of air travellers at risk.
“There’s a lot of people out there not aware that there are firefighters at airports because we are out of sight, out of mind for a lot of the time, but we operate under international regulations,” he said.
“We deal with large, hydrocarbon fires, or large fuel fires, because aircraft carry very large quantities of fuel and we need to be able to respond.”
“We need to be able to get from the fire station to the end of any of the runways within three minutes so that we can make an immediate intervention,” Garrett said.
Three minutes between survival and disaster. Yet due to its systemic understaffing of fire crews, Australia’s aviation industry is playing with fire when it comes to passenger safety, according to Garrett.
“It should be the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), the regulator, that ensures that these kinds of things do not happen,” he said.
“There’s been a cost cutting agenda (with the previous government). We’re hoping we will be able to turn that around, but this problem is well progressed.”
“What we’re saying is that we are not able to put enough people at stations to meet [our] regulatory requirements and there are thousands of aircraft flying around the country that are not being covered by the appropriate staffing levels.”
UFU members call out systemic understaffing
The UFU Aviation Branch Secretary said that the problem emerged when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
One problem that emerged was around a retirement incentive scheme, which saw the incentivised retirement of almost 100 hundred fire fighters. Garrett explained the scheme had taken “a big chunk” out of the workforce.
“The amount of overtime that’s been worked at some of our locations is astronomical as our firies go out of their way to plug holes, but even with that excessive amount of overtime, we’re unable to meet the requirements on a regular basis at a number of airports.”
Refusal to leave public safety in limbo
The UFU Aviation Branch has put a ballot to its members that would see planes grounded around the country as part of the union’s campaign to ensure safety standards and ensure passenger safety.
“There’s always a reluctance for fire and emergency services to ever have a stop-work because it impacts on public safety. That’s something that is one of our core values, it’s something that we take very seriously.”
Such action is only ever a last resort for union members and delivers a message to the public: how is it that we have reached this point?
It is the CASA who have failed to provide adequate safety and emergency response services at our airports and are letting down travelers.
“They’re not going to tell you about it, but we’re being up front and letting everyone know what is happening, and frankly right now, it isn’t good enough,” Garrett said.
“In the end, their inaction has left us with two options: continuing to put the travelling public at risk, or bring these issues to the most important stakeholders – the public.”