Mike Wilbur

Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting Vehicles

The history of Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) vehicles can be traced back to 1937 when Chief J.K. Schmidt demonstrated a high pressure fog appliance at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida under the auspices of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers. Chief Schmidt modified a Peter Pirsch 750 gpm pumper replacing the hose bed with a 250 gallon water tank and using a high pressure fog nozzle that was utilized by local citrus farmers, introduced the first apparatus specifically designed to combat aircraft and fuel fires.

Like many traditions within the fire service the acceptance of new technology was not immediately adopted. As commercial aircraft and airports were built and expanded fire protection resources were limited until the outbreak of World War II when the military took the lead in providing adequate fire/rescue equipment to protect assets around the globe. During 1947 when the U.S. Air Force became a separate branch of the military the emphasis on fire protection research and ARFF vehicles took center stage and today’s apparatus designs are credited to the early pioneers in Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting.

Over the years there have been several manufacturers who specialized in building ARFF vehicles including American and Ward LaFrance, Maxim and Walter Motor Truck among others. While today’s modern ARFF vehicles look nothing like their predecessors Emergency One, KME, Oshkosh, Pierce and Rosenbauer are some of the companies that have engineered specialized apparatus for both civilian and military applications.

There are several standards that govern the basic designs and capabilities of ARFF apparatus including Federal Aviation Administration circulars and National Fire Protection Association Standard 414. Developing specifications for ARFF apparatus can be dependent upon the source of funding for apparatus at municipal airfields with each branch of the military developing their requirements based upon assessments of installation needs and the size of airframes assigned to these locations. For these reasons there is a fair amount of standardization in the vehicle suppression systems and components which enables personnel to safely operate a wide range of equipment.

Unlike structural fire apparatus utilized in the United States, ARFF vehicles are designed for use around the globe and have more of a European appearance. The Oshkosh Corporation introduce the Global Striker ARFF apparatus with capacities up to 4500 gallons of water, including high reach extendable turrets. Several of these units are protecting Washington Dulles and Regan airports equipped with 2000 gpm pumps, 3000 gallons of water, and 420 gallons of foam along with 1000 pounds of dry chemical. These units have both bumper and roof monitors capable of flows up to 1250 gpm.

Municipal fire departments often maintain responsibility for airfield fire protection including the Truckee Fire Protection District in California. Personnel at the department worked with Rosenbauer to design a unique vehicle capable of both structural and airfield fire protection. Assigned to the Truckee/Tahoe Airport, Engine 96 is a 2015 International 7500 chassis equipped with a Rosenbauer rear mounted 1250 gpm pump, foam system with a 750 gallon water tank. The apparatus is outfitted with remote control monitors on the front bumper and left rear body corner with a full complement of hydraulic rescue tools. The apparatus was specifically designed for off road use with increased angle of approach and departure.

ARFF vehicles are designed to operate with a limited number of personnel as staffing levels can vary widely from location to location. The chassis platforms for these units must meet stringent requirements for acceleration to meet FAA requirements for response times with virtually all vehicles using a rear engine design to accommodate the fire suppression systems.

The United States Navy operates a large fleet of ARFF vehicles in locations with a wide range of climatic conditions. Like many departments, the availability of fire station bay space can dictate the size of apparatus that can be housed inside of the station. For this reason the US Navy has developed a specification for a low profile 1500 gallon ARFF vehicle with an overall height of 148 inches while equipped with a 500 pound dry chemical system and 200 gallons of foam with both roof and low reach bumper turrets. Several of these KME Force model ARFF units are serving at naval installations powered by Caterpillar C-18 engines rated at 700 horsepower.


These vehicles are built with a composite body with integral water and foam tanks using roll up shutter doors for the body compartments. Equipment carried on ARFF vehicles is largely dependent upon whether the units are responsible solely for airfield protection or are designed with a structural fire package with attack lines and a pump panel. Due to the off road capabilities of these vehicles, equipment mounting and placement is critical to enable personnel to safely and effectively operate with their appliances.

Some ARFF vehicles are designed to operate at remote locations where the apparatus must be self-reliant to provide a combination of firefighting resources. The U.S. Navy has placed into service several twin agent vehicles built by Pierce Manufacturing. These units are built on an International 7400 four wheel drive chassis on a 189 inch wheelbase with an overall length of 310 inches. The extended cab is provided with two slide out trays with tool boards to accommodate protective gear, SCBA’s and forcible entry tools.

The apparatus is outfitted with two fire pumps including a hydraulically driven 500 gpm main pump along with a 20 gpm ultra-high pressure pump, 500 gallon water tank and 50 gallon foam cell. A 200 pound dry chemical system supplies a rear mounted 150 foot reel along with a bumper turret for pump and roll applications. These units are equipped with several attack lines, an assortment of portable fire extinguishers, battery powered hydraulic rescue tools and ground ladders.

While an old bromide “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”, this statement still applies today. ARFF apparatus has advanced incredibly over the years with manufacturers partnering with departments responsible for airfield fire protection to enhance vehicle safety and performance.

PHOTO CAPTIONS FOR AA-December 2015, ALL PHOTOS by Tom W. Shand

#1. The Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority operates several Oshkosh Global Striker ARFF units including Foam 345. Note the use of scene lighting on top of the body.

AA #1 MWAA Regan Foam 345 2013 Oshkosh Global Striker

#2. Truckee Fire Protection District Engine 96 serves as a combination ARFF and structural pumper and is equipped with both front bumper and body mounted remote control monitors.AA #2 TRUCKEE AIRPORT ENGINE 96 Rosenbauer

#3. Truckee Engine 96, a 2015 International/Rosenbauer pumper carries a wide assortment of attack lines, hand and hydraulic forcible entry tools and stabilization gear.


#4. The U.S. Navy base in San Diego operates several low profile KME Force 1500 gallon ARFF units. Note the low attack bumper turret with dual flow capabilities.

#5. One of the U.S. Navy twin agent vehicles which are designed to operate a remote airfield locations. These vehicles have both structural and ARFF responsibilities and carry a wide assortment of portable equipment and hand tools.

#6. A U.S. Navy twin agent unit undergoes acceptance testing for pump and roll operations.


Mike Wilbur

Tom W. Shand



Follow Us