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Who Responds When a Rocket Explodes?
The Antares Incident at Wallops Flight Facility
Last updated September 3, 2016
The spectacular explosion was recorded and transmitted across the globe by spectators and journalists alike. The resulting fireball fell onto the launch facility, while debris was scattered for some miles.
Who were the firefighters that responded, and how did they fight that fire?
Let's take a virtual trip to NASA's Wallops Flight Facility to learn about their fire department, their equipment, and the mishap on the launch pad that night.
Part I - Department Profile
Station 1 is located on the mainland and protects the main base and its airfield. Station 2 is located on the island and protects the launch facility. They are approximately eight road miles apart.
Station 1 is located on the east side of Jensen Street at Oreiley Street. Building B-129 is a single-story station with six apparatus bays and faces Runway 17/35. It was built in 1955.
Station 2 is housed in Building X-15 on North Seawell Drive, which was also a payload processing facility prior to the blast. The fire station is located just 1,800 feet from the launch pad. The structure was built in 1955. The fire station was opened around 2000.
The building is a 5,740 square-foot, single-story structure with a large open space on one side, and offices on the other side. Three large bay doors faced south. Inside was a module that housed the fire department.
Both the module and the large bay doors were destroyed by the blast. The building remained intact, however, and the fire department relocated into converted offices on the second floor rear. NASA recently completed converting the offices into living quarters. They'll serve as Station 2 until a new permanent facility is completed. More on that later.
Personnel and Staffing
WFFFD typically staffs two engines and two EMS units per day on a three-platoon rotating schedule. One engine and EMS unit is assigned to each station. Additionally, one ARFF company with three personnel is deployed at Station 1 to support flying missions at the airfield depending on schedule activities.
Firefighters work a fifty-six hour work week, with each shift starting at 0800 hours. They're supervised by three Lieutenants and three Captains. The Fire Chief, AKA Chief Fire Officer, works daily during the week and as needed during significant events.
When major launches occur, the fire department is staffed with approximately twenty personnel. Plus the ARFF crew supporting the airfield, and additional mutual aid EMS personnel supporting the public at the visitors' center.
WFFFD answers between 1,000 and 2,000 calls each year. In 2011, for example, they responded to 344 emergencies, and handled 1,730 aircraft stand-bys.
The fire department performs a significant amount of aviation support, as those numbers indicate. They also respond to many emergency medical calls. There are not many fires on base, but they respond as mutual aid when requested for structure fires off-site.
They also perform many stand-bys for haz-mat and technical rescue. Each time a spacecraft is being fueled, crews are present and set-up for any haz-mat decon needs. When workers are using the launch pad or gantry, the fire department is there and ready for any technical rescue needs. That includes both high-level and confined space, as the tunnels around the pad require support for confined space rescue.
Wallops firefighters also perform inspections and life-safety tasks. WFFFD has a full fire-prevention inspection team, including certified Level III inspectors. They perform company-level fire inspections, conduct fire extinguisher inspections, teach extinguisher classes, teach CPR, perform code enforcement, and more.
Apparatus and Equipment
WFFFD is located in Accomack County and their county station numbers are Station 25 and Station 26. The unit numbers reflect these designations. Their fleet includes three engines (one in reserve), three airport crash trucks, and three ambulances (one in reserve), and some smaller vehicles and trailers. Future apparatus may include a quint and heavy rescue. Fire Chief Jim Atkins hopes to add each to the fleet, if NASA funding permits.
EMS services are ALS and are governed by state and local protocols. The firefighters are certified and equipped for high-angle and confined-space rescue. They're also certified at the Haz-Mat Technician Level.
The department is equipped for brush fire suppression and all-terrain response. There are no boats, though Chief Atkins would like to add that capacity as part of a special operations expansion in the future. They have miles of beaches (closed to the public) that face heavily used waterways, which translates to boaters with emergencies. Currently, the United States Coast Guard provides emergency water response from Chincoteague Island.
Where are the armored personnel carriers-turned-rescue tanks, you ask? There are no manned space flights from Wallops Island. The launch pad isn't certified as such and only unmanned missions are performed. Thus, there's no special equipment for crew rescue. WFFFD is a suppression shop, if you will, when it comes to launches.
By way of comparison, the Kennedy Space Center has more personnel and equipment as they have performed rescue functions for the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and shuttle programs. Their launch facilities are certified for manned launches and are equipped for such planned projects as Orion and Space X.
In addition to rocket launches, the flight facility is also used for aeronautical and environmental science programs, flight test support, NASA balloon program support, sounding rocket flights (sub-orbital flights), and both NOAA and Navy support.
About The Area
Where's the nearest emergency room, you ask? There's a Health Unit on base that's available for limited medical services in the event of an emergency during working hours.
Otherwise, the nearest ER is about an hour's drive north or south. Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital is about 40 miles south in Nassawadox, VA, and Peninsula Regional Medical Center is about 40 miles north in Salisbury, MD.
The base is located on the Eastern Shore and it's pretty rural. But they have air ambulances that they can use, both local private services and the Maryland State Police's medevac unit.
What about water supply? Wallops has its own municipal water system as well as waste treatment center. The capacity exceeds one million gallons and is supported by numerous static water supplies. All hydrants are well maintained and most structures have fire protection features such as sprinklers, deluge systems, and central-reporting alarm systems.
Remember the water tower seen in the pictures of the launch and subsequent explosion? (The tower's also shown in the Station 2 aerial photo above.) That's separate from the base system and holds a quarter million gallons of water that supports a deluge system. It's used to dump water into the base of the launcher. The system is activated for all launches and primarily act as a sound suppression system. (The water reduces the acoustical energy of the engines during the launch.)
About the Airfield
The Wallops Flight Facility Research Airport is located on the main base. There are three runways, from 8,748 feet to 4,808 feet in length. The airfield supports aviation testing done at Wallops. It also supports internal NASA aviation projects and assets, as well as the United States Navy at Pax River.
Wallops also provides support for unmanned aircraft from various sources, via a dedicated airstrip on the island. For example, during hurricane season, the "global hawk" aircraft are stationed at Wallops to perform science and monitoring of the Atlantic hurricanes.
The military frequently uses the airfield, most notably the Navy for flight operations. The airfield also remains in operation during launches, and thus one crew and crash unit is kept operation at Station 1 for those duties. On launch days, NASA owned aircraft perform monitoring of launches and surveillance of the range.
Part II - The Antares Incident
On the day of the launch, October 28, 2014, the fire department's personnel and apparatus were positioned in a couple of places. The Fire Chief was housed in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which is located on the main base in a sheltered location.
Firefighters and apparatus were staged outside the Pre-Launch Danger Area, in locations that can access the island quickly. Also, one ARFF unit stayed in service at the airfield, as flight operations continued at that location.
The Pre-Launch Danger Area is defined as based on the rocket's engine sizes, the hazards present, and fuel carried by the spacecraft. The specific size of the area changes based on the launch phase. Typically at the time of launch, it is greater than one mile.
Prior to the launch, all personnel are evacuated from the area, with the fire department staged on the perimeter so they can make a rapid approach if needed.
Aside: Think an exponentially larger version of the perimeter for a fireworks display. Everyone is kept out of any danger area. It's part of the larger safety effort that goes into a launch. The EOC monitors environmental conditions and both the Range Safety and Ground Safety folks can stop the launch for even the remote possibility of a negative impact to civilians. That is actually pretty common. The day before the mishap, for example, the launch was scrubbed due to a boat in the area that might have been impacted by the launch. The safety staff at NASA are vigilant in assuring that everything stays safe.
Preparing to Launch
Back at the EOC, mutual aid partners are present from state and local entities. Each has a liaison there for support. In the case of the Antares mishap, the Fire Chief merely had to turn to the Accomack County public safety representative to request a mutual aid fire response.
Launch preparations are started several hours before each launch. Conditions are also monitored typically for an hour after the launch. Even after a successful launch, small spot and brush fires are common. Those are handled by the fire department as a normal post-launch function.
The Antares rocket launched at 6:22 p.m. The 130-foot rocket was carrying Orbital Sciences' unmanned Cygnus spacecraft with 5,000 pounds of cargo for the International Space Station.
Six seconds after liftoff, the first stage of the rocket failed catastrophically. Mission Control activated the "flight termination system" just before the rocket struck the ground. This action resulted in the detonation of the rocket.
Fireball Captured on Film
This dramatic image was taken by NASA photographer Joel Kowsky of the fireball above the launch site. See larger version and more images.
Effects of the Blast
The shockwaves of the resulting explosion damaged a number of support buildings in the immediate area of the launch pad. Those were followed by flaming debris including the liquid fuel of the rocket. Though most of the fuel was consumed in the blast, some fuel was burning on the pad.
The solid fuel rocket booster exploded into pieces and fragments. Some of the burning debris was scattered at a distance and started what was soon a major brush.
After being cleared to enter the area by the Range Safety Officer, firefighters began cautiously approaching the site of the blast. There was no direct life safety threat and defensive operations were started.
No attempts to access the launch pad were made due to the hazards of the rocket debris. (They wouldn't approach the pad until the following morning, when the light was better.) Nearby buildings were protected as they assessed the situation for unseen hazards. The primary fire hazard, they determined, was instead a large brush fire moving north and threatening some critical structures.
Their primary strategy was again entirely defensive, with the objective of containing the brush fire to the southern end of the island.
With hazards at the pad precluding an approach, firefighters quickly decided to avoid that area since the burning rocket fuel was contained. They would let that fire burn itself out and instead turned their attention to the large brush fire that was started by burning fuel debris. Winds were increasing at that time of day and flames were reaching thirty and forty feet in height as they progressed toward other structures on the island.
Chief Atkins notes, "Initially we thought five to ten acres were involved. We later learned it was closer to fifteen. The three ARFF trucks were deployed for mass application of water. With their pump and roll capabilities they became mobile ground monitors. We didn't add any foam and only had to refill a couple times. And that was easy, as there was a hydrant right at the fire line."
Technically an urban interface fire, they created a fire break to stop the forward progress of the fire and protect exposures. The fire was moving north and was threatening the facilities on the north end of the island. The volume of fire was large but confined. In fact, the forty-foot flames were much more than seen at the burning launch pad.
Crews performed the suppression using in-cab views. There were no spotters on foot or in vehicles. They also had a Safety Officer present and who performed atmospheric monitoring for potential airborne hazards while they were fighting the fire. Fortunately, there was nothing unexpected in the air.
Visibility was very good, with the wind taking the smoke up and away from the trucks. In fact, the visibility was so good, the Fire Chief was able to validate their Incident Action Plan (IAP) at the start of operations. From there, they deployed their resources and brought a full stop to the fires in about an hour.
Chief Atkins notes: "Nothing happened that we didn't have a plan for. Though it looked quite dramatic on television, and the initial fireball was amazing, it was much more a methodical fire suppression operation. We moved very slowly. We didn't rush. We kept our adrenaline in check. We stuck to our plan and the guys did a great job putting the fires out quickly and safely. The most important thing was that no one was hurt."
Aside: About the IPA. The fire department performs extensive pre-planning for launches. They create multiple scenarios, and multiple Incident Action Plans based on those scenarios. It's a lot of work, but it pays off as it did after the Antares blast. One of their scenarios was a rocket explosion on the pad. The Fire Chief pulled out that IAP, and quickly validated that the plan was what was needed for the response. The plan was put to work and the crews were able to mitigate the emergency quickly and safely. Says Chief Atkins: "This was one of the more dramatic emergencies I have been on, but the response was exceptionally smooth and fairly easy to work."
With the late hour of the rocket launch, the amount of daylight quickly dwindled. After the brush fire was extinguished, the crews retreated from the island. Access was closed and conditions were monitored overnight. Says Atkins, "There was no need to push our luck in the dark with dangerous debris lying around. We didn't make entry into the area until morning and daylight when visibility was better and everyone had a chance to settle down from what had happened in the evening."
In addition to the response by the staged Wallops firefighters, additional resources were requested at the time of the blast. WFFFD performed a full off-duty recall and mutual aid was requested from Accomack County fire departments. Engines from Atlantic VFD, New Church VFD, Greenbackville VFD, and Chincoteague VFD (Station 3) were sent to the scene. They were staged outside the main gate, with a county Battalion Chief serving as mutual aid staging officer. (No other county departments responded, nor did outside NASA fire protection agencies respond.)
Says Atkins, "Fortunately these assets were not used as the fire situation was not as bad as initially expected. They were staged primarily in case of structural involvement from flying debris and burning fuel. But with minimal structural involvement, we were able to return them to service."
Notes Atkins, "We do provide mutual aid to the local area and we have a mutual aid agreement with Accomack County. Generally it is EMS support but there have been occasions in the past where we have sent structural fire units out of the gate to support large local structure fires. We do have a significant population on the base to include various NASA projects, aviation testing, as well as U.S. Navy assets and housing, so we are kept pretty busy here during day to day operations, but we try to help when called."
The morning after the explosion, the pad was turned over to NASA's Incident Response Team (IRT) for the investigation. With their emergency operations role concluded, Wallops firefighters began performing support functions. That included haz-mat support by performing air monitoring and escorted IRT members through the debris fields. The firefighters have monitors that detect the chemicals used in the rocket. WFFFD performed about three days of haz-mat support. The duties were then transferred to Wallops own environmental department.
Among the buildings near the pad, the building housing Station 2 was damaged in the incident. The structure was more than fifty years old and a replacement project was already underway. Wallops is building a new Station 2 that's located well north of the pad, and which will better withstand both the weather and future pad operations. Groundbreaking is planned for May or June of this year.
It'll be a structural station with an engine, ambulance, and ARFF unit to support the launch pads and the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) air strip that's located on the north end of the island. The timeframe of the project has been accelerated due to the damage encountered after the Antares mishap.
Designed by GMB Architects, the new station has being designed for its proximity to the ocean. The exterior shell will combat hurricane winds in excess of 150 MPH, and help prevent deterioration from salt air and windblown sand. Planned features of the facility include a training room, PPE storage room, laundry and decon room, and SCBA compressor room.
Station 2 still occupies Building X-15, though in a different section of the building, until the permanent facility is completed.
How rare are rocket incidents like the Antares mishap at Wallops? They're extremely rare.
The last major incident was the Conestoga mishap on October 23, 1995. The 100-ton commercial rocket was detonated forty-eight seconds after liftoff. It occurred well downrange over the Atlantic Ocean, and there was no effect on the pad or base facilities. There have also been minor failures of sounding rockets in the past. These also occurred downrange over the ocean.
Chief Atkins notes "To my knowledge, this is the largest incident Wallops has ever had and the only true pad accident we have ever had. Fortunately, as mentioned, we plan for these things, practice them, and apply lessons learned from all launches, successful or otherwise to ensure that risk is minimized.
"It is important to note that while the damage to the pad and facilities was significant, no one was hurt, no one was killed and a lot of the property was saved.
"I had an outstanding and professional team on the ground fighting the fire during the mishap and I am very proud that they performed so well. This was a first for all of us and they performed very well together. A lot of moving pieces came together pretty rapidly and worked together well to mitigate this mishap."
Part III - Historical Perspectives
Wallops Flight Facility is the oldest rocket launch facility in the United States. The first launch site was established on Wallops Island in 1945, by NASA's predecessor agency the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). In 1958, the facility was named Wallops Station and was now operated by the newly created NASA.
The following year, NASA acquired the entirety of Naval Air Station Chincoteague. (The air station was established in 1943 as Chincoteague Naval Auxiliary Air Station.) Engineering and administrative activities were moved from the island to the base. In 1960, a causeway and bridge were constructed from the mainland to Wallops Island. Access to the island was provided by a ferry prior to that time.
In 1974, the facility was named Wallops Flight Center, and in 1981 was named Wallops Flight Facility.
Wallops Damage Control
The fire department was originally named Wallops Damage Control. There were two fire stations on the main base. In addition to the airfield station (and current Station 1), a structural station was located nearby on Stubbs Boulevard at Rehor Road. Station 1 was built in 1946. The structure is still standing and is named Building C-15.
The fire station was closed in the 1970s or 1980s. That's when they changed from a civil-service fire department to a contracted agency. The fire department shrank in size and the airfield station became their Station 1.
The old fire station was used as a balloon payload facility, and currently houses Protective Services. WFFFD operated a single fire station until around 2000, when Station 2 was opened on Wallops Island.
The fire station was previously housed in a Quonset building, depicted in this annotated aerial photo circa 1946. The fire station is labeled as "12." Click to slightly enlarge:
Apparatus Profile - 2006
The September-October 2006 issue of Fire Apparatus Journal featured a profile of WFFFD and its fleet in an article written (and apparatus photographed) by Dennis Maag. The profile was particularly timely as the department began upgrading its fleet in 2007. Until that time, the fire department operated primarily "hand me down" rigs obtained from the Navy or other NASA facilities. Excellent article and excellent magazine. Click to enlarge:
Fire department fleet as listed in article:
Other pictures of those and earlier rigs can be found on this WFFFD MySpace page. Among the pictured rigs are a 1970s/1980s PemFab (maybe?) pumper, a 1960s (?) Cadillac ambulance, a 1953 Dodge M-56/Gichner Iron Works crash truck (equipped with PTO pump, 160 gallons water, 11 gallons of foam), and a 1940s (?) Seagrave pumper. Also pictured is 1970s (?) Yankee/Walter crash truck, as posted to this Fire Trucks at War posting. Click to enlarge:
In the March-April 1999 issue of Fire Apparatus Journal, author William Mulcahey provided a history of the Navy's M-5 crash truck. Included was this Joel Woods photo of a 1956/1957 Ward LaFrance M-5 400/400/30 that served at Wallops. The article incorrectly identifies the truck as American LaFrance.
One of the three 1984 E-One pumpers later served Lake Carey VFD, and was sold to Mt. Zion VFC.
Crash 25-10, the 1992 Amertek crash truck, later served in Lexington, NC. It was retired in 2014.
The primary source for the incident information was Wallops Flight Facility Fire Chief Jim Atkins. Thanks for your assistance Jim! Numerous secondary sources include:
Copyright 2017 by Michael J. Legeros