Trouble in the tower: Air traffic controllers practice fire-evacuation training

  • Published
  • By Christopher Decker
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The air traffic control tower tends to stand out on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s Area A. More than 120 feet tall, the tower cab provides an unobstructed, 360-degree view of the surroundings so controllers can visually scan the air and provide aircraft with a safe path to the ground.

Usually, it’s a very isolated perch, but on this chilly winter day of Feb. 6, the tall tower has a companion. A fire engine is parked alongside with ladder bucket extended up to share the view. It’s the central figure of an evacuation exercise.

Master Sgt. Stephen Greathouse, 88th Operations Support Squadron tower chief controller, explained the mindset behind this day’s training.

“As air traffic controllers, we deal with emergency situations with aircraft all the time. We train on it all the time,” he said. “This is a different type of emergency that we don’t necessarily think about.”

Access to the control tower is a cramped journey up a small, secure elevator and narrow, winding stairs. It is not an easy structure to evacuate quickly, which is why District Chief Timothy Howells is here with his Wright-Patterson Fire Department crew.

“We need to make sure that we have the ability to rescue people from there, that we have all the tools that are necessary for that,” he said. “And we’re not going to know for sure until we do it. Until we practice it.”

This day’s exercise is more crawl than run. During a real emergency, tower personnel would hurriedly evacuate their nest to the sounds of sirens and direction of firefighters with safety lines, followed by an urgent climb down the 125-foot ladder – one rung at a time.

But this is a familiarization exercise, so a single hard-hatted Airman calmly exits the observation room, makes her way sedately across the exposed catwalk and carefully finds a place next to the firefighter occupying the mechanical bucket for a slow descent to the ladder truck below.

This deliberate, step-by-step exercise lays the groundwork for the chief’s firefighter team to operate at a more vigorous pace.

“It helps them see the process. It helps them understand that it’s not just throwing the ladder up and having people jump into the bucket,” Howells said. “They have to realize that we have to be close enough to the building for our ladder to reach. They get to see that placement of the vehicle. They get to see how we tie people off in order to transition them over to the bucket. So it’s just a good experience for them to see.”

Whereas in a real emergency, he added, “we’ve got 2 minutes to get out the door. We’re going to be over here in 2 minutes, 30 seconds. And then you’ve got the time to set the ladder up, which takes a little bit to get the outriggers out and get the ladder in position. But it would happen a lot faster than what happened today.”

The day’s activity was a low-key affair, but still an unusual sight for Greathouse.  

“I’ve been in 14 years and this is my first time experiencing an actual hands-on controller going over the catwalk, so it’s very rare that we get to do an actual exercise like this,” he said.

Although only a single Airman actually evacuated the building, the activity still benefited the entire air traffic controller team.

“You know, if they actually have a fire in the tower cab, then they know what to do and they know how to get out,” Greathouse said. “They know that they can get out safely and they don’t have to worry about their life being in danger.”