Coffs Harbour Airport at high risk of going up in smoke after Airservices slashes aviation fire fighters

Airservices Australia has slashed the number of aviation fire fighters at Coffs Harbour Airport, according to new research, raising fears the region’s tourism industry could go up in smoke.

Aviation Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFFS) crews at Coffs Harbour have been slashed from category 6, down to as low as category 5. This represents four fewer highly-trained fire fighters on call in case of an emergency.

“Coffs Harbour is a busy airport – prior to COVID-19 it was due to be upgraded to a higher level of ARFFS response, but now it’s at risk of losing its specialist aviation firefighter response,” said Greg McConville, national president of the United Firefighters Union of Australia.

“If something went wrong at the airport this would decimate Coffs Harbour and the region’s tourism industry. When Australians can again travel freely interstate, it’s worth remembering 58% of that is done by the air. But they can’t return to the skies if we’re not here on the ground in full force.

“Aviation fire fighters are a specialised workforce trained to respond to any incident within two minutes. It’s work that civil brigades can’t do. The public isn’t necessarily aware of just how significant the reduced number of crews are, but it can be the difference between a minor event being contained or becoming catastrophic.”

At Coffs Harbour Airport, ARFFS crews are responsible for the protection of its helicopter operations; Air Ambulance; Australian Defence Force aircraft; fuel farm/storage unit with approximately 70,000 litres of stored and dispensed fuel; large gas storage and distribution centre. Additional safety concerns surround the cessation of the air traffic control tower on weekends.

The union commissioned the Rescue, fire fighting and emergency response capacity at Australian airports during the COVID-19 pandemic report by the University of Newcastle’s Centre of Full Employment and Equity to establish the level of preparedness at Australia’s airports to prevent a catastrophic loss. 

The report established crews at Australia’s biggest airports, including Sydney, Avalon, Brisbane, Perth, Canberra and Darwin, are all operating on below standard crew levels, despite many storing some $16.2 billion worth of aircraft. The report found Sydney International Airport had 90 grounded planes, Brisbane had 70, Avalon had 36, and Adelaide 15.  

Between March and June aviation fire fighters responded to more than 700 incidents across Australia. 

The sharp drop in air traffic has decimated Airservices revenue stream, raising fears of redundancies across Australia. The report warns this may crimp the aviation’s industry ability to snap back post COVID-19. The union is calling on the government to back Airservices. 

“The training to become an aviation fire fighter is a big investment, but with such an uncertain future the younger recruits are considering leaving the force. Without long term security and investment in Airservices we are risking people not seeing it as a viable, secure employment option. The sector won’t be able easily snap back once planes return to the skies.”

In 2019, a unanimous report from Senate Standing Committees on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport called for an overhaul of Australia’s aviation rescue and fire fighting system, to bring it in line with international standards. COVID-19 makes addressing the flawed methodology for how ARFFS is provided in our airports a matter of critical urgency.