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Image of firefighters working to put out a flame on a planes engine
When the world’s farthest-flung international fire brigades need to learn how to battle big blazes, they make a beeline for one place: a 20-acre patch of land near Durham Tees Valley Airport
‘The IFTC has even managed to do a rare thing: convince the French that someone else can do something better than them’
Image of firefighter standing in front of plane's engine on fire

Ricky Wilson has a busy few weeks ahead of him: when we speak he’s filling out a visa application form to visit Saudi Arabia, and planning a trip to Buckingham Palace. It feels a long way from his time as a retained firefighter in Richmond, where he served his local community for 13 years. 

The firefighter took up a full-time role as an Aviation Firefighter at Durham Tees Valley Airport, then called Teesside Airport, in 1984, working there alongside his retained role in North Yorkshire. ‘It’s a disruptive lifestyle,’ he admits, ‘especially when you’re in a restaurant in the middle of a meal and a call comes in.’

But since 2001 Ricky has moved further into the North East, taking up a role at the Serco International Fire Training Centre (IFTC) in Teesside, where he is now Curriculum Manager for the aviation sector. The IFTC, barely heard of outside industry circles, is perhaps one of Britain’s most important exports to the world, training around 6,500 firefighters from around the world every year in how best to put out conflagrations and, ultimately, save lives. 

Crews from Romania, Tahiti, France and Germany all arrive on Teesside to be put through their training, tackling mammoth blazes that burn at extreme temperatures. ‘We’ve trained personnel from over 80 different countries,’ Ricky says. But it’s not just national fire brigades that send their bravest and best to the IFTC: NATO and the United Nations are also among those to gain expertise here.

Last year the IFTC was the first UK organisation to be given approval for its fire training services by the International Civil Aviation Authority, making the training centre one of the world’s best. It has recently been awarded the Queen’s Award for Export, and Ricky’s going to pick up the award at Buckingham Palace.

The 20-acre site stretches across a parcel of land near Durham Tees Valley Airport, featuring 14 different training rigs that can be adapted to create around 120 different scenarios. Initially a government-run facility training aviation firefighters under the control of the Civil Aviation Authority, it moved into the private sector in 1996. It still retained its title – and its prestige for training firefighters to the highest possible standards in the most difficult circumstances.

The IFTC trains firefighters in aviation, offshore and industrial work, including a small amount of marine-based firefighting. ‘We do a broad spectrum of training,’ explains Ricky, who is one of 14 full-time tutors and eight associate tutors (who work on a casual basis). The trainers provide bespoke courses for their clients, depending on their needs. For British brigades working at airports (the IFTC trains around eight in every 10 fire forces you’ll see at British airports), the syllabus is a standard one, but for the farther-flung visitors to the training facility, there are options to adapt the courses to their needs.
‘The Royal Saudi Air Force requested a 14-week training course, quite an extensive one, which covered all the technical understanding required for firefighting, from the basic recruitment right the way through to the firefighter role,’ explains Ricky (hence his visit). ‘They’ll also apply the technical knowledge, familiarisation with the airport fire vehicles, before culminating in the final weeks with extensive aviation exercises on the fireground.’

Those aviation exercises are exactly what you’d expect. A small team of technical support staff set up a training rig – whether that’s a downed helicopter, a plane, or something else – with the required materials that will start a fire equivalent to that found in a real-life emergency incident. They then set it on fire, and the firefighters in training then try to tackle the flames, putting into practice what they’ve learned in classrooms at home and at the IFTC.

‘There are never two days the same,’ says Ricky: ‘we get to do some fantastic things and see some weird and wonderful things, too.’

The obvious question many would ask is why, if you’re a NATO firefighter, do you need to travel to Teesside to learn how to put out fires? There are a number of reasons, says Ricky. ‘First of all, our reputation and the skills of the tutors are acknowledged worldwide.’ Unlike other trainers of fire crews, most of the Serco team (including Ricky) work full-time. Secondly, the 20-acre facility is better equipped than most to deal with the large-scale training scenarios that most accurately represent the kinds of incidents that firefighters will be called to deal with at airports, on offshore oil and gas facilities and at sea. If a country wants to train their firefighters to deal with a raging fire coming from a plane engine, the IFTC can create that. They mimic real fires to such a high degree that it becomes safer to fly people into Teesside for training than to try and do a half-baked imitation elsewhere. ‘We have dispensation to set live fires with aviation fuel,’ explains Ricky. ‘They’re getting a realistic approach to training. A lot of schools use LPG gas which doesn’t give you the realism aviation fuel does, including the smoke and the way the fire burns.

‘The Polish are regular visitors,’ says Ricky. The German fire brigade, the Luftwaffe, visit three or four times a year. NATO bring over firefighters for training even more regularly than that: attendees pull on their helmets, boots and breathing apparatus every couple of months.

The IFTC has even managed to do a rare thing: convince the French that someone else can do something better than them. The facility has been given accreditation to run the French national fire training. ‘It’s quite unique to get that sort of accreditation from the French,’ says Ricky. ‘Allowing someone to operate outside of their own country is rare.’

It’s an exciting job that Ricky says he wouldn’t change for the world. ‘We do a varied amount of work and see and do a lot of things people wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to,’ he explains. Quite aside from tackling rare blazes on a regular basis, it’s allowed Ricky to travel the world, providing follow up training to those who originally trained at the IFTC. It also brings some of the world’s most vital emergency service workers to our shores, ensuring that in the event that the very worst happens, the people who come to our aid will be able to tackle the very worst fires – and will likely have learned how to do so on a scrub of land in Teesside.

Published in: October 2017

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