Uniform firefighting procedure for railway tunnels in Switzerland

  18. September 2018

In an intensive, four-year work process, the Didactic and Development Team (DDT) at the International Fire Academy has defined a practice-oriented tactic for incidents in railway tunnels and defined the necessary training. The "Railway Tunnel Firefighting Procedure" was approved in autumn 2018 by the Conference of the Swiss Fire Service Inspectors as a binding training basis for Swiss fire services and is also the basis for the courses offered by the International Fire Academy for non-Swiss fire services.

Four key challenges are identified

The DDT is made up of interdisciplinary members: fire service inspectors, representatives of railway infrastructure and the Swiss Federal Office of Transport, employees of the International Fire Academy and the state fire school of Baden-Württemberg (D) as well as other fire service and railway experts. Together, the team identified four key challenges that fire services face when operating in railway tunnels:

– specific hazards of railway operations

– portals difficult to reach with road vehicles

– often unstable air flow conditions

– large penetration depths of up to several kilometres

Safety rules for operating on railway infrastructure

The DDT has adapted the existing safety rules for railway employees to the particularities of firefighting engagements for firefighters, particularly regarding the hazards posed by railway infrastructure and railway operations (see diagram). They provide the principles for safe behaviour at the scene of operation and relieve the fire services of the expectation of having to "understand" railway infrastructure and operations themselves and to assess them in terms of hazards. Instead, cooperation with a representative of the infrastructure operator is generally necessary.

"Extinguish in order to rescue" applies also in railway tunnels

The principle of "extinguish in order to rescue", first developed for firefighting in road tunnels, also remains valid in railway tunnels. The basic tactical pattern remains: gain control over the fire as fast as possible on the upstream side in order to quickly improve the conditions for search and rescue on the downstream side. However, most railway tunnels do not have mechanical ventilation, which is why the direction of air flow can change several times during an operation. In particular this has an impact on the possible depth of penetration that emergency personnel can travel in a railway tunnel. On the upstream side, they must also expect smoke at all times and should therefore not penetrate further than they can go back under respiratory protection in the event of a smoke reversal. The DDT provides the following orientation values for use with twin-bottle breathing apparatus (BA): penetration depths of around 500 m can be achieved with BAs, whereby the principle always applies that the firefighting team themselves decides when to turn back. On the upstream side, firefighting teams should not proceed further than about 1,000 m (while not using the BA on their backs) in order to have enough breathing air supply for a possible retreat in smoke.

Road–rail vehicles with secured space

Since railway tunnels in Switzerland cannot be used by road vehicles, special means of transport are required for large penetration depths. Fire and rescue trains (FRT) are ideal, but not always fast enough available. Then, for example, roll pallets can be used for transport, which - in contrast to the FRT- do not offer any secure space with its own air supply. Here the DDT sees development potential for road–rail vehicles with secured space, which are currently being planned by a railway company.

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