Fire attack in a training tunnel with two burning lorries

From the major fire in the Gotthard Road Tunnel in 2001 to deployment confidence in tunnel fires

After the major fires in road tunnels in 1999, the prevailing opinion was that fire services could do little about tunnel fires. Today, most fire services consider themselves well equipped for this task. Urs Kummer, CEO of the International Fire Academy, and Christian Brauner, head of the Didactics and Development Team, trace the development since 2001.

The start of the tunnel project on the day of the major fire

If you look back 20 years, what was the situation like in Balsthal immediately before the fire in the Gotthard Road Tunnel?

Urs Kummer: After the fires in the road tunnels of Mont Blanc and Tauern, it was clear to all fire service officers that they too could be confronted with a fire in a tunnel at any time. Accordingly, the cantonal fire service inspectorate thought about how to better prepare for such incidents. Furthermore, the Swiss Federal Roads Office (FEDRO) also set up a task force at an early stage to analyse and subsequently improve safety in its tunnels. As early as May 2000, the Task Force stated: It needs a training tunnel facility for emergency personnel. This report was the trigger for our tunnel project.

Christian Brauner: The driving force behind the tunnel project was Bernhard Fröhlich, Director of the Basellandschaftlichen Gebäudeversicherung (building insurance of Canton Basel and Canton Basel-Landschaft). Under his leadership, the kick-off meeting for the tunnel project took place at the Intercantonal Fire Service Training Centre: coincidentally on 24 October 2001 at 2 pm - a few hours after the fire in the Gotthard Road Tunnel.

How was the incident received at the time?

Christian Brauner: Just one week after the incident, FEDRO enabled the project group to visit the site and talk to emergency personnel. It led to close contacts that were later continued with the Schadenwehr Gotthard. Ultimately, we processed the incident into a case study for the officer training. The pictures and details from that time still make the drama of the incident immediately tangible today.

Research for the concept of the training tunnel

What were the next steps?

Christian Brauner: We sought intensive exchange with many fire services from Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.

Urs Kummer: Even then, there was close contact with the State Fire Service School in Baden-Württemberg. With this school, we also conducted the first international pilot course at our training tunnel facility in Balsthal in 2009. However, it was still a long way until then in 2001.

Christian Brauner: Not only in terms of organisation, but also in terms of subject matter, there was still a lot ahead of us. At the beginning of 2002, the prevailing opinion was: In a tunnel with a length of more than 400 m, the fire service can basically accomplish nothing. This meant that we had to develop new tactics and techniques. Nevertheless, first, we had focused on: What should the training tunnel look like? Which scenarios do we need?

What exactly did the development work for the training tunnel look like?

Christian Brauner: First, we evaluated tunnel firefighting operations. We talked to the few comrades who already had experience with tunnel firefighting operations. The key insight was: Build a training facility where fire services can experience the challenge of a tunnel fire under realistic conditions on the actual object.

Urs Kummer: In 2005, the official go-ahead was given: FEDRO commissioned the Intercantonal Fire Service Training Centre to construct the training facilities in Balsthal and Lungern, to develop a tunnel firefighting procedure and to offer training.

Christian Brauner: At that time Bernhard Fröhlich established the Didactics and Development Team (DDT). First, it was about technical issues. We wanted to burn real lorries for training and looked for an environmentally friendly solution with companies specialising in flue gas cleaning systems for hazardous waste incineration plants. But they said they could not give us a guarantee that such a system would work for us. And that's because we would do exactly what must not happen in waste incineration plants: Reduce the temperature and get everything wet. This would have produced the maximum amount of pollutants, resulting in the system being heavily contaminated.

Urs Kummer: So there was a lot that spoke against real fires: The environmental impact, the risk to the safety of the emergency personnel during drills, the costs for a special ventilation system to be able to ventilate the tunnel if necessary quickly, the large amount of set-up and disposal work before or after each drill, and so on.

Christian Brauner: Finally, the decisive factor was: In order to achieve a high learning effect, we wanted precisely defined, replicable operating conditions. This can only be achieved with gas fires. At the same time, the systems should be as close as possible to reality. There are six thick folders full of fire trials that we had evaluated, right next to me. The first didactic concept was a thoroughly scientific work. Everything is physically and chemically sound. So with a lot of considerations and evidence. The result is the training tunnel facilities as we operate them today.

Urs Kummer: What Christian has just mentioned is still present today: You have a mountain of information, and you have to precisely extract those relevant pieces of information for the operation in the tunnel. We not only incorporated the essential findings from this first phase into our training tunnels but later also into our first textbook «Firefighting Operations in Road Tunnels» condensed into a few pages under the topic of operating conditions.

From great scepticism to a unified procedure

The problems were not yet solved with the facilities. What was missing?

Christian Brauner: Reports on scientific fire trials in tunnels always spoke of temperatures far above 1000 °C. This did not fit in with the experience of the fire services. That's why we looked at the pictures of the Gotthard incident again, properly. In the media, there was always only the one picture with the cut-out of the two burning lorries. That there were also people standing there watching this hellfire is something that many have not noticed until today.

This gave origin to the fundamental distinction between the upstream and downstream sides. How did the tactics come about?

Christian Brauner: Yes. There was this one moment in the development work. We'd been tampering with the subject for ages. Suddenly there was this shout: «People, it's simple: Go in, superfast, on the upstream side and extinguish the thing. That it!» Werner Stampfli put it in a nutshell. And it was the solution. Then the second step was to develop it further to Tactics «Extinguish in order to rescue».

Urs Kummer: This may sound as if the Tunnel Firefighting Procedure was developed in a few meetings. But I remember just as well situations in which we all thought at first: «This works; now we have clarified one more point». And after a short pause, there was often a DDT member who interjected: «I have one more question…». Leading to everyone looking at each other and realising immediately: The problem is still not solved. It was like this many times, and it was valuable because it enabled all DDT members as well as numerous external experts to actively contribute to the development of the Procedure with their knowledge, experience, and questions. What this represents can perhaps be seen from the fact that decisions in the DDT were always made, and still are, only by consensus of all members - and at times, these were up to 18 seasoned experts. Only through this often exhausting process was it ultimately possible to develop and formulate a convincing Tunnel Firefighting Procedure.

Christian Brauner: At the beginning, there was a lot of scepticism in the firefighting world as to whether such a procedure was needed at all and whether we could achieve what we wanted to achieve. Today this is a matter of course. However, there were many persuasions to be done on the way. DDT members, especially the cantonal fire service inspectors, have also contributed significantly.

What promoted the acceptance of the solutions in the firefighting world at that time?

Urs Kummer: Within the DDT, we always emphasise that as much as possible of what needs to be done in underground transport systems can be done with standard firefighting equipment. There are very few exceptions, aids such as marking lights, search sticks and basket stretchers with wheels.

Christian Brauner: The aim was that everything we develop – such as tactics, techniques, and procedures – could be integrated as seamlessly as possible into the existing fire service system.

Urs Kummer: In Switzerland, two other aspects were also decisive for universal acceptance: The persuasion of the DDT members and that the Fire Service Inspector Conference (SFIK) officially sent a fire service inspector to the DDT from each region. In principle, from this point on: If they say it's OK in the DDT, then it's legit. Of course, we still submitted the procedures for road and rail tunnels to the SFIK plenary for approval to be officially recognised.

The training tunnel as a test laboratory for tactics and techniques

By the time the training tunnel facilities were completed in 2009, the tactics had also been developed. What happened next?

Urs Kummer: The tunnel was initially our laboratory, where we checked whether what we had devised worked. That was the task of our first team of instructors that we had built up. Because in the DDT we could have discussed what it means, for example, to carry someone over a long distance. But how something feels, you have to try it out. One of the first problems was securing the way back with a guiding line, leading to the line getting caught on the vehicles when it was put into practice. It resulted in the technique that in tunnels – and only in tunnels – the wall is the guide for the way back because it always leads to an exit.

Christian Brauner: We have also considered how to mark vehicles that have been searched. There was once the idea of carving a cross into the lacquer. But of course, that is not acceptable. Attaching straps to windshield wipers wasn't a good idea either because it was too time-consuming. We then experimented with glow sticks and laser beams. Finally, we came across the marking lights.

Urs Kummer: We then tested them in the Piottino Tunnel. Well, we lit a camper and observed if you could still see the lights in the dense black smoke. Concluding: The blue ones are the ones you can see best; nevertheless, all are still visible near the ground at a reasonable distance. In 2009, for example, we developed other things, such as the basket stretcher with wheels and the search stick.

Challenges for future development work

Twenty years after the fire in the Gotthard Road Tunnel - what are the next challenges?

Urs Kummer: Fortunately, fires in road tunnels are still not too frequent. There are a few smaller incidents each year and maybe two or three more significant incidents - that is, with a direct danger to people - but the practical experience gained from operations is relatively little. This makes training and continuous practice all the more important. The general feedback from fire services over the years on what they have learned at the ifa is: The tactics work, the techniques work, and what they experience in action is what they expected based on their training. Conclusion: With the proper training, fire services are able to operate successfully and safely in the incident of a fire in a tunnel. Therefore, we are already very close to our vision of «Deployed to a tunnel incident with confidence». But of course, there are still challenges.

Christian Brauner: One issue for which we do not yet have a solution is technical communication. The ventilation makes it extremely loud in road tunnels. You just don't have a chance to communicate the way you would in other operations. Perhaps non-verbal communication is a solution. Another topic is sustainable training in the sense that the firefighters retain and internalise what they have learned. Through practical action, i.e. through our experiential learning, we certainly achieve a lot. From my point of view, however, it is not yet as sustainable as we would like it to be. Therefore, we are considering how we can support training at the fire stations even better.

Urs Kummer: We also see a trend towards ever larger and more complex tunnels. These facilities are then exceptional and usually unique. We can then - as with the Fehmarn Belt Tunnel - think along at an early stage for the development of the intervention plan. Of course, these don't always have to be road or railway tunnels. Thinking about the intervention concept for a tunnel for ships would, of course, also be a very appealing task for us.