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Airport fire chief has unique challenges

September 21, 1998

Airport ChiefBy KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




If a fire occurs in any of the 200 aircraft flying daily in and out of the Washington County Regional Airport, pilots know help is less than two minutes away.

For the past two years, airport Fire Chief Phillip G. Ridenour has been at the ready, trained and prepared to fight fires on the tarmac or in the hangars.

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His base of operations is at the airport administrative offices. Driving a specially equipped fire truck parked nearby, he can quickly be on the scene putting out or containing blazes until local fire companies arrive.

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"My job is to get in there and knock the fire down and make a rescue path," said Ridenour, 37.

Thus far, Ridenour has not been called upon to fight an actual fire at the airport on Showalter Road, north of Hagerstown. However, he has been placed on standby numerous times, when planes landed to make repairs at the site and also when the airport was used by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President George Bush.

One of the last fires to take place at the airport was in 1992, when two to three hangars were destroyed along with five planes, he said. His presence back then would likely not have prevented that fire but may have reduced its damages, said Carolyn Motz, airport manager for the past three years.

The Maugansville native is the airport's first fire chief. Airport officials created the position at the urging of Ridenour and other members of the Goodwill Fire Company in Maugansville.

"I'm absolutely thrilled so far. We have a small department compared with other airports with a one-man operation. As you can imagine, he has to have his bases covered,'' said Motz.

She said Federal Aviation Administration officials conducted a surprise inspection this spring. Ridenour was given three minutes to respond and apply chemicals to treat a simulated fire.

"He was great. He did it in one minute, 50 seconds," she said.

"The most exciting thing for me, in addition to having a superb rescue and firefighter program, is that he updated our emergency plan and all mutual aid agreements for the surrounding areas," said Motz.

A paid, on-site airport fireman is a necessity because of the hazardous metals and special types and quantities of fuels involved with aircraft, said Ridenour. Petroleum-based blazes burn hotter and faster than most structure fires, so a rapid response is necessary, he said.

Relying on volunteers is difficult since many work during the day or out of the area, he said.

Special training is also required, which allows firefighters to know exactly where to cut into a plane to rescue passengers, he added. Ridenour said he took special airport safety courses for the position and also has emergency medical training.

And although he basically works on his own, his yellow, foam-spewing truck helps him to fight fires by directing a spray of the substance while he drives.

"Unlike structure fires, most airplane fires can be fought from the outside and this can be done from the truck. And you don't have to wait for additional help like you would before going into a building," he said.

Formerly employed as a 911-center communicator technician for 13 years, Ridenour said he prefers having direct contact with those he rescues.

"With emergency medical dispatch you give help to people in distress over the phone, but as a responder you get to see the results," he said.

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