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Aircraft Fire Extinguishing Systems

Definition
Onboard systems designed to extinguish fires which occur either in the air or on the ground.

For information on detecting and fighting fires in the cabin, see also the separate article: "Cabin Fire"

Description
Four types of fire extinguishing installations are found on commercial transport aircraft.

Portable Extinguishers installed at specified locations in both the main cabin and the flight deck

Hold fire extinguishing systems (with automatic detection)

Engine fire bottle extinguishing systems (with automatic detection)

Toilet waste bin bottle extinguishing systems


Portable Extinguishers
General
Fires on board aircraft which occur within the aircraft cabin or flight deck - or are potentially directly accessible
from them - arise in one of three ways:

Fires that involve energized electrical equipment - in aircraft cabins typically IFE (In Flight Entertainment)
systems in the passenger cabin, electrical equipment in the galley or avionics equipment in the flight deck
or under floor avionics bay, or Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) carried by passengers.

Fires in ordinary combustibles such as cloth, paper, rubber, and many plastics - in aircraft cabins typically
in furnishings

Fires in flammable liquids, oils, greases, tars, oil-base paints, lacquers, and flammable gases - in aircraft
cabins typically galley oven fires

Portable extinguishers present a special challenge since they must be capable of extinguishing a range of fire
types - solid materials such as cabin fixtures and furnishings, flammable liquids and electrical fires.

Halon 1211 extinguishers have entirely replaced the previous combination of two different types of portable
extinguisher - Carbon Dioxide and Water Glycol - on new-build aircraft and no other single extinguisher-type
has yet been identified as a satisfactory alternative to it.

NOTE: Crews must be aware that the toxicity of the Halon gases, especially the combination which
makes up Halon 1211, is such that use in confined spaces requires care to minimize any inhalation of
the discharged gases. Where a portable Halon extinguisher is used by cabin crew, it is usually
recommended to consider donning a smoke hood before discharge to eliminate this risk, but for flight
crew use on the flight deck, this will not be an option and risk awareness is the only defence.

Where the dual fit of extinguisher is encountered on older aircraft, it is essential that Water Glycol extinguishers
are used on solid material fires and Carbon Dioxide extinguishers on liquid or electrical equipment fires.

The minimum dispatch requirement for aircraft portable fire extinguishers is determined by the capacity of the
aircraft cabin and is specified in the Aircraft MEL.

Regulatory Requirement
Relevant authorities (e.g. EASA in the EU, FAA in the US) specify the requirements for hand held fire
extinguishers in terms of:

Minimum number of hand held fire extinguishers to be carried on board. This depends on the size of the
aircraft, the number of passenger seats, the number and type of cargo compartments, etc.

Hand held fire extinguisher distribution within the aircraft (e.g. number of extinguishers in the cockpit,
cabin, cargo compartments, etc.).

Mounting and marking (e.g. there should be a special sign in case the fire extinguisher is not clearly
visible).

The need for regulatory approval and acceptable means of compliance.

Restrictions regarding the extinguishing agents used (e.g. cut-off and end dates for Halon-based
extinguishers).

Extinguishing agent quantity requirements (e.g. minimum amount of agent per extinguisher).

Health considerations (e.g. toxic gas hazard minimization).


Hold Fire Extinguishing Systems
Hold fire extinguishing systems are usually activated as a flight crew response to abnormal heat detection in an
aircraft hold, and usually operate in a dual function. Part of the available fire suppression capability is deployed
in an instant, or knock-down, discharge of extinguishing agent and the remainder is deployed more gradually
over a longer period of up to an hour, to assist in preventing re-ignition or at least providing partial fire
suppression, to provide more time to get an aircraft with a continuing hold fire warning back on the ground.
Various alternatives to Halon 1301 have been examined including water misting, inert gas and dry powder,
either alone or in combination. The FAA has developed minimum performance standards for these systems
and it has been demonstrated that although water misting alone is unable to pass the exploding aerosol can
fire test, a combination of water misting and inert gas (nitrogen) discharge may be more effective. However, for
such a solution to be viable, a means of on-board nitrogen generation will be needed.

Engine Fire Bottles


Fire Bottles in engine compartments are usually electrically operated after manual selection by the flight crew
based upon automatic fire detection. In the airborne case, APU fire bottles are similarly activated but it is usual
for automatic APU fire detection during ground operation to trigger automatic shutdown and fire extinguisher
activation. Until recently, the most common extinguishing agent was Halon 1301 for all Engines/APUs fitted to
civil transport aircraft. However, Halon 1301 is not longer manufactured and has been banned (for new
systems) since 1994; often they are now replaced by HFCs (Hydrofluorocompounds).

Toilet Waste Bins


Toilet waste bin fire extinguishers are activated automatically if heat detectors in the vicinity are activated.
Toilet Smoke detector activation does not trigger waste bin fire extinguishers. Alternative extinguishing agents
to Halon 1301 have been approved for use in fixed toilet waste bin systems and have also been, uniquely in
terms of the search for Halon alternatives, shown to be more effective than Halon 1301 units whilst being the
same size. Since only a documentation change is required to fit these alternative extinguishers, they have been
used for retrofit as well as in new-build aircraft.

Personal Electronic Devices


Equipment has been introduced designed to deal specifically with lithium battery fires in PEDs; Lithium ion
batteries (Li-ion) are used to power PEDs such as cellular phones, portable tablets, EFBs and digital cameras;
Li-ion batteries are rechargeable. Non-rechargeable lithium batteries (Li-metal) are similar to Li-ion, but use a
different electrode material metallic lithium.

All lithium batteries present a potential fire hazard. These batteries are carried on aeroplanes as cargo, within
passenger baggage, and by passengers directly. Like some other batteries lithium batteries are capable of
delivering sufficient energy to start an in-flight fire. Lithium batteries present a greater risk of an in-flight fire than
some other battery types because they are also unable to contain their own energy in the event of a
catastrophic failure.

Once extinguished, a lithium battery fire or a fire in a PED powered by lithium batteries requires
containment and continued cooling. Halon 1211 or water fire extinguishers are effective at extinguishing the fire
and preventing its spread to additional flammable materials. After extinguishing the fire, dousing the electronic
device with water or other non-alcoholic liquids cools the device and prevents additional battery cells from
reaching thermal runaway. Containment devises are now available and where these are equipped, crews
should receive specific training in how to use them to greatest effect.