Valley Int’l Fire & Rescue Station Improves Response, Training

Valley International (HRL)
Mindy Hamlin
Published in: 

When the time came for Valley International (HRL) to upgrade its aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) facility, officials at the Harlingen, TX, airport joined forces with their design team to create a building uniquely designed for firefighters. The new $3.8 million, 10,000-square-foot station officially opened in May with a host of features to enhance safety and efficiency.  

Constructing a new ARFF facility had been a relatively low priority in the airport’s capital improvement program for 10 years. However, the project moved to the top of the list with the purchase of two new trucks—an Oshkosh Striker 4x4 and E-One Titan Force. The new equipment was too big for the former station, explains ARFF Captain David Lompra. 

“Our new trucks fit in the facility, but very cautiously,” he elaborates. “In addition, the facility was overcrowded, uncomfortable and not conducive to learning.”


Project: Aircraft Rescue & Firefighting Station

Location: Valley Int’l Airport —Harlingen, TX

Annual Passenger Volume: 700,000

Facility Size: 10,000 sq. ft.

Cost: $3.8 million

Funding: 90% FAA Airport Improvement Program; 10% airport funds & passenger facility charges

Architecture & Design: AECOM 

Station Staff: 3 onsite firefighters; 9 full-time;12 alternates

Bryan Wren, assistant director of aviation at HRL, notes that the former station failed to meet several FAA requirements, including building age and equipment dispatch time. “Because of the size of the trucks, space was tight and our firefighters could barely squeeze into them,” he explains. “Our top priority was for the new facility to be built to ensure the safest operations, because HRL is the premier airport of the Rio Grande Valley.”

Priorities Drive Design

When airport officials began working with architectural and design firm AECOM, they had a list of objectives already in mind for the new facility.

Naturally, they wanted to ensure that the location of the building met FAA requirements for emergency response times. The old facility allowed firefighters to meet response times. However, as airport and ARFF personnel began working with architects and designers, they realized that another location could work even better.

“The more we looked at location options, we saw that if we built the facility adjacent to two of our taxiways, we could improve response times,” says Lompra. “The old facility was located at the base of the air traffic control tower. We did not miss response times, but it was a circuitous route. Now, we have a direct shot that gives us a rapid and smoother path to the airfield.”

Making the new facility “self-sufficient” was another priority, adds Wren. 

Located in southeast Texas, HRL is no stranger to hurricanes. As such, the new ARFF station was designed and built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, which required a backup generator to power emergency lighting, communications equipment, overhead doors, alarms and other essential systems during potential power failures. Other required features include a recharging system for self-contained breathing apparatus tanks, an onsite foam delivery system and a coed dorm with separate quarters for male and female firefighters.

Staff Input Ensures Utility

With the construction of a new ARFF station, HRL officials recognized they had an opportunity to create a state-of-the-art facility that would ensure efficient operations, improve training opportunities and provide more comfortable accommodations for their firefighters.

Lompra, the airport’s ARFF captain since 2008, provided valuable input regarding the building’s design.

“He took a lot of time to let us know what the firefighters’ needs were,” says Shaun Breslin, AECOM project designer. “The captain’s involvement was critical because it helped inform our design decisions throughout the project.”

Lompra embraced the opportunity to provide ample perspective from the ARFF team. “I can’t tell you the amount of input we had,” he remarks. “The design team was very receptive to our thought process.” 

Input from frontline ARFF personnel drove the implementation of a sophisticated alert system that notifies the station and activates the “crash line” as soon as the control tower receives an emergency alert from an aircraft. Lights in the dorms and hallways leading to the equipment bays turn on automatically; the overhead bay doors open; and the ventilation system turns on to distribute clean air throughout the engine bay.

“By the time the firefighters hit the floor, everything is ready to go,” says Lompra. “Also, if they were cooking on the Viking range, the gas valve turns off automatically.”

Another top priority for the ARFF team was improving the station’s training facilities. According to Lompra, the previous building was cramped and not conducive to training. In contrast, the new training room includes a smart television, data connections and a high-reach extendable turret simulator. 

“We have to maintain readiness at all times,” says Lompra. “We now have a room specifically for that purpose.”

Location Challenges

While the airport’s ARFF facility had been located at the base of its control tower since the early 1970s, officials took the opportunity to determine the optimum location for emergency operations. 

The AECOM team ran computer simulations to help pinpoint the best location and ensure that the ARFF team could respond to the farthest runway center point within three minutes. The location of the new building was crucial to ensure FAA funding for the project.

The selected site required architects to specify a sloped roof for the new facility to preserve line of sight for air traffic controllers. “Without the slope on the building, we would not have been able to build the ARFF facility in this location,” says Wren.

The location also presented challenges for the general contractor, Harlingen-based Peacock General Construction. The first time it rained, for instance, water from the airfield drained into the construction area. Crews easily controlled the flow by digging a trench around the site and grading the ground to drains.

Soil conditions, however, proved to be a bigger issue. 

“The soil at the site was very unstable,” explains Tre Peacock, owner of Peacock General Construction. “It took a lot of work to get the ground stabilized.”

Ultimately, crews excavated 3 to 4 feet of existing soil and replaced it with more stable soil the contractor imported to the site. A geogrid and limestone further stabilized the subgrade.

“The job went a little longer because we had a lot of issues with the dirt,” reflects Peacock. “With all of that, though, it turned out to be a beautiful project; and HRL was wonderful to work with.”

The 15-month project was completed within its $3.8 million budget, 90% of which was covered by the FAA Airport Improvement Program. The remaining costs were paid for with airport funds and passenger facility charges 

Lompra reports that the new ARFF station is receiving rave reviews from his team.

“The layout of the facility makes it easier for us to respond to an incident,” he says. “Everything is better, from where we connect to the airfield to the learning environment. It all helps keep us mission-ready.” 

Emergency Operations

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