Engineer Joe Vigil in front of Aircraft Rescue Rigs

Engineer Joe Vigil in front of his R5 rig

When every minute counts, being the first Aircraft Rescue Firefighter (ARFF) rig to respond to a plane’s distress call on any of Los Angeles International Airport‘s (LAX) four active runways is no easy feat. From alarm to arrival our heroes at Fire Station 80 make sure they can get anywhere on LAX property in just three minutes, or less.

LAFD Engineer Joseph Vigil knows exactly how it’s done. A veteran firefighter with 31 years of service, and 22 years as an engineer, he relies on three things: high-quality equipment, clear communication with his crew and LAX teams, and specialized training to keep his skills up-to-date.

For the past two years Joe has worked 24-hour shifts at least three days a week. He stays ready for the moment he has to move quickly to rescue a plane. Operating one of six state-of-the-art vehicles, Rig 5, or R5, Joe and his partner can put out fires while staying inside the rig, including communication and lining up the next rig for backup. “The calls we get can be due to presence of smoke in the cockpit. It could be for a hydraulic issue on a plane coming in heavy,” or landing with nearly a full tank of fuel. “Or it could be a plane or tug fire,” A tug fits under the nose of a plane and can pull it off of a runway to safety.

LAX Aircraft Rescue Rigs Gear

By controlling the turret height and liquid flow direction firefighters can help protect those exiting the plane via emergency chutes by creating a water barrier to shield those on the other side from flames.

LAX Aircraft Rescue RigsThe rigs are plugged in when parked to keep their batteries pre-warmed. Touting huge tanks that hold 3,000 gallons of water, 400 gallons of foam, and almost 1000 lbs of dry chemicals, they have everything needed to penetrate a plane’s fuselage and access other areas including hooking up to hydrants and water stations. This rig allows for flammable liquid fire containment or other type of emergency resolution with added protective features of the vehicles, like a deluge feature to douse any fire going underneath the rig and infrared sensors to detect a fire still burning on the plane.


  • What’s a rig? It’s a six-wheel drive Rosenbauer Panther standing just over twelve-feet tall. A Stinger on the rooftop turret can be maneuvered to pierce through plane material and then spray liquid into a specific area.
  • Regular fire engines hold 500 gallons of water. These rigs hold 6x as much.
  • A sensor alarm will chime if going around a curve too quickly (a fully-loaded rig is quite top-heavy).
  • Water is used with a dry chemical to make a 3% or 6% solution quickly to knock out fires, Halotron is used for more delicate plane equipment or sensitive parts. Purple K is the more corrosive of the two dry chem agents.
  • A rig is refueled with diesel each time it goes out. This top of the line rig gets about 5mpg but that number drops to 1.5mpg fuel efficiency when used to respond to a call (fully-loaded and going full speed, etc.)


LAX Airbus 380

View of a double-deck Airbus 380
from inside the rig.

The route Joe may use to get to a call could include jumping off of service roads and roaring across taxiways and onto active runways.
The LAX control tower is in continual communication with the pilot as well as the rigs en route to manage critical information and redirect air traffic. “During one incident the tower noticed visible flames on a cargo plane’s engine that was undetected by the plane’s onboard system,” Joe says, “they turned the plane around and held traffic for it to land again.”

For other emergency calls Joe says, “The control tower will let us know if a plane is coming in heavy and where the pilot is aiming to land, so we can position ourselves to either follow it or be ready to meet it. The tower can also put us in direct contact with a pilot. From the cockpit the pilot has a limited field of view. Being able to speak to us directly, and having the rig right there in the pilot’s line of sight can be a big relief when trying to resolve any issue that may not be visible from inside the plane.”

Specialized Training

LAX Aircraft Rescue Rigs Training

A fuselage in “The Pit”

LAX also houses “the pit.” An area with an unlit passenger jet fuselage where ARFFs can get practice shooting water from a rig’s many turrets including on the roof, the front bumper, and from the Stinger. The Stinger can be raised as high as needed to confidently knock out a blaze in a large double-deck jet.

Growing up LA, Joe joined the LA Explorer youth program when he was 19 years old, which cemented his desire to become a firefighter. He took fire science courses and was hired before graduation. To work in his current role he became ARFF certified which requires 80 hours of FAA mandated training plus a test, with 40 more hours of training required annually.

Next time you spot a rescue rig approaching in street traffic, remember this message from Fire Station 80 Engineer Joe Vigil, “We have visibility to see traffic further ahead and may need to move to the other side of the street sooner than you think,” he says. ”When you know we are coming, please pull over to the side, even if you’re on the opposite side of the street,” he adds. Doing so could help our heroes answer a call faster and save precious time.

By Madeline Wright

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