HELENA — The Helena Regional Airport is in the middle of a major upgrade at its specialized fire training center.
Construction began earlier this month at the Rocky Mountain Emergency Services Training Center. The center includes two full-size airplane models, designed to give firefighters from around the country practice in putting out aircraft fires. Operators use propane to create everything from a burning engine to a full-scale fire around the fuselage.
As part of the multimillion-dollar project, the airport is installing a newer, more efficient system for creating fire. Airport director Jeff Wadekamper said the original equipment, installed more than 20 years ago, is now outdated and difficult to find replacement parts for.
Crews have removed the existing burners, wiring and other equipment from the two planes. They are currently working on pouring a concrete base below the spill trainer – the plane that simulates a large crash with a lot of burning fuel.
Wadekamper says the concrete is one of the last steps they need to finish before winter. Much of the rest of the work can still be done with snow on the ground.
The firm KFT Fire Trainer is handling the work on the fire systems themselves, since they require specialized expertise. Dick Anderson Construction is the main contractor for the other work.
Aviation firefighters have to go through specialized training on a regular basis. Airport leaders say RMESTC is one of only a few facilities in the western United States that provides that type of training. Thousands of firefighters come to the training center each year.
“This rehab is going to make sure that we can continue to provide those services and do it in a safe and efficient manner and do it environmentally friendly and keep filling those needs that are out there,” said Wadekamper.
Wadekamper said the upgrades will also ensure RMESTC is able to keep training firefighters for the nation’s largest airports.
The work is funded with nearly $5 million in grants from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Project. In addition to the upgrades on the fire training system, the project also includes remodeling on the training center building.
Wadekamper hopes to have the project completed by late March or early April, before next year’s trainings are set to begin.