Air Force firefighters stay ready to fight any blaze in Iraq

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. R. Michael Longoria
  • 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Iraq Public Affairs
They laugh and they joke, but when the call comes, they move with absolute seriousness. They relax and they play, but when they are needed, they move like they knew it was coming.

They are a team of 35 firefighters ranging in rank from airman first class to chief master sergeant. Each walks with a heightened sense of readiness and a radio clipped to his side, ready to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to any emergency here.

"A fire could happen at any time," said Senior Airman Tyler Darnell, a firefighter. "We must always be ready. Everyone depends on us to do our job."

The collection of Airmen provides crash and fire rescue services to the entire base, including the 1,400-acre airfield, and its 15,000 residents.

"We are responsible for fire protection on the whole base," said Chief Master Sgt. Michael Amacker, the fire chief. "We support the flightline and anything else inside the gates."

With the amount of aircraft and forces that transition through the base, protecting the flightline is a top priority. In fact, a majority of the fire department's fleet is based toward aircraft firefighting.

"We are the sole line of defense for all the aircraft that fly in and out of here," said Master Sgt. Sean Allen, the assistant chief of firefighting operations. "If there is an in-flight emergency, we need to be on the scene immediately."

With the importance of putting out a blaze quickly, the firefighters check their trucks daily and pre-position their gear for easier access to ensure no time is wasted. A typical response time for them is two or three minutes, and that's from when they receive a call to when they are pulling out of the station.

"It's our mission to put water on the hot stuff as soon as we can," said Staff Sgt. Michael Scott, fire truck crew chief and Baltimore, Md., native. "It's an adrenaline rush but you have to stay poised or you will lose your focus. We are here to help, and if we can't, then who can?"

The firefighters haven't had to respond to any major real-life incidents, but they are constantly training just in case.

"We are the best-trained firefighters in the world," Sergeant Allen said. "We prepare for the worst and hope it never happens."

The firefighters conduct exercises five times a week using various situations. Recently, they practiced responding to a building fire with someone missing inside.

"We try to make the scenarios as realistic as possible," said Staff Sgt. Horace Conney, the fire inspector and training assistant. "Thankfully, we don't have a lot of accidents here. We train to make sure we are ready at a moment's notice if necessary."

Constant training, including classes on fire behavior, keeps the firefighters ready for the real thing, but proper physical fitness is also a key aspect of their preparation. When firefighters gear up for a fire, they wear approximately 35 pounds of extra weight, including a full fire suit, air tank and usually a forcible entry tool or axe.

"Working out is important and it's not just about passing your physical training test," Sergeant Scott said. "People rely on us to save their lives, and you never know victims or patients who will have on scene. You need the strength and endurance to get them all to safety."

When fighting against flames and smoke, the margin for error is small. Firefighters must be able to rely on their training and fellow firefighters.

"A lot of what we do is done in the heat of the moment," Chief Amacker said. "When there is an emergency, a lot is going on but we are ready for it. This is what we do, it's what we love to do and it's what we are here to do."

Maybe it's more than training. Maybe it's the strong bond and trust among them that makes the firefighters so successful.

"Firefighters are firefighters," Chief Amacker said. "It doesn't matter who you are or where you are from. We trust each other implicitly, no matter what."

Often listed as one of the most stressful professions, firefighters work unusual shifts and remain on call throughout the night. They risk heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation and serious injury while trying to protect others. However, the Airmen here just see it as another day at the office.

"I've never thought of it like that," Airman Darnell said. "I just do what I know how to do and I do it to the best of my ability."