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A Day in the Life of a … Pope firefighter

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Mindy Bloem
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: "A Day in the Life of a ..." is part of a 10-week series which focuses on some of Pope's various career fields and offers a first-hand perspective to the readers.
Courage has always impressed me. This admiration is probably due to the fact that I am not very courageous. In fact, I can be quite a chicken sometimes. 

Last week, I was given the chance to spend a 24-hour shift with our very own 43rd Civil Engineer Squadron firefighting crew. When I was thinking of squadrons I wanted to shadow for this series, our firefighters were among the first to make the list. In my opinion, there is nothing more courageous than to see someone sacrifice his own security and well-being for another's. To be a firefighter, this selfless sacrifice is a choice they make whenever they don the uniform, and I was just proud to spend some time with these individuals. 

When I showed up at their building, I found two groups lined up in formation awaiting their instructions. One group was about to be released from a 24-hour shift while the other group was just coming onto a 24-hour shift. 

I could tell right away that my camera was not a welcome site. You see, the firefighters have a rule that whoever winds up in the paper has to buy everyone doughnuts. I asked the assistant fire chief to announce that I would get the doughnuts (an idea I got from our acting Public Affairs chief) for whoever ended up in the paper. This idea worked like a gem and suddenly everyone stopped dodging and ducking the camera. 

After formation, Master Sgt. Michael Lyons, Assistant Fire Chief, took me over to their supply room to find me some gear to wear. I learned this protective clothing is called bunkers. Even though I felt like a big marshmallow in my bunkers, I was still proud to feel like one of the group. Sergeant Lyons told me the firefighters have to get in their bunkers in less than a minute. I think it may have taken me that long to put the jacket on properly. 

After getting my gear ready, I was told I would be riding on Rescue Truck 15 where I was teamed with three others. My fellow teammates were Chuck Sides, the crew chief, and his crew of two, Senior Airman Robert Perrell and Airman 1st Class John Hebert. I climbed up into my designated seat, which seemed more like a mountain considering how high I had to climb to sit down on it. As I sat perched in my seat and looked out the window, a feeling of anticipation washed over me and I couldn't wait to start my day as a firefighter. 

When the truck stopped in front of a C-130 aircraft, we all jumped out, and the crew each grabbed a flashlight. They explained to me that they need to simulate aircraft fire emergencies on a constant basis in order to stay sharp during a real emergency. 

Mr. Sides and Airman Perrell climbed up to the flight deck while Airman Hebert went to the cargo department. In a real emergency, a couple of them would go to the flight deck and shut down the engines and then use the T-handles to discharge agents which act to extinguish the fires. The other firefighter on their team then goes to the back of the aircraft and performs a search pattern where he hugs the wall to find any victims. Prior to the search, he shuts the oxygen off and opens the first hatch door in order to ventilate and let some smoke out. He opens other doors as he comes up on them using the search pattern method. While he is performing the search, a handline crew is in place with two people on each hose fighting the fire so the victims can get out safely. 

After demonstrating the fire emergency procedures on different types of aircraft, we then went to some of the buildings on Pope to simulate procedures for building emergencies. Afterward, we went back to the fire station. Interestingly enough, as soon as I unloaded myself and my bunkers out of the rescue truck, the alarms sounded and I had to get back in the fire truck. When the alarm sounded, I was overwhelmed with excitement, not because I was hoping for a fire; I just enjoyed being in the thick of the action. I was astounded at how quickly they all were dressed in their bunkers and ready to go. It took me longer than them just to get myself and my bunkers back into the vehicle. 

We responded to the Visiting Airmen's Quarters building located behind JR Rockers. Apparently, some people were cutting ceiling tiles and some of the dust particles went into the smoke detector, triggering the alarm. I was happy it was nothing serious but felt as if I had gotten a pretty good idea of how competent the fire teams were based on their reaction to this response, which, in my opinion, was superb. 

Once we got back to the fire house, it was lunch time. I was impressed with the fact that their shift seems like a brotherhood. They eat together, they pick on one another, they joke around together and they all seem to have each other's backs. 

After lunch, they decided to put me to the test. They had set up an obstacle course in their weight room with a leaking container placed somewhere in the room. It was my job to find the container, shut it off and get back to the exit. The catch? I was dressed in my bunkers with an oxygen tank strapped to my back, wearing a gas mask while blindfolded. I then had to crawl around on my hands and knees to find the container. This was meant to simulate a real-world situation in which you are trying to perform a rescue in a smoke filled room. Let me just say, this was not easy, and as I was crawling around on the floor perspiring and breathing like Darth Vader, the thought to put my hands up (a signal to let them know I had enough) did cross my mind. However, I pressed on and finally found the container. I was not done. I still had to make it to safety. I did finally do this, but not before ramming my helmet into the wall which caused some laughter from the others. Despite my few uncoordinated moments, I was proud of myself for finishing. 

While the other firefighters were briefed on firefighting training, Senior Airman Kyle Brown took me out on the flightline to see what it was like to use the water hose. The water hose was much heavier than I thought and when the water shot out of it, I had a hard time just holding it steady. It was fun spraying it but putting it back neatly into the truck proved tricky. Airman Brown said it usually takes about three people to do it, and since I was such a novice, I don't think I was much help. He was a good sport about it though. 

When we arrived back at the fire station, some of the firefighters were simulating being on a roof while others were on the ground. These exercises are performed as part of their proficiency training. They had to pass various equipment back and forth from the ground to the rooftop. I couldn't believe how much complicated information and procedures they all have to be familiar with in order to effectively do their job. 

Before I had spent the day with our Pope firefighters, I had an idea of the blood, gut and tears they put into their careers, but after spending 24-hours with this crew, I was blown away by the tireless training and constant efforts they employ on the job. And when the alarm sounded at 3:30 in the morning, I had to think to myself, "What an awesome group of performers."