Reservists train to save fellow firefighters

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Theanne Herrmann
  • 624th Regional Support Group
DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE, Georgia - Reserve firefighters from across the country trained at the first-ever Air Force Reserve Command Firefighter Rescue and Survival course, April 17-21, at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia.

Firefighters train to rescue people from a burning building on a regular basis, but what if the unthinkable happens? What if a firefighter has to make a mayday message, because after becoming disoriented in a thick cloud of smoke, the building begins to collapse? Firefighters have no other recourse than to rely on their own training for survival, and their fellow firefighters to assist in the rescue.

Twenty Citizen Airmen participated in the intense 50-hour course held at the 622nd Civil Engineer Group expeditionary combat support-training certification center, which focused on a Rapid Intervention Crew, or RIC. The RIC is a dedicated and specially trained group of firefighters whose responsibilities include safely evacuating a distressed firefighter from a structure.

Four Reserve fire departments participated in the training, including members from the 624th Civil Engineer Squadron from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, 507th CES from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, 434th CES from Grissom Air Reserve Base, Indiana, and the 445th CES from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

The first four days of the course consisted of drills which focused on separate tasks, such as how to respond to a firefighter undergoing cardiac arrest. On the last day, the course culminated with a training event that included a live-fire burn.

Master Sgt. Christopher Bauchle, a career firefighter with the Indianapolis Fire Department and Tech. Sgt. Travis Bender, of the Zionsville Fire Department, Indiana, spent two years organizing the course syllabus. Both men are Reserve firefighters from the 434th Civil Engineer Squadron, Grissom Air Reserve Base, Indiana, and recruited seven other instructors with various firefighting backgrounds to help instruct 16 scenarios based on real-life tragedies where a firefighter’s life was lost.

“Our goal is to enhance their decision-making skills in these stressful environments, overall making them a better firefighter,” said Bender.

Two of the nine instructors are full-time federal firefighters from Hawaii. Master Sgt. Matthew Kaea, of Makakilo, Hawaii, and Tech. Sgt. Emilio Aguilar, of Mililani, Hawaii, are also reserve firefighters from the 624th Regional Support Group's 624th CES, from JBPHH, Hawaii.

Kaea specializes in RIC at the Pohakuloa Fire and Emergency Services on the island of Hawaii, while Aguilar works at Camp H.M. Smith on the island of Oahu. Aguilar is no stranger to success; he was named the Department of Defense Military Firefighter of the Year for 2002.

In addition to instructing, members from the 624th CES spent the previous week building training props for the firefighters to use as training aids.

The training props were designed to challenge the firefighters mental and physical resiliency. The obstacles ranged from squeezing into a tiny square hole with more than 60 pounds of bulky equipment, to carrying their fellow firefighters up and down the stairs, with simulated smoke creating a zero-visibility environment.

“As you look at these obstacles, they are intimidating,” said Kaea. “You can see it in their eyes that they are nervous, but we make it this way because it can actually happen. We coach them through it, let them know what they are doing wrong and how they can get through the obstacle. This course has a lot of repetition, so the goal is to develop muscle memory to help them react quickly during a real-life situation.”

Tech. Sgt. Justin Sabio, a member of the 624th CES, and full-time federal firefighter at Hickam Field, experienced the disorientation and fatigue while participating in the drills.

“We are crawling through small spaces with all of our gear on,” said Sabio. “You get disoriented, claustrophobic, and you can’t see with the mask on while inside a smoked and burned-out building. It’s hard to breathe, and then you add the weight of someone you are rescuing, which is 200 pounds for the average male.”

The course aims to highlight how each firefighter responds uniquely to the pressure and anxiety associated with extreme conditions, and how to react to those stressors in order to save lives.

“Firefighting is not a comfortable job,” said Bender. “It’s physically demanding, and after lifting people over and over again, crawling in a zero-visibility environment, your body and mind start to breakdown and you lose your fine motor skills. Decision-making becomes foggy and you lose your sense of time.”

There is a standard for each drill that every firefighter must meet before moving on. Firefighters who meet the standards throughout the course will receive the “No Slack” patch.

“The ‘No Slack’ patch represents discipline, meaning the firefighters are paying attention to details and not cutting corners,” said Bender. “When firefighters start making short-cuts, that is what leads to a catastrophic event. The patch also has the words ‘Desire, Ability and Courage,’ which represent the Air Force firefighting core values.”

During the graduation ceremony, Bauchle acknowledged each firefighter for their dedication.

“You showed up each morning knowing that the training was going to be harder than the day before,” said Bauchle. “I would want you to come and rescue me on my worst day.”’

With more than 29 years of experience as a firefighter and student of the course, Master Sgt. James Balgas, of the 624th CES, JBPHH, Hawaii, expressed the importance of the training.

“This training is important because we have a sisterhood, brotherhood,” said Balgas. “No matter what the situation is, we will do what it takes to save one of our own. The hardest part is when the Chief tells you to stand down because it is not safe to enter the building and you risk losing more firefighters. What makes us unique from other firefighters is that we put on our Air Force uniform, making us wartime firemen.”