Inside the Department of Defense's Fire School
Staring at the fire blazing in front of him, the airman basic began to sweat — a reaction that could only partly be blamed on nerves and adrenaline. It was an oven inside of the aircraft, and Daniel Brum knew the temperature was only going to rise when the fire hose turned on. His studies had taught him that water expands to 1,700 times its original volume when it turns to steam, and sure enough, as he shot water at the base of the fire, the air around him turned into an instant sauna.
For a brief moment, Brum freed one hand to wipe at his face shield. It had fogged up with mist. Once he could see again, he redoubled his efforts to calm the intense flames lighting up the cargo hold.
Though the aircraft interior fire was staged – a scenario intended to aid with training – Brum treated it like it was the real thing. The training was indicative of a possible situation the apprentice firefighter might come across in the future and he needed the experience.
“There’s a big painting on the wall out there that says, ‘Train as if someone’s life depends on it, because it does,” Brum said. “So when it’s training, it’s all serious. You have to learn what you’re doing, so that way … when you’re in a fire situation and someone’s life depends on you, you will be able to help that person out.”
The phrase Brum recited is prominently displayed above one of the Louis F. Garland Department of Defense Fire Academy building’s main entryways. The words state a responsibility accepted by the men and women who walk those halls. Within the academy at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, are firefighters from every branch of the military, as well as those training in hopes of one day joining their ranks.
The academy provides entry-level fire protection instruction for all DOD firefighters, and it’s also a location for advanced training courses within the career field. Each year, the school accepts nearly 2,500 students, 1,400 of which are initial entry, or apprentice, firefighters, said Lt. Col. Mathew Welling, the 312th Training Squadron commander. The training accomplished here is predicated on standards set by the National Fire Protection Association but is also tailored to fit the military mission.
“We have unique aircraft, munitions, and other special requirements that really (make it necessary for) us to provide a different level of training than your civilian firefighter would be used to,” Welling said, indicating an additional emphasis on airport firefighting applications and a joint effort between all DOD firefighters.
Students may come from the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps, but in class they are all integrated together. During deployments, military firefighters work as joint service teams, and therefore the academy reinforces that concept throughout their instruction with a lack of service specific courses and a strong emphasis on teamwork.
Tech. Sgt. Jeff Trueman, an emergency medical response course instructor, is able to impart to his students the importance of the joint training via his own experiences. During his first deployment he worked hand in hand with the Navy to provide crash fire rescue for aircraft assigned to a drug interdiction mission. Trueman has been embedded with the Army as well.
“It’s interesting to be able to combine both of those worlds, and to see the differences and nuances between the services,” he said. “It’s definitely career broadening. Until you actually have that opportunity to work with other services, I don’t think you fully develop within your profession.
“That’s why I like being here,” Trueman said of the technical school. “We have instructors from so many different services and they bring a lot of different information.”
With a “train as you do” philosophy, the academy students are given an education that sets them up for success in most situations they might face while serving at their home stations and abroad. To ensure apprentice firefighters are prepared to do their jobs upon graduation, the entry-level course is split into three blocks, with each gradually addressing a more advanced set of skills.
According to Welling, block one introduces the students to firefighting basics, such as ropes, knots and ladders, how to put on personal protective equipment, and how to create ventilation. Block two continues with more in-depth firefighting principles like water supplies, fire hoses, vehicle extraction, fire department communications, interior fires, wildfires, etc. By block three, the students begin EMR certification.
The trainees learn to race into situations others would run from when everything in their bodies is telling them to go in the other direction.
“I think it takes a lot of courage, especially for 18-19 year olds coming out of high school,” said Marine Corps Staff Sgt. George Preen, a hazmat instructor and supervisor within block three of the training course. “We’re teaching them to do something that’s basically the opposite of their normal instinct, which is (to flee from danger). We’re essentially trying to reprogram them to go in and do the right thing.”
The firefighting instruction begins in-classroom and through hands-on exercises at the academy’s outdoor training pad. The area resembles a flightline, but instead of expanses of hangars and rows of aircraft lining the concrete strip, there are towers with zip lines and ladders, buildings made to fill up with smoke, and charred aircraft frames simulating possible crash and recovery scenarios.
The profession is well known for combatting blazes; however, firefighters constantly delve into another area of expertise.
“It’s a big misconception,” Trueman said. “Out there, people think firefighters just put the wet stuff on the hot stuff, when in fact, about 70 percent of our calls as firefighters in the Department of Defense are actually medical.”
Though unusual, Trueman first fell in love with the EMR aspect of the fireman’s job before that of fighting fires. As a child he’d won a coloring contest hosted by his local fire station, and, as a reward, he was given a tour of the fire house. When a call came in requesting a response to a medical situation, the assistant fire chief let him jump in the car and ride along to the incident. From that moment on, he was inspired, and now he instructs on the subject that first captured his attention.
Being a firefighter is anything but easy, and after serving 12 years in the career field, Trueman knows that while on call his students will be exposed to many traumatic situations that will test their ability to bounce back.
“The most difficult response that I went on involved an individual who’d attempted suicide,” he said. “It was a young lady, and being a father myself, I put myself in her parent’s shoes, and you know it’s just something that I hadn’t experienced. I’d trained for it, I had the skills to handle it, but emotionally … it’s one of those things where I had to talk to my mentors to kind of get me over that hump, because it definitely affects you the next day.”
Dealing with the emotions and trauma firefighters experience individually can be overwhelming, so that’s why they learn to look to each other for support.
In just about any type of training or military situation teamwork is critical, but Brum believes that his fellow classmates have gone beyond simply helping one another, they’ve become like family.
“All I hear is that when you’re at a base, at a fire station, it’s like a second family to you,” Brum said.
Even though he wasn’t actively working at a fire station yet, the young Airman had already found support through a team of fellow apprentice firefighters. At the academy and faced with stressors ranging from academics to physical fitness requirements, the students learned to lean on each other.
Though it is a strenuous course, the most difficult part for Brums was being away from family for nearly six months during the combination of basic training and technical school. Though he could Skype them or call, the separation sometimes tested his resolve. His teammates, however, were able to make the separation more bearable.
“If you’re serious all the time you’re just going to go crazy, so we like to have fun with each other, lighten the mood,” Brum said. “Having my friends in class, (when) I’m having a bad day … they know how to cheer me up to keep me going.
Even with his classmates’ support, Brum says life without his family can be stressful. But with a bit of technology and a dose of imagination and patience, he says he will be able to see it through.
“My wife and daughter, they are the reason I’m here,” he added. “After a hard day of training … my first thought is, ‘Oh, I have to wake up at 3:30 tomorrow morning and start it all over again. But then going to the dorm and being able to sit at a computer to Skype with my family – just seeing them and knowing how proud I’m making them, it gives me the motivation to get up that next morning and give my all.”
Trueman believes that despite the long hours, stress of learning new things and separation from family and friends, his students end up with a set of skills and values they will carry with them throughout their careers. He added that the aspect of his job he values the most is the difference he can make through each new student he teaches.
“Now I’m influencing the future of our career field and I really get to shape it by sending out quality (DOD firefighters),” he added. “The folks we send out there aren’t going to falter the first time they see a real world incident. They’ll be able to fall back on their training, and use that framework to push them over that hump.”
But Trueman made clear that this technical training is really only the beginning. He said a combination of advance courses, on-the-job training and experience in the field will be key to their successful future as firefighters.
“We produce a lot of graduates every year for the entire DOD,” Welling said. “One of the things we try to impress upon them as they graduate is ‘your training’s not done.’ You may be able to wear the firefighter badge, but you need to continue to train and prepare, because you never know what … situation you’re going to be responding to. When the bell goes off and you’re asked to go do your job, you need to be ready, because someone’s life does depend on it.