by Staff Sgt. R. Michael Longoria
9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force - Iraq Public Affairs
3/5/2011 - ALI AIR BASE, Iraq -- 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 on Ali Air Base, Iraq.
"A fire could happen at any time," said Senior Airman Tyler Darnell, firefighter and Indianola, Ill., native. "We must always be ready. Everyone depends on us to do our job."
The collection of Airmen from six different locations around the world, 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, fire chief and Sacramento, Calif., native. "We support the flight line and anything else inside the gates."
With the amount of aircraft and forces that transition through the base, protecting the flight line 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, assistant chief of operations and Mobile, Ala., native. "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."
Fortunately, the fire department hasn't had to respond to any major real life incidents but the firefighters are constantly training just in case.
"We are the best-trained firefighters in the world," said Sergeant Allen, who is on his seventh deployment from Moody Air Force Base, Ga. "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 burning building with someone missing inside.
"We try to make the scenarios as realistic as possible," said Staff Sgt. Horace Conney, fire inspector and training assistant. Sergeant Conney hails from Oconee, Ga., and is deployed from Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. "Thankfully, we don't have a lot of accidents here. We train to make sure we are ready at a moments' notice if necessary."
Constant training, including classes on fire behavior, keeps the firefights 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," said Sergeant Scott, who is deployed from Langley AFB, Va. "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 if what we do is done in the heat of the moment," said Chief Amacker, who is deployed from Aviano Air Base, Italy. "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," said Airman Darnell, who is deployed from Holloman AFB, N.M. "I just do what I know how to do and I do it to the best of my ability."