332nd ECES firefighters save lives, property

By Staff Sgt. Stacy Fowler: 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — To say the 332nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Emergency Services Flight here is “busy” might be an understatement. It’s like saying the summer heat at Joint Base Balad is “a little warm.”

The Balad Fire Emergency Services Flight consists of about 60 Air Force and Army firefighters, with support from contractors and military medical technicians. This small group has a huge mission — they provide emergency support for thousands of people, hundreds of buildings and all the aircraft on JBB.

“In just a month and a half we had 220 emergencies, 99 of them on my shift,” said Tech. Sgt. James Maynard, Balad Fire Emergency Services assistant chief of operations, deployed from Cannon Air Force Base. “I knew that my tour would be exciting as soon as I arrived here.”

Exciting could be one word to describe the mission of the Balad firefighters. They are continually ready to leap to action for every call.

Since the beginning of May 2010, the firefighters at JBB have saved more than $12 million in property and supplies. And in the dry heat of the desert, fires can start from the tiniest spark and spread quickly.

“Fires in a deployed environment can be some of the most destructive,” said Master Sgt. Robert Leonard, Balad Fire Emergency Services assistant chief of fire prevention, deployed from Pope AFB, N.C.

However, there has been a decline in fire calls in the past few months, according to Leonard. Actual fire calls have steadily decreased, going from 15 fires a month to 2.3 fires a month. This comes from a mix of the right training, public awareness, and a lot of joint efforts around JBB.

But the number one enemy, and overall cause of many fires, is complacency.

“Keep your eyes open,” said the Chief Master Sgt. Lou Alimonda, Balad Fire Emergency Services fire chief, deployed from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. “If you see something, call fire prevention, the housing office — call somebody.”

Fire prevention may be everyone’s responsibility, but it’s the firefighters who train continuously to make sure they are firefighting-fit to answer each call.

When many firefighters are at home station, they usually are on shift 24 hours, then are able to go home to family, friends and just unwind from the firefighting business. In a deployed location however, when you are off-shift firefighting doesn’t stop.

“We do a lot of familiarization every day, learning different tactics and techniques to work with and around the physical protections on base,” said Senior Airman Jon Wilson, Balad Fire Emergency Services driver/operator, and first-time deployer from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.

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. Wearing something that totally covers them from head to toe in 120-degree heat is exhausting, said Alimonda. In addition, firefighters usually have to drag hoses, which can weigh up to 45 pounds per section before it is filled with water.

Fire prevention and firefighting is just one portion of the overall mission of the Balad Fire Emergency Services. They also respond to unexploded ordinance calls and medical emergencies around base.

“My first day on duty we had a Humvee rollover that pinned a soldier underneath,” said Maynard. “We were able to get to him quickly, and he survived because of my airmen’s work getting him out of there and to the hospital. Other calls we’ve received were for vehicle accidents, IED (improvised explosive device) injuries, minor injuries around base, and a lot of UXO calls after indirect fire reports.”

But there is one thing that the firefighters know and practice: flexibility is the key to mission success.

“You can’t pre-plan,” said Maynard. “You can try to, but when something happens, you go back to your training. Things can change in a second, and you have to be able to change with it or people could get hurt. The firefighters are here to make sure that our people, our aircraft and our deployment are safe so that when it’s time for people to go home, they go home in one piece.”