Hill Fire Department sees far fewer fires, but still plays crucial role

  • Published
  • By Jeffrey Beck
  • Hill Air Force Base Fire Department
The Hill Air Force Base Fire Department has a long and rich history of saving lives and supporting the installation's role in national defense.

Founded in the midst of World War II, the then all-civilian and all-male workforce struggled with daily fires as the base doubled and tripled in size. Seven years later the department grew to an organization with more than 70 firefighters and three fire stations.

From May through August 1951, firefighters used five World War II era vehicles to respond to multiple major fires including three crashes involving four aircraft, a hangar explosion and 10 facility fires.

Back then, the department was primarily a fire fighting organization and its firefighters were highly experienced veterans. In the 60 years, since that summer the fire service has worked to prevent fires and diversified into a full spectrum response force.

Today the Hill AFB Fire and Emergency Services Flight is a team made up of highly trained professional fire protection specialists. Currently staffed with 86 men and women, the flight is a member of the base's disaster response force.

The fire department currently partners with security forces, the medical group, emergency management, explosive ordnance disposal and local mutual aid organizations to effectively leverage agency capabilities into a cohesive all emergency response team.

Incident command

As a central member of the team, the base fire department provides incident command for all multi-agency emergencies.

Just like a coach is important to the success of a football team, incident command is one of the central capabilities inherent to the fire officers in a fire department.

A coach calls offensive and defensive plays from kickoff until the game's final whistle blows, and the incident commander is the individual, normally on scene, who has the responsibility and the authority needed to mitigate an incident from cradle to grave.

Why is the fire department the incident commander?

"Besides our Air Force Instruction requirements, traditionally the fire department is the only emergency agency routinely trained in incident command," said Paul Erickson, Hill AFB fire chief.

Incident commanders are provided with state-of-the-art technologies essential for coordinating between multiple agencies. Traditional equipment such as handheld and mobile radios can be supplemented with cell phones, Web-based applications, as well as face-to-face communication.

Computer mapping using global positioning software can also provide the incident commander and others with additional situational awareness. When the incident commander on scene updates a computer map, the update is almost instantly available to base leadership.

Additional communication with base leadership and higher headquarters can be established using Defense Connect Online, an Internet application that allows communication and situational awareness up and down the chain of command.

"An effective incident commander is a high paid logistics officer. The troops, in the heat of the moment, tell you what they need and you get it for them," Erickson said. "The incident commander capitalizes on capabilities using command presence,SClBexperience and knowledge at an emergency scene."

Emergency response capability

The Hill AFB Fire Department is specifically staffed with specialized personnel, equipment, and extensively trained to respond to aircraft, structural and facility emergencies including emergency medical situations and hazardous materials incidents.

"I would say our most important capability is our ability to provide exceptional service in the area of aircraft rescue fire fighting," said Dustin Maruquin, Hill AFB Fire Department apparatus driver/operator. "Aircraft rescue fire fighting is our number one priority. As far as fire protection goes, that really is, in a nutshell, why we are even here."

The base's headquarters fire station located just off the flightline is the primary aircraft rescue fire fighting fire station. The department is specially equipped for the aircraft assigned to Hill.

Under normal conditions the department responds three specialized aircraft rescue fire fighting vehicles with six firefighters and 6,300 gallons of water; two structural engines with eight firefighters; a rescue vehicle with three firefighters and a command unit for incident command.

Firefighters are experts on Hill's assigned aircraft and knowledgeable of all aircraft in the Department of Defense inventory.

The three main types of aircraft emergencies are: in-flight, ground and stand-by. Any on-board emergency situation involving a flying aircraft and aircrew is an in-flight emergency; a ground emergency is initiated while the aircraft is on the ground; and the fire department also responds to emergency stand-bys, or abnormal operations that may result in a ground emergency.

"We are currently using equipment that is on the cutting-edge of firefighting technology," Maruquin said.

Some equipment includes the Oshkosh Stryker and E-One P-23 aircraft rescue fire fighting vehicle with mounted forward looking infrared cameras; traversing and extendable nozzle booms; dual-agent hydro-chemical nozzles; aqueous film-forming foam nozzles mounted on hand-lines; handheld thermal imaging cameras; and advanced master-stream devices.

The flightline fire station is appropriately placed to meet Air Force directed response times for aircraft emergencies. The first responding vehicle can reach any point on the runway within three minutes and all other vehicles arrive at intervals not exceeding 30 seconds.

The department also operates structural fire vehicles and apparatus from three fire stations.

The Headquarters Fire Station houses two structural fire apparatus or fire engines, and an aerial apparatus, or ladder truck. The other two stations -- Fire Station 2, located near the West Gate, houses one engine, and Fire Station 3, located at the Little Mountain Test Annex, also houses an engine.

Each engine is equipped to control and extinguish fires, perform rescue of victims and emergency medical care. Each engine carries a staff of four firefighters capable of controlling a single-room fire, extinguishing a vehicle fire and performing basic emergency medical treatment.

"The most likely emergency we are equipped to handle are what we call the 'smells and bells," said Jeffrey Herriott, Hill AFB Battalion Chief, on responding to structural emergencies. "Still with all the tools, gadgets and detectors we have on board, really it's our people and not the equipment that gives us the ability to address most any hazardous situation. Harnessing our people's abilities through patience and simple trust is the key to meeting this demand."

Engines respond to all fires, fire alarms, fire detection and suppression system trouble calls, as well as carbon monoxide alarms. An engine will respond to and arrive on scene of a structural emergency within seven minutes of notification.

Emergency medical technicians

Emergency medical response is evolving into a core fire department responsibility. All fire vehicles are equipped with the basic medical equipment required for patient care. The ladder truck and a specialized rescue vehicle are equipped for advanced life support.

The fire department deploys certified emergency medical technicians on the rescue vehicle at the Headquarters Fire Station and the engines assigned to Fire Station 2 and Fire Station 3. Medical care, above the EMT level, is provided by mutual aid via Davis and Weber County agencies.

"Our relationship with Davis County Sheriff Paramedics is close and professional," said Paul Bond, Hill AFB EMT. "Our familiarity with each deputy eases communication and ensures seamless patient care, transfer and transport. Ultimately, we improve patient survivability."

The Hill Fire Department provides initial case, triage and incident command at all medical emergencies. Medical responders will arrive on scene within seven minutes of notification.

Hazardous materials

Hill Air Force Base routinely stores and uses hazardous materials. To deal with potential spills, the fire department maintains an aggressive hazardous materials incident response capability.

Equipment required to deal with most known hazardous chemicals is stored in response trailers staged around the base. Firefighters are certified to the technician level enabling spill mitigation actions. In other words, firefighters are capable of controlling a spill, rescuing victims and stopping the spill.

Once stopped, hazardous materials incidents are then cleaned up by certified contractors.

Safety is paramount

Whatever the emergency, safety is an essential part of the fire protection mission. Providing emergency response without becoming a victim of the emergency is vital. Fire departments now employ dedicated safety officers at all significant emergencies.

"The safety officer becomes that unlabeled, 'quiet command' guy that puts eyes in the back of the head of the otherwise busy-blinded incident commander," Herriot said. "Although some would have you believe that it's a position that just anyone could fill, I would disagree. It takes a little bit of knowledge from each and every skill of our service. The safety officer adds in the complexity of the entire developing incident and only after adding the ability to forecast unforeseen circumstances, allows everyone to go home safe at the end of the shift."

Firefighter safety, fire prevention and new technology have vastly improved the reduction in the number of fires and aircraft crashes experienced since the summer of 1951. While the threat from fire has been reduced, emergency medical response is at an all time high. Hazardous materials have expanded a thousandfold and response to spills is common. When things go bad, firefighters minimize the damage and start to bring things back to normalcy. Firefighters often meet their customers on the worst day of their lives. Still the basic firefighter hasn't changed.

"Selfless and service -- amidst all the other fluff such as rank, certifications and degrees -- these two things together account for everything we do as public safety professionals," Herriot said. "It's the reason that 93 percent of the American fire service is comprised of volunteer forces -- common folk truly wanting to help out a stranger and expecting little in return. This service unto others before serving thyself makes a firefighter worth his or her weight in gold."