Crash crew firefighters train daily to protect aircrews, aircraft

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Wendy Beauchaine
  • 482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Hollywood turned to big-screen veterans Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy to be heroes for 48 Hours. At Homestead, 482d Mission Support Group firefighters aim to save lives and protect property during their 48-hour shift.
They conduct preventive maintenance, incident-response training and practice life-saving techniques such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Afterwards, they have 72 hours off, then come back and do it all over again.
The fire station is divided into sections, but all of the firefighters follow the same 48 on, 72 off schedule, rotating between the crash and structure crews.
When assigned to the crash section, firefighters handle all aircraft and flightline scenarios, additionally serving as back-ups for the structure section. Both crews must be available during cable engagements, when a cable is used to stop an aircraft, similar to jets landing on a ship.
“We have to learn about everything to be proficient,” said Francisco Gonzalez, a lead firefighter. “In an emergency, we’re the medical people on this base – we go out, and we stabilize people and situations.
“Medical Reservists handle physicals and mobility requirements, not emergencies,” he said. He would know. For the past five years, he has served as a traditional Reservist in the medical squadron.
Homestead firefighters may be the medical responders on base, but there are no requirements to take action during off-base incidents. However, they did stabilize people in a recent car accident occurring near the main gate.
“Being able to help people is the most rewarding part of this job,” Mr. Gonzalez said.
About 13 years ago, an F-16 engine caught on fire and crashed here, requiring the crash crew to respond and contain the area. One firefighter ran through the burning plane and hauled out the pilot, saving his life. The pilot sustained injuries, burns and broken bones, but he survived.
“It was my first aircraft crash incident as the fire chief,” said Jacob Grier. “When we responded, it went absolutely textbook. Of course, it happened during lunch, when half of the people were coming and going at the station.”
While there are many positive experiences, there are times where the challenge can be overwhelming, resulting in a failure.
“We’re here to save,” said Mr. Gonzalez, a 22-year veteran in the career field. “Sometimes we think we’re Superman, but in real life, you can’t always save someone.
“Once, I had a call to go to housing,” he said. “A woman was not breathing. We did everything we could, but we couldn’t resuscitate her. It’s even worse when the person is a kid.”
Firefighters prepare daily for these scenarios, but fires and accidents are rare on military installations.
“We don’t get that many (fires) because everything is so controlled,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “We have a lot of inspections, regulations and checklists. Any one of us can stop an operation if we see something that’s not within our inspection guidelines.”
House fires occur more often because they’re not controlled areas.
“The city can’t come in your home and say you can’t do this or that like they can here,” the chief said.
Flightline fires may be rare, but they do happen. An engine fire can quickly spread to a blazing inferno if firefighters don’t respond properly.
Alternate aircraft fuel sources like hydrazine are slightly toxic. If hydrazine is activated, the crash section has to mitigate the hazard while checking for leaks and vapors.
“This job is dangerous, and we’re risking our lives,” said Mr. Gonzalez. “We had a tanker fire inside a small garage, and it was scary because it was in such an enclosed area. It doesn’t always go like we train, but we get it done.”
While the crash crews strive to minimize damage to multi-million dollar aircraft, it’s impossible to place a value on a life saved. It is in these times firefighters become larger than the silver-screen stars, representing true heroism that can never be defined by a dollar figure.