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Finding safety through flames

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- With new advances in technology and safety practices, the nature of fire protection has changed from a "strong-man" club, to a highly-motivated, efficiently trained unit with the highest regard for safety.

Members of the Ellsworth fire department have incorporated these practices and advancements into a structured daily routine emphasizing training to perfection.

"Our personal protective equipment is the first line of defense in avoiding injuries," said Master Sgt. Steven O'Connell, 28th Civil Engineering Squadron assistant chief of operations. "The bunker gear we wear must be compliant with National Fire Protection Association regulations."

Fire protection bunker gear consists of a padded, silver-colored suit worn to protect against heat and flames, as well as scrapes, bumps and other minor injuries which could occur during an incident. The gear is augmented with a helmet, steel toed and soled boots, and gloves which can weigh approximately 35 pounds when worn together.

"When we step into a fire scene there could be rafters with nails protruding from them," said Sergeant O'Connell. "We can literally step on the nail without it going through our foot when we're wearing our bunker gear."

The fire protection bunker gear is mandatory wear during incidents and training. However, the amount of equipment worn is determined by the incident commander.

"As advantageous as the bunker gear is toward keeping us safe, it can also harm us," he said. "The suit itself has a significant thermal barrier, which serves to keep heat out as well as trapping it in."

The trapped heat can lead to injuries associated with dehydration and heat exhaustion.

According to Sergeant O'Connell there are minimum PPE requirements unique to every incident response. Before going into a fire scene, every member of the unit pairs off and performs a "buddy check" on their wingman.

The buddy check creates a mirror image of equipment wear with responders, he said. This ensures the equipment is worn properly and functioning at 100 percent efficiency.

"An improperly worn hood can cause someone to sustain severe burns on their face and head," said Sergeant O'Connell. "The buddy check is absolutely vital to keeping our guys safe when they are responding to incidents."

In order to successfully perform a task like the buddy check during a high-stress incident, the fire department trains diligently with a variety of realistic scenarios.

"Anytime we do our training we try to make it as realistic as we can," he said. "Our number one priority is saving lives, so we need to train for different situations that could arise during a real-world incident."

The training can include a live fire scenario at the base's burn house, specifically built for fire protection training, to a smoke-based scenario in one of the base houses set for remodeling or a rescue scenario of a flight crew trapped in a simulated burning B-1B Lancer.

Sergeant O'Connell evaluates how well each person performs during the scenario. Future training and feedback is based on those performances.

"One of the most important things we look for when evaluating a training exercise is whether or not the operation is getting safer as it progresses," he said. "We don't expose ourselves to additional risk and hazard if the operation isn't getting safer."

In addition to training with realistic scenarios, members of the unit also test and train new gear they have been issued.

The respirator masks we use now come with several enhancements designed to make our job easier. A voice enhancer and internal radio has improved communication during incidents. The mask also has a built-in heads-up display, which gives Airmen important information, including the amount of oxygen left in their breathing tank, Sergeant O'Connell said.

Another improvement which has decreased the number of safety mishaps on the job has been a mechanism on the fire truck which raises and lowers ladders for ease of access. It also allows Airmen to safely lift and carry the ladder without exposing their bodies to strains and sprains that could occur if they have to lift the ladder off the truck.

Many of the advancements in development, such as lighter weight materials, are designed to prevent injuries from being sustained by firefighters during training and real-world situations.

"The actual cost of these advancements is negligible when compared to the potential number of lives saved and injuries avoided," said Lt. Col. Matthew Joganich, 28 CES commander. "The bottom line is fire protection is in the business of saving lives and we need to equip our fire fighters with the best possible gear so they can accomplish their mission."

As technology improves and safety practices become second nature, the fire department remains committed to rescuing people and minimizing damages, said Sergeant O'Connell. Through rigorous training and a well-developed sense of teamwork, the dangers associated with this high-risk career field can be managed and minimized.