When the flames of a fire swallow a home or an aircraft whole, everyone nearby runs far away from the danger. But, in the midst of the chaos and panic, a select group approaches the blaze in their bright red trucks and faded yellow suits: the firefighters.
The Airmen and civilians at Ellsworth Air Force Base’s fire department are entrusted with the safety and security of the people and aircraft on base.
“Our overall mission is the B-1s,” said Senior Airman James Blair, a 28th Civil Engineer Squadron fire and emergency services crew member. “We’re here to make sure they stay in the air so they can be anywhere, at any time, when our country needs them, to do whatever the mission requires.”
To get the job done, the base fire department is divided into separate sections – each with different responsibilities to keep their operations running smoothly.
“At the top, there is the fire chief and deputy fire chief, with logistics, [the] fire prevention team, and training underneath them,” Hill explained. “Our logistics side of the house works eight-hour days, whereas the operations side works 24 hours on duty, then 24 hours off duty. If there is ever a big incident that happens, that’s when all of our logistics and planning team [members] will be there.”
Before any of these Airmen can don their protective gear and respond to a call, they must complete the necessary training.
“For four months, we’re sent to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas,” Hill said. “Our training is broken up into three or four separate blocks. We go over [emergency medical response], [airport rescue firefighting], malt water supply and pump operations.”
Blair explained that although firefighters go through an extensive four-month technical school, they still have to complete their career development courses once they arrive at their duty stations. Additionally, fire department members receive continuous on-the-job training.
“Our job always has new things to learn,” Blair explained.
Being stationed in South Dakota, one of the biggest threats these firefighters face is wildland and grassland fires.
“Most of the time different fires require different gear,” Hill said. “In a grassland fire, we typically wear much lighter flame-retardant pants and shirts, along with heavy duty leather boots. Yet, when there’s a structural fire, we bring our bunker gear, self-contained breathing apparatus and heavy duty boots, among other items that weigh an additional 120 pounds.”
Even when there are no fires to put out, the job never stops, whether there is training to be done or vehicles to clean and everything in between.
“When we’re not responding to a fire, we’re always doing some sort of training,” Blair said. “We could be doing anything from structural burns to water rescue. We don’t just sit around and play video games until we get a call.”
On some occasions, Ellsworth AFB’s fire department conducts joint training with Raid City’s fire department and the South Dakota National Guard.
“Whenever we do these joint training operations, it gives everyone a chance to trade techniques and share knowledge,” Hill said. “It also gives us an opportunity to build rapport.”
In the midst of the stress of the job and keeping the base and its resources safe, these firefighters take pride in what they do and have formed a tight bond.
“I love the comradery in our shop,” Blair said. “These guys are much more than coworkers to me – they’re my brothers. Even if we don’t all work the same shift, we’ve all bonded into a family.”