WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE — The occasional blare of a fire engine, flash of lights and heavy sound of tires on pavement rolling past a window likely doesn’t warrant the raise of an eyebrow for those living and working on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, but the impact of Wright-Patterson’s first responders reaches far past the fence line.
Every year, base firefighters respond to more than 100 emergency calls to support 130 fire departments across five counties in Southwestern Ohio. While most of their assistance doesn’t make the news, three recent incidents have highlighted the impact of Wright-Patt’s Fire Emergency Services on the surrounding area.
In late April of this year, an FES crew combatted a massive fuel fire on I-75 alongside their Dayton counterparts. The fire, caused when a car drove the wrong way on the interstate and struck a fuel tanker head on, was so massive that Wright-Patt’s special Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting vehicle was called in to assist.
“The ARFF truck is a specialized piece of apparatus specifically designed to handle airport firefighting needs and to deal with aircraft,” said Jacob King, chief of Wright-Patterson’s Fire Department. He said that the truck was uniquely suited for the incident. “It allows for more water, they have foam and unique capabilities,” said King.
Then, in mid-May, Miami County Fire Dispatch requested Wright-Patt’s dive team to assist in the search for a drowning victim in a farm pond near Piqua. Working with Piqua and West Milton fire departments, as well as Ohio Department of Natural Resource officers, Wright-Patt divers were able to locate the victim and return him to shore.
“You have to realize that with these dive teams, they don’t always have capability,” said Jeff Turner, a diver with Wright-Patt FES who assisted with the recovery. “Piqua called us because they only have a couple of divers. [Brookville] was there and their divers were [exhausted]. So, we said, we’re fresh and we’re ready.”
And in late May, a Wright-Patt FES crew used chainsaws to work their way back to an area of Medway impacted by a tornado. There, they assisted a resident leaving her damaged home, located and delivered critical medicines to a child suffering from cystic fibrosis, helped clear trees and debris and secured gas mains to residences.
The assistance that Wright-Patterson provides to area communities is part of mutual assistance agreements that are authorized by U.S. Code, Department of Defense and Air Force regulations. Generally, all services are provided at no cost and mutual assistance works both ways.
“Mutual aid and the strong relationships we have built with our local fire departments also serve to bolster the base’s response capabilities in special events,” said Maj. Russell Gheesling, 788th Civil Engineer Squadron commander. “We receive support from numerous local departments during events such as the Air Force Marathon, Air Shows, and even the recently completed Vice Presidential visit. Without the support of our community partners we would not nearly achieve the high level of effectiveness in supporting these major events on base.”
King says that local fire departments respond to some 40,000 calls per year, so the hundred or so calls that Wright-Patt provides assistance to are a small percentage of their total. However, he says Wright-Patterson responds to an average of 1,350 calls on base a year, so the mutual assistance calls serve as significant real-world training for his first responders.
“It’s a superior training method,” said King. “I’ll give you an example: we were supporting the City of Fairborn a few years ago on a structure fire in an apartment complex. As that was coming to an end and we were doing some overhaul operations with them, there was a massive explosion. [It was] two streets away and our crews were available to respond first from that initial fire. It was like a scene from a movie. We had a duplex house, with people involved, explode due to a gas leak. There were two other houses [also] on fire. There were victims laying the street. There was a mass casualty from flying debris from people being out in the street when this occurred. And so, when they initially arrived, there is no way that we could simulate that kind of [scenario] for our personnel to respond to and be proficient in.”
It’s opportunities like these that keep Wright-Patterson fire fighters’ skills finely honed and their morale high. Like many of Wright-Patt’s fire fighters, Turner has dedicated his life to community service. Along with his normal duties, Turner volunteers for the Franklin Township fire department and Warren County Special Teams, he’s a member of Ohio Taskforce One, a division of FEMA, and has deployed to assist in hurricane relief efforts, the most recent being Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and he also teaches at Wright State University and another local fire department.
“Opportunity drives me,” said Turner. “If there’s something for me to experience, to do, to teach, I love that. If there’s an opportunity for me to go out and teach somebody or show somebody how we do things or learn something or a [have] new experience to bring back, I will take that opportunity.”
The mutual aid system works by having all of the equipment that fire departments use loaded into a database. When a call comes into a department, the system is configured to know what equipment will be needed, what equipment is available, and, if the required equipment is not available, it will automatically contact other mutual aid fire departments who are possession of the needed equipment to request their assistance.
King said that mutual aid requests are not mandatory and that Wright-Patt’s mission would always come first should a conflict arise.
“Wright-Patterson is our number one concern; it’s our top priority,” said King. “If we have availability to send apparatus or equipment to a mutual request then we will do that. But, there are many factors that go into that, [such as] current operations tempo, what’s the flight schedule, and what’s the pending flight schedule for the next four hours. All of those pieces go into that decision-making process.”
For all the ways that Wright-Patterson may be different from the surrounding community, it’s often the commonalities shared that define and integrate the base into Southwest Ohio.
“In the fire service, it’s a brotherhood. It doesn’t matter if you’re township, city or federal employee, we’re all fire fighters. We work very seamlessly together,” said Daniel Stitzel, fire chief of the city of Riverside. ”We love when Wright-Patterson guys come over and we get to intermix with them. It’s like seeing old friends that you haven’t seen in a while and everyone is willing to work together for that greater good.”
Story courtesy of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.