When I concluded my last blog, I had been telling the story about how I came to be a firefighter right up to the point I graduated high school. So let me pick back up from there.
During high school, there was little doubt that I wanted to be a firefighter. It was more about how and where I was going to be come one. It looked like the military was the best choice for me. Initially, I had planned to follow in my Dad’s path and join the Navy. When we went to visit a Navy recruiter, the recruiter interviewed me and I explained to him my love of firefighting and that is what I wanted to do. I actually had a recruiter that wasn’t about his numbers and was good enough to tell me that if I was wanting to be a full time firefighter, I needed to see the Air Force.
So, after a short interview and completing an ASFAB test, It looked like I was in! Basic Training at Lackland AFB, TX and then on to Chanute AFB, IL for Firefighting School. Basic Training is what you would expect. During week four we all received our orders for where we were going to school. When I received my orders, they were not to Chanute AFB but to Sheppard AFB in TX! Something about being a waste water treatment specialist which was not what I was in for at all! When everyone was asked if there were problems with their orders I immediately raised my hand. Next thing I know, I am begging for the opportunity to be a firefighter even though I had already committed to four years of Air Force life. I started in one office, then another, then another. Each office would tell me to go see another down the hall. Eventually, I found myself standing in the office of a man with lots of chrome and stars on his shoulders and Major General on his name plate. While very intimidated by his rank, I wasn’t deterred from my mission of being a firefighter. The final question the General asked me was, “Why would I want you to be a firefighter in my Air Force Airman?” to which I replied, “Sir, I have 4 years of training as a firefighter and I love doing that more than anything. I even have the documentation here to prove what I say to be true”. After reviewing the training records from my days as an Explorer, he sent me down the hall to an office which issued me new orders to Chanute AFB to Fire School and I was on my way.
During my basic firefighting school, the training was broken up into four two week blocks of training. The First two weeks were basic training where we learned how to wear the gear, SCBA, and basic terminology about the job. Next we completed Medical Training which included CPR and Medical First Responder courses. Block three is when the training started getting fun. This was the ARFF Block where we learned how to fight fires on Airplanes. They built some REALLY Big Fires!. Block four was the structural firefighting class learning about fighting fires in buildings, houses, and other types of structures. As the fire school was winding up, I found out that my initial base assignment was going to be in Myrtle Beach South Carolina. Another firefighter in my class from Los Angeles CA received orders to Minot AFB in North Dakota. After some begging from the guy from California I agreed to switch orders and go to North Dakota. Usually when I tell people this, they think I am nuts but for me it was a great choice. You’ll learn more about that later.
Once I graduated from Firefighting School and a short leave with family in Missouri, I headed north. On my way, I stopped by my old High School and watched the rest of my class graduate. I had graduated early and so I stopped by in my Dress Uniform to see some friends and to congratulate them. It seemed strange to be there! I had already been out of school for 5 months and done so much since then.
Soon, I was at my base and getting settled in. Of course there was continued training to learn more about the job and to begin to learn the different fire apparatus assigned to the base. When I tell young firefighters today that when I arrived at the base, the firefighters still rode on the tailboard of the trucks they can’t hardly believe it but I have pictures to prove it. My first year at the base was great. I continued my training, began getting assigned as the driver of some of the trucks and joined the Minot Rural Volunteer Fire Department. As the shifts rolled by, I continued to train, to learn, and even began fighting fires with the volunteer fire department. My very first fire, a car fire along a highway. Completely lost and all thumbs I survived my first battle with the dragon and despite my poor performance, the fire went out. (I think it was because there was nothing left to burn!).
By the end of my second year at Minot, I had completed all my continuing education requirements, learned all the fire apparatus at the station and was signed off to drive all of them except one, and was trained in the fire department alarm room (dispatch) and was pulling an 8 hour shift there each 24 hour shift day. Times were busy with the volunteer fire department also. Not much rain had made for a bad fire season with many range and grass fires plus a multitude of other emergencies also. I still had one goal that I hadn’t been able to realize yet. Become a certified driver for the P-15 ARFF Firefighting Vehicle.
What’s a P-15 you’re wondering? Only the biggest, baddest fire truck ever built!
The Air Force P-15 was assigned to bases with Large Frame Aircraft like the B-52 and the KC-135 both of which were assigned to Minot AFB. 6100 gallons of water, 515 gallons of AFFF Foam Concentrate, it discharged this mix of agent from two turrets mounted on top
of the truck which were operated by firefighters standing on the roof to operate them. When discharging at maximum capacity, the truck was able to discharge at 2400 gallons of water per minute. Only a chose few were even allowed to test to become a driver and usually not until they had been at the fire department for 5 years. But, after some persistence I was allowed to test and passed. This allowed me to be assigned to the truck as the driver during our duty shifts. Something I worked very hard for but after this accomplishment, I truly began to believe I could do whatever my mind set me to do.
During the third year of my enlistment, somebody named Saddam Hussein decided to pick on some little country next door and got the US Military all stirred up. People were moving up and our fire department was put on standby for deployment. Part of the Air Force Fire Protection mission is to provide fire protection for forward operating bases which meant stateside firefighters would be moved up to those forward operating bases when needed. Our personnel were moved up in two groups with the first group leaving 4 months prior to another group including me. First to Egypt and then on to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. During this time I had the chance to go on a refueling mission with one of our assigned aircraft and got the opportunity to see a Stealth Fighter before the public knew they existed. Saw a few planes with holes in them etc but nothing compared to those on the front lines. Finally, just before the 4th of July of 1991 I returned back to Minot to finish my enlistment.
In January of 1992 a Canadian Pacific freight train derailed in the small town of Burlington ND. I responded with the volunteer fire department and as we were enroute, we could see the derailment site and it appeared that the whole town was on fire. When we arrived, we set up portable master stream devices to protect railroad tank cars of LPG and attempted to prevent them from burning or exploding. I was assigned to operate one of the supply engines for the master steams. We hauled water that day with Concrete Mixing Trucks, Gasoline Tanker Trucks, and fire department tankers from 1/3 of the state just to try and keep those tanks from exploding and taking out the town. I will never forget being proud to have the skills and knowledge to do my job right and at the same time scared out of my mind wondering if I was going to live through the day. Fortunately, nothing exploded and I did live through the experience. I learned a lot of things including that train derailments are a great place to eat. The railroads contractors brought with them a cook trailer and the food was incredible. Darn near steak every meal if you wanted it.
In February of 1992 I received my honorable discharge from the Air Force, I headed south to Missouri. While I was finishing up High School, my family had already moved to Missouri and so it was time for me to find out what Missouri was all about. But that will be the next part of the story!
Stay tuned for Part 3!