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Arnold AFB Fire and Emergency Services sharpen skills during live fire training sessions

Writer: Bradley Hicks   

Whether they occur within the Arnold Air Force Base mission area or in the surrounding community, the Arnold AFB Fire and Emergency Services team must be prepared to face any fire emergency that confronts them.

To help ensure maintained readiness should a call come in, Arnold FES crews recently participated in a pair of training sessions conducted at Arnold AFB. The first of these sessions, which occurred over the three-day period from Feb. 27-29, called for Arnold firefighters to combat a simulated structural blaze. During the second, which took place from March 5-7, Arnold FES personnel battled fires on a simulated aircraft.

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Arnold FES firefighters are required to complete these live fire trainings annually per National Fire Protection Association and Air Force standards.

To ensure structural fire training compliance, a mobile live fire simulator was again brought to Arnold AFB, headquarters of Arnold Engineering Development Complex.

The training unit, which resembles a mobile home, is designed to replicate situations crews could encounter while responding to a residential structure fire. The simulator was provided by the Kentucky Fire Commission, part of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. Arnold FES has worked with the KCTCS for a number of years to complete required training.

Fires in the simulator are created through a propane-driven system. This gives administrators greater control over the fires and provides trainees with improved safety when compared to other live fire training methods. The smoke that permeates the training trailer is water-based. While it may not behave in quite the same manner that smoke would during an actual fire, releases of the simulated smoke help remind crews of how greatly smoke can hinder vision during actual structure fires.

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Arnold FES Fire Prevention Officer Christian Lyle said the versatile training unit allows FES crews to hone skills, such as handline firefighting, which is when a hose is used to extinguish fires, and communication, while tackling blazes across various conditions.

“This trailer can simulate multiple fire situations for the guys,” Lyle said. “We can obviously simulate fires at ground level. We can also simulate above-ground or multiple-story fire situations. We can even have them simulate below ground- or basement-type fires if need be, as well as forcible entry situations. They can also simulate salvage and overhaul operations, which is basically checking for fire extension, making sure the actual fire is out and making sure that the fire hasn’t spread behind walls, throughout the ceiling and into other rooms.”

The trailer can further be used to simulate kitchen space fires or deep-seated couch blazes to mimic fire in a living room area.

The training took place over the course of three days to allow each of the three FES crews the opportunity to participate. During the training, Arnold firefighters formed teams of two, and each duo was charged with working their way through the simulator, combating fires along the way. Crew members were observed throughout the training to ensure they were utilizing proper techniques, and immediate feedback was given to firefighters.

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“A lot of the training is being critiqued, not only by the chief fire officer, which is the assistant chief on duty, but also by the firefighter crew chief inside,” Lyle said. “The crew chiefs are looking at the firefighters’ techniques, making sure that they’re using appropriate patterns, looking at their teamwork, making sure that we can operate as a team and are using effective handline techniques to put the fire out.”

Lyle added the training not only better prepares FES crews to address any blazes that may occur within the Arnold AFB mission area or on base property, but it is also helps improve response to mutual aid requests from neighboring agencies.

“We work very closely with our mutual aid partners – Tullahoma, Manchester, Hillsboro and our surrounding communities like Capitol Hill,” Lyle said. “We work very closely with them, and they obviously work closely with us. So, just as we are dependent on them to know what they’re doing, they’re also very dependent on us to know what we’re doing, that they know they can give us a job assignment and our guys are going to be able to come out there and perform that job effectively and efficiently be able to put that fire out.”

To complete the fuselage fire training that occurred the following week, a Mobile Aircraft Fire Trainer, or MAFT, was brought in from the University of Missouri Fire and Rescue Training Institute. 

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The simulator, which is about the size of a C-130 Hercules, can replicate both external and internal aircraft fuselage fires. Like the structure fire simulator, the fuselage fires are created through a propane system and simulated smoke is released throughout the trainer.

Arnold FES Assistant Fire Chief Jim Evans said the training helps bolster preparedness should an incident occur at the Arnold AFB Airfield.

“With the airfield being back open, if they have an emergency with a fire onboard or an engine fire or brake fire or something on the inside of the fuselage, we’ll have the training and the knowledge to go in and combat the fire and rescue any person that is inside the plane,” Evans said.

A significant component of the fuselage training involved attacking exterior fires with water sprayed from the turrets mounted on Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting, or ARFF, trucks in the FES fleet.

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Crews also engaged in handline training, working in pairs to extinguish fires both on the inside and outside of the MAFT, and were tasked with rescuing any simulated victims – represented by fire resistant manikins – they encountered within the trainer.

“We also do handline training where we actually enter the fuselage, simulate shutting down the aircraft engines, cutting fuel to the aircraft and disconnecting the batteries, and then rescue any individuals that are inside the aircraft,” Evans said.

As was the case with the structure fire training that took place throughout the prior week, each FES crew participated in the fuselage fire training.

“We have three shifts, so we schedule for three consecutive days so that each shift gets a chance to come out and hone their skills on ARFF firefighting,” Evans said.

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Also like the structural fire training, Arnold firefighters were observed during the fuselage training so feedback could be provided and techniques improved.

“We’re honing our skills, so if we see somebody doing something that’s not quite right, then we correct it on the spot,” Evans said. “That way, if the real world does happen, they’re better at this job.”

Just as he did last year, AEDC Commander Col. Randel Gordon suited up, donned the gear and participated in both types of live fire training. Gordon took his turn battling fires in the structure fire trainer on Feb. 29. On March 5, Gordon took part in the fuselage fire training.

Lyle said it is important for FES crew members to see AEDC leadership taking an interest in what they do and engaging in the training. He said this also gives Gordon some firsthand insight on what Arnold firefighters experience when responding to calls.

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“The colonel coming out here is a great thing,” Lyle said. “It shows that he’s definitely interested in Fire and Emergency Services. It shows that he really does care about what the guys do day in and day out, but it also shows him what the guys of Fire and Emergency Services actually go through.”

Evans shared a similar to sentiment, noting the fuselage training likely gave Gordon a glimpse at how difficult it can sometimes be to put out a fire.

“It shows us that he supports us when he comes out and gets in the suit with us,” Evans said. “He knows what we’re going through. He feels the heat of the fire and, when we’re out here fighting fires, if something real world did happen, then he would understand what’s going on.”

For his part, Gordon said it was important to him to participate in the training sessions for a couple of reasons. 

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“One, we rely greatly upon the emergency services support that we have out here, so it was good that they understand that the senior leadership has a vested interest in, certainly, being out there and talking with them and understanding a little bit about their life and times, what they have to go through,” he said. “In addition to that, it’s kind of that boyhood dream of, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to be a fireman and to actually get a chance to see what they do day-to-day?’ So it was great just to kind of learn a bit about a day in their life and to experience that, but also as commander to be able to express the appreciation that we have for our emergency services team.”

Gordon said he kept his experience from last year in mind while taking part in the training this year.

“I learned from last year just how difficult it is to maneuver around in small spaces when you’re wearing all of the gear and have the oxygen mask on, so I made it a point to really work on my cardio this time around heading in there because I knew that I would need that to be able to just kind of keep up with them,” he said.

Gordon said he once again came away from the training with an “incredible respect” for the Arnold AFB FES crew members and their ability to work together on the emergencies they regularly encounter. He further referred to the department as an asset to the community.

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“Oftentimes, what you see in the movies is this beautiful, very clear, heroic kind of stance of firemen running into these types of situations, be it an aircraft fire or a building fire,” Gordon said. “The reality is that it’s claustrophobic, it’s dark, it is hard to hear, it’s hard to breathe, it’s hard to maneuver and, in the midst of all that, you have to be able to coordinate as a team, oftentimes just using hand taps or signals to be able to work to put out the fire and to rescue folks, so the first big takeaway I took from it was it’s a hard job. It is a very, very hard job, and I’m impressed with the fact that they maintain the readiness to go do that.

“The second thing I took away from it is I have the confidence that, if for whatever reason something were to occur, that I know that they could respond just because of the level of readiness they maintain over there.

“The third thing I took away is just how much of a brotherhood that they really kind of enforce with one another, that we call them out to do some pretty difficult things and that in their downtime they spend a lot of time just building that bond with one another so that they know, when they really need to, that they can depend on one another. It was very apparent in all the times I’ve been to the fire department that they treat each other a lot like family and less like it’s an employee-supervisor kind of relationship.”

 Firefighters with Arnold Air Force Base Fire and Emergency Services use a handline to combat a simulated aircraft fire during fuselage fire training March 5, 2024, at Arnold AFB, Tenn., headquarters of Arnold Engineering Development ComplexArnold FES crews took part in live structural fire training Feb. 27-29, 2024, and live aircraft fire training March 5-7, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Keith Thornburgh)

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