Saturday, October 1, 2011

U.S. Marines train to fight aircraft fires

Marines working in Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting risk their lives on a regular basis to ensure the air station, its personnel and Yuma's community are safe.

ARFF specializes in aircraft fires and trains every day to maintain a high level of proficiency in aviation fire protection.

“Our mission is to preserve life and protect property through fire prevention here on base and the airfield,” said Gunnery Sgt. Craig Johnson, ARFF operations chief and 36-year-old native of Apple Valley, Calif. “We are watching take-offs and landings of all aircraft, including visiting aircraft, at all times. We are also providing mutual aid to the federal fire department, city and county as well.”

According to Johnson, the station is the biggest and only category 4 airfield in the Corps. A category 4 airfield is defined by the number of aircraft flying in and out and the weight these aircraft carry, thus making Marine Corps Air Station Yuma the busiest air stations in the Corps. Marines work 48-hour shifts and 72 hours every other weekend. They train every day to complete 92 annual classes. These classes include egress procedures, aircraft checkups and training fire simulations that use mobile aircraft firefighting training devices.

“You have to be in shape and be ready to work and work hard,” said Johnson. “It's one of those jobs where you train for the worst. I think we help more people than we lose so it's worth it. It's a very fulfilling job.”

These Marines attend the Louis F. Garland Fire Academy at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas and the second best fire academy in the country. It is a three-month-long school that gives Marines the skills required to become a first-class firefighter.

“The school was a mixture of being physically and mentally demanding,” said Johnson. “There are a lot of tests and milestones you have to reach. With a high dropout rate, you can see it's a very difficult school.”

Upon completion, they receive their firefighter one and two hazardous material certifications and are qualified as any other firefighter in the country with the same certifications as their civilian counterparts.

This is why many times ARFF Marines remain firefighters after the Corps.

Although ARFF is specialized in aircraft firefighting, they have emergency medical technician training and are also trained as a station and federal firefighter. They need to do so because, when deployed, they have to fill that duty.

“It's really important to have the capabilities of firefighting, especially with our specialties because we are aircraft firefighters,” said Johnson. “Because of the high risks involved with the numerous take-offs and landings here and the ordnance we carry on aircrafts, constant training cycles are necessary. That way we are able to respond quickly for any type of emergency.”

With approximately 150 emergency calls a year, the most common emergencies seen on station are landing malfunctions because of the hot weather. There are a lot of hot break engine fires, auxiliary power unit fires, bird strikes and a mixture of just about everything.

“We get things from fuel spills to engine fires and casvacs (casualty evacuations),” said Johnson. “In country the majority we have is about 100 casualty evacuations, in-flight problems with low fuels, hydraulic failures, landing gear malfunctions, bird strikes, hung ordnances and bombs not deploying out in the range.”

ARFF receive a wide array of emergencies on base, the Yuma International Airport and off base. They are responsible for 15 miles off base. Often they are called upon by the federal fire department to aid in emergency rescues such as automotive extractions.

“What makes us really unique is that Marine firefighters are really aggressive,” said Johnson. “I have been around firefighters for over 20 years now and I think this is the best group of that I have ever been around. They are extremely well trained and work really hard.”

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