Fighting fire with desire

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Running into a civil engineer warehouse with reports of fire and two victims trapped inside and no other information, Airman 1st Class Andre Adams, the man on the hand-line hose, checks the door for heat with the back of his hand, opens it and charges through the smoke. At that moment, he has no idea what could be inside. Staff Sgt. Aaron Theriault immediately yells to move right to sweep the wall, peering through debilitating smoke using a thermal imaging camera, he notices two smaller heat signatures - the victims.

Within a few seconds, Theriault makes more than 10 decisions that could mean the difference between life and death. Make sure his team and equipment are ok, get the victims out, extinguish the fire and search for secondary fires are just a few of his thoughts.

"At an emergency scene, anything can happen so we set up our scenarios that way," said Tech. Sgt. Robert Edwards, 380th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department NCO in charge of training and logistics, deployed from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. "Every emergency is different, every situation is different. When our firefighters go in, they may have limited information about the situation."

Being able to make decisions on the spot in the face of danger does not come without experience, according to Edwards. There are a million things that could go wrong and only one outcome that is right.

Knowing the difference between what type of materials are burning and how a fire will react to the influx of oxygen when the doors are opened could save a building, a firefighter's life, or a combat mission downrange, said Edwards.

Every training scenario has a purpose; some of them have requirements to fulfill from the Air Force Civil Engineer Center while others are there to test the crew chief's critical thinking skills. However, every training scenario ends with a de-brief to determine performance and lessons learned.

"We have to critique ourselves, it's the only way we get better," said Edwards. "We give our guys freedom of thought, experience is important and a different thought process is ok as long as it coincides with our established procedures. We want the team to think about how to accomplish our three primary goals; save lives, protect property and keep the environment safe."

The desire to learn has to trickle down from the crew chief to each team member according to Adams, who is a fairly young firefighter.

"My main responsibility being the first one in the door is to be the eyes for my crew chief. I have to be on the lookout for any concerns. It's everyone's responsibility to make a safety call," said Adams, deployed from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. "If I see a wall about to buckle and my crew chief doesn't, I am going to call it out."

Having fought real fires before, Adams knows this training will sharpen his skills, his thought processes and his team's cohesion -- three skills that could possibly mean the difference between his life, the victim's life and death.

According to Adams, the only difference between a real fire and a training scenario is the heat put off by the flames and the unpredictability of the fire. Everything else is the same.

"I take the same mindset to training as I do the real thing," said Adams. "If you do your best, it will build confidence and build skills. When we do our de-brief, we learn, we take those lessons and apply them to a real fire situation to save lives."