Fire school dishes out world-class training

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Department of Defense Fire Academy students extinguish a jet fuel fire on a large frame aircraft trainer here recently. The 68-day course challenges students both physically and mentally. Goodfellow's Firefighter Apprentice Course, ranked No. 1 in the world for fire training, trains about 2,000 students a year including allied forces. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Michele G. Misiano)

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Department of Defense Fire Academy students extinguish a jet fuel fire on a large frame aircraft trainer here recently. The 68-day course challenges students both physically and mentally. Goodfellow's Firefighter Apprentice Course, ranked No. 1 in the world for fire training, trains about 2,000 students a year including allied forces. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Michele G. Misiano)

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Sixty-eight training days. Four a.m. wake-ups and two-mile runs. "Large frame burns" searing at 1,200 degrees. Smoke. Heat. Noise.

The firefighter trainees at the Louis F. Garland Department of Defense Fire Academy here endure exhaustive training in an effort to be the best. Dozens per year can't keep the pace, requiring them to pursue other career paths. But the ones that succeed can rest assured that they have received the best training in the world, training which has prepared them to charge in where angels fear to tread.

The capabilities of Goodfellow-trained firefighters were evident during a house fire on Andersen Air Force Base, Guam Nov. 29. For one responder, this was his first opportunity to capitalize on technical school training in a real-world situation. Airman 1st Class Johnnie Gilford credits the preparation and training he received at Goodfellow as the reason for his confidence and decisiveness.

The school curriculum is broken into six blocks. Block 1 is First Responder training covering topics from CPR to childbirth. Block 2 is Fire Protection Fundamentals dealing with fire behavior, protection and prevention. Block 3, Structural Fire Fighting Principles, and Block 4, Structural Fire Ground Operations, teach students how to understand and fight fires in a building or similar structure. Block 5 is Hazardous Materials training, covering awareness, planning and environmental regulations. Block 6 teaches Airport Firefighting, focusing on specialized training for flight line areas.

The fire academy staff is proud of Airman Gilford's responsiveness, but not surprised.

"Graduates from this school are ready to go," said Marine Staff Sgt. Tracie Selvera, a Block 1 instructor at the academy. The curriculum is designed to weed-out those who can't perform the mission. It has to--people's lives depend on it.

Within the first two weeks, a typical class of 20 students begins to shrink. The physical demands alone start to thin the herd.

Bunker drills, timed tests designed to evaluate the speed trainees can don their protective ensemble, are far more complicated than slipping on a rain suit-and more exhausting. Bunker gear consists of an overcoat, trousers, gloves, boots, helmet, hood and a myriad of small yet crucial components. A firefighter should be able to get into this equipment in less than 60 seconds.

"When it comes to saving lives, every second counts," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Richard
Huffstatler, a Block 3 instructor at the school. "Through bunker drills, we develop a sense of urgency that becomes second nature. You shouldn't have to think about how to adjust your mask. You should just do it."

A sense of urgency is paramount in order for fire crews to perform in real-world situations.

"Response times are critical," said Block 1 and 2 Instructor Air Force Staff Sgt. Byron Beasley. "Brain damage occurs between 4 and 6 minutes and becomes irreversible after 10. When we receive a call, we have 1 minute to handle the call, 1 minute to 'bunker-up' and 4 minutes to get to the scene." In a flight line environment, crews have only 1 minute to reach the emergency.

Beyond bunker drills, students are physically challenged in almost everything they do. "Firefighter PT (physical training)" consists of climbing and descending ladders, dragging hoses and simulated victims, and numerous other activities that take a physical toll on trainees.

Everyday, firefighters face environments that the human body is not designed to withstand. Dedication to physical fitness is imperative. A firefighter must be in top shape to endure those conditions. If not, exhaustion and dehydration could prove to be fatal.

So discipline is a must for those with serious ambitions to become a firefighter. Forcing one's self to run that next mile, to squeeze out that last sit up, all to ensure top-notch performance when and where it counts.

"One of the reasons we lose (students) early in the program is because they aren't in 'discipline mode' when they get here," said Tech. Sgt. Huffstatler.

"Firefighters work 24-on-24 off," said one Block 4 Instructor, Air Force Staff Sgt. Tabio Soto. "There's really no time for a lot of drinking and partying. It takes self discipline for firefighters to make the decision to be responsible."

But make no mistake, it takes more than nerves of steel and brute force to fight fires. Trainees experience 544 hours of classroom instruction.

"The academics can be a big surprise," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Hare, a Block 6 instructor. "Some people just don't expect firefighter training to have this amount of class work."

By the end of the course, approximately $28,000 has been invested in each graduate. At that point, hours and dollars culminate to produce a professional firefighter ready to join the fire crew at their next assignment.

With so rigorous a training schedule, it is easy to conclude that those who dish out this regiment are the best of the best. Only accomplished, capable firefighters are selected to return to the school as instructors.

In some ways, teaching is tougher than fighting fires. These instructors know they must do what it takes to turn out genuine professionals. Not everyone takes the training seriously. Instructors must be able to identify those individuals who are merely going through the motions and not giving 100 percent. The school not only trains Air Force firefighters, but firefighters across the Department of Defense. On any day, Airmen, Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Coast Guardsmen are teamed up to combat searing heat and flames. The school also trains DOD civilians, firefighters from allied nations and even local volunteer firefighters.

So when Airman Gilford, or any of thousands of Goodfellow-trained firefighters roll up to a three-alarm inferno, that fire has met its match. Cutting edge training and unrivaled teamwork combine to form an unstoppable firefighting force. The men and women of the Louis F. Garland Department of Defense Fire Training Academy take pride in knowing they produce the best possible fire crew members ready to take on the mission. Perhaps their motto says it best: "Instructing Those Who Defend America."