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Arnold Fire and Emergency Services familiarizes new personnel with unique mission of AEDC

  • Published
  • By Jill Pickett
  • AEDC Public Affairs

In recent years, decades of experience has exited the gates of Arnold Air Force Base through multiple retirements from the Arnold Fire and Emergency Services team. With an influx of fresh faces, the FES team has undertaken additional familiarization training to ensure the knowledge of the remaining longtime team members is passed along to the next generation.

Arnold FES operations and dispatch has seen a 43% changeover in personnel in a little more than three years, the largest percentage due to retirement.

While they have training and experience, safely providing fire, rescue and 911 services at Arnold AFB is as unique as the test facilities found on the grounds of the headquarters of Arnold Engineering Development Complex.

“Every applicant selected for a job interview meets our minimum requirements in terms of training, certifications and a certain number of years of experience,” said Arnold FES Chief Daryle Lopes. “Our biggest challenge is supplementing their experience with the knowledge and skills we need here. That effort includes developing aircraft rescue and firefighting skills, as well as immersing firefighters and dispatchers in the highly industrial and very wide-ranging scope of AEDC’s facilities and test processes.”

Arnold AFB is home to more than two dozen test cells, spanning a variety of test capabilities. Along with these test cells is a complex infrastructure to produce the test conditions and provide basic utilities to all the facilities on base. A firefighter could respond to a call in an office building at one moment, a rocket motor test cell the next and an exhaust facility the next.

“In a municipal department, restaurants are restaurants, houses are houses, but APTU [Aerodynamic and Propulsion Test Unit], RPA 4 [Rocket Prep Area 4] and J-6 [Large Rocket Motor Test Cell] are very different animals they must learn to tame,” Lopes said. “There is so much difference in what they’re facing, they have to get out there, study the dangers and get a real feel for what they’re up against.”

Zack Mitchell, a firefighter who hired on in the fall of 2021, agreed.

“To go from a municipal department, where you are doing mainly residential, houses and structure stuff, to somewhere like this that’s basically all industrial, it’s a lot to take in,” he said. “Being able to do pre-fire plans helps a lot.”

Tyler Bradshaw, a firefighter who hired on in the spring of 2021, echoed that sentiment.

“The challenge here is just the different environment of the calls that we run,” he said. “You could have a rescue in something that you’ve never been in before.”

While it can’t always be avoided, Arnold FES takes steps to try to avoid having their team members’ first time in a facility be during an emergency.

Standard procedures for Arnold FES include updating pre-fire plans for each building every two years. For the plan being reviewed, this involves going out and into the building to update diagrams and other information relevant to a response.

“I compare some of our facilities to dungeons. They extend multiple floors downward into concrete mazes that are tough to navigate even when everything is normal. You don’t want the first time that you go into one of those buildings to be when it is filled with smoke and heat. This training is a life saver,” Lopes said.

The shifts also go out and do general familiarization apart from pre-fire planning as they have time during their day as a training exercise. This affords them the benefits of pre-fire planning, such as learning the layout, speaking with facility managers and identifying hazards, but on a more frequent basis. Creating more opportunities to see the facilities is important for bringing the more recent hires up to speed.

“We like to do that,” said Jay Spry, a crew chief. “If we don’t have anything that’s pressing here, if nothing else, just drive around and kind of do base fam [familiarization] of the roads, because any one time a road could be closed down.”

Visiting the test facilities enables the team members to learn more about how they operate, and while each facility is unique some basic operational knowledge can carry over from one to the next.

“If you just walk around this place, it just looks like pipes and you don’t really understand what those are doing,” said Kip Luttrell, a crew chief. “But if you start understanding, whether it’s J-4, J-5, J-6, whatever, there’s an engine, there’s an exhaust and there’s air coming in. They all work similarly, so if you start identifying how these things work, when you are introduced into an area that requires some type of work on your part you can start picking out those parts and the moving parts or the parts that can create engulfment hazards and such as that, that could present hazards to us during medical or fire type of response.

“You start trying to understand the concept of how the test cells work, and you can say ‘Oh, there’s going to be water coming in because it’s cooling the exhaust. Oh, this is airside, so they’re going to be pushing air here, so there’s no fuel past this point. Oh, this is a test cell, this is where the fuel is coming into the cell, this is where air is coming into the cell, this is where exhaust is coming out of the cell, and this is where everything is coming in and doing the work.’ All of those things, you start identifying, it doesn’t matter which cell it’s at, they’re just named different, but they all have similar parts.”

Even the office buildings on base, while they may seem like simple structures compared to the test facilities, are priorities for these visits.

“I know we’ve gone over, even though Building 100 and 1103 may not be on the list to do this month or even this year, those are two critical ones to do a walkthrough because of the number of personnel there and the complexity of the layout,” Spry said.

Learning the ins and outs of the facilities is important, but not the only benefit of the familiarization trips.

“The other thing that being out in the field does for us, and this is important, is making us visible to the workforce,” Lopes said. “When people see us out there; they know that we’re working hard on their behalf and that we’re training on their facility. That gives them good confidence in us. It gives us the opportunity to talk with them, because we’re not pressed for time, it’s not an emergency, so we can just talk with people. They can ask questions, they can show us stuff, we can interact. The best person to teach us about the hazards of a building is the guy that works around it every day.”