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MacDill Fire Department always at the ready

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer
Photo by: Nick Stubbs
A pumper truck sprays the Fire Department's training aircraft hull. The plane is equipped with propane burners that can be fired to simulate a real aircraft fire.

Readiness is a key element for most of the personnel on base but for an example of the ultimate in readiness, look no further than the MacDill Fire Department, where no quality is prized more than short response time.

Some 100 members strong including a couple dozen reservists, the Fire Department handles every emergency need of your average civilian department but also the unique needs of the military and an airbase. "Here there is always the potential of an aircraft incident," said Ralph Espinosa, assistant chief in charge of operations. On base since 1980 as an airman, Espinosa, now a civilian, has seen it all, from crashes of F-16s to brush fires and fender-benders.

The department has three stations, including one just off Hanger Loop Drive, on the flightline and a small substation close to the runway to improve response time in the event of an emergency on landing or takeoff. The department has a full compliment of trucks and emergency response vehicles, including specialized crash vehicles equipped with foam to handle aircraft fuel fires. Firefighters work shifts of one day on and one off, as opposed to most civilian departments, which run shifts of one on a two off. All 911 calls made on base are routed to the department. Trained EMTs handle medical emergencies and the department has mutual aid agreements with Tampa and Hillsborough County, which means the agencies assist each other on an as-needed basis.

Firefighters with the department come to MacDill trained as firefighters I or II. They receive additional training on pumper truck operation, working the alarm room and other details. The personnel are a mix of civilian and Air Force but civilians must have crash experience in order to be hired, said Espinosa.

Chief John Warhul II, who took over the department in 1995, says there is a great deal of pride in the unit and credits the quality of its manpower and equipment.

"These (the Fire Department personnel) some of the best people, most highly motivated and trained anywhere," said Warhul.

He also notes that the department is supported to the maximum by the Air Force.

"We have every piece of equipment you could ask for; we are one of the best equipped departments in the world." In addition to other emergencies, the department handles hazardous materials incidents. While most people might not think of fuel as a hazardous material, it is one of the most common substances with which the department deals, said Espinosa. Chlorine is another material often requiring attention, he said. When F-16s were stationed at MacDill, Hydrozene, a toxic fuel used to power emergency systems on the planes, was another material the department had to be prepared to handle.

Espinosa said since the F-16s left, there have been few aircraft emergencies involving his department. There have been some minor fires and a couple of anxious moments but all in all, the KC-135s have been solid, safe performers, he said.

Training is ongoing for members of the department, said Espinosa and the department has set up a special aircraft shell with propane burners to simulate aircraft fires. Located adjacent to the substation near the runway, the fires can be adjusted to simulate a cockpit or engine fire to a fully involved burn.

Firefighters then train on the best methods for attacking the emergency to prepare them for the real thing. Work is under way now on a burn house for similar training sessions. It should be ready in November.

The department also is getting a new station, which is scheduled to open late next year or early 2005 along taxiway Kilo. It will replace the current flightline station situated between hangers 3 and 4 and be closer to the runway to improve response time to aircraft emergencies, said Espinosa, who added that the requirement is for a minimum three-minute response time to the farthest end of the runway. That can be achieved from the small substation now, but with just one truck based there, the new station will improve the amount of firefighting equipment that can be delivered in short order.

It also is hoped the new station will be a spirit lifter.

"We hope it's a big morale booster for everyone," said Espinosa. "This (the flightline department building) is long due for replacement."




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