By Bob Graham
Published Friday, June 1, 2012
ARFF--aircraft rescue fire fighting--is a classic high-risk, low-frequency event, and it carries considerable danger for firefighters.
Marines take it to a higher level. Imagine your next call will be rolling up to a burning aircraft. It could be a small fighter jet or a huge cargo transport. It could be full of jet fuel, or passengers. You could only have to worry about a pilot, or an entire air crew. Weapons, ranging from small arms to bombs and missiles, will surely be part of the game plan. You will really not know about those details--initially, your job is to get that fire out.
On duty at MCAS Miramar in San Diego, Marine firefighters are responsible for one thing: the safety of the air field and everything on it. Their vehicle of choice is the P-19B firefighting truck. Weighing in at 32,000 lbs., the vehicle is capable of travel on roads while maintaining tank-like potential. A crew of three can suppress a fire from inside the cab or deploy hoselines, as necessary.
While an aircraft incident can happen in the blink of an eye, and Marine ARFF firefighters are always ready, aircraft incidents are rare. Because of that, the key to mission readiness is practice. And more practice.
Marines at Miramar have a training area when they can perform a variety of rescue scenarios on aircraft fuselages and other training devices. Realism is brought by flame, and for that reason, they are required to fight fire in the pit every so many days, to maintain mission readiness.
The pit is a large diameter pool with a simulated aircraft fuselage in the center. Two or three inches of water covers the floor of the pit. Accelerant is poured onto the water. It spreads out and when ignited, creates a fire of intense proportion and heat. But it never always burns away. Some of it stays, and, after four or five cycles, the heat becomes intense enough to make even veterans back up. And crack camera lenses in seconds.
Following rigid safety procedures, with safety crews and extra P-19s on station, firefighters hone their skills, extinguishing the flames as they fight their way across the pit. As the last flames vanish, the P-19s sound their horns, the Marines move back to the starting point and more accelerant is put on the water’s surface for the next go-round.
Away from the airfield, Marine firefighters learn all phases of firefighting: structure, vehicle extrication, search and rescue, EMS. And wherever their duty station is, they live firefighting, exactly like their civilian counterparts. But Marine firefighters have another story to tell, and that is being deployed to a combat zone. The job is the same, but the tempo has increased. The operating parameters have increased. Life is far closer to the outside of the envelope.
That familiar P-19 may not always be there if it’s necessary to deploy to a forward operating base in support of Marine aviation. Firefighting equipment, based on simple transportation logistics, may be minimal. Simple extrication tools, familiar to all firefighters, don’t work well on heavily armored vehicles, but you still have to extricate your fellow Marines. "Improvise, adapt, overcome" are words played out each and every day.
It’s a different world, but the Marine firefighting tradition lives on, by the side of a concrete runway or with sand as far as the eye can see.
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