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NEWS | Sept. 22, 2020

Nebraska Guard assumes firefighter training stalled by virus

By Tech. Sgt. R Denise Mommens 155th Air Refueling Wing

LINCOLN, Neb. – The COVID-19 pandemic has curtailed or closed formal firefighting schools, making it difficult for the Nebraska Air Guard Base Fire Department to fill openings as members deployed, retired or transferred to new jobs.

So, members of the fire department decided to try a novel approach to solving the problem: Instead of waiting for the formal firefighting schools to reopen, they would train their own.

According to Bruce Craig, Nebraska Air National Guard Fire Department assistant chief, by training newly hired firefighters locally in Lincoln and at Offutt Air Force Base, they were able to meet the critical shortage of trained and qualified firefighters, while also giving them the crucial training they need to respond to aviation emergencies and their many other duties.

"The amount of people out on the streets to be able to do this job with prerequisites, (those) numbers were way down," said Craig before a three-day progressive training at Offutt Air Force Base Aug. 24-26. "So we opened it up with no prerequisites."

Typically, Craig said, there are requirements a potential Nebraska Air Guard firefighter must meet before being hired. For example, selected individuals normally have already attended firefighter schools or they are sent to a formal school shortly after being hired. The coronavirus, however, forced schools to limit the number of students who could attend, or they canceled courses altogether.

"With schools being closed, we are having to teach them to be a firefighter," Craig said. This training includes vehicle extrication, putting on protective gear, correct ladder techniques, licensing on various vehicles and how to rescue people trapped in a building or an aircraft fire.

"Our fires are usually hotter for the most part because a fuel fire is hotter than regular combustible material fire," Craig said. Base firefighters must know how to deal with hazardous materials and have emergency medical response training to help people injured in such fires.

Probably the most important skill, though, is the ability to know how to quickly and accurately respond to an aircraft fire, Craig said.

"We respond out onto an airfield. We don't have hydrants out there, so our distance for hydrants are a lot larger," he said. "Most of our trucks carry large quantities of water," along with special fire-retardant material "because we fight fuel fires."

According to the new firefighters, the training has been a great way to learn under realistic conditions.

"Everything that has to do with the aircraft, engines, the fuel, makes it a bigger challenge, which makes it more exciting," said Rob Rector, one of the five new firefighters. "There is that element of aircraft and being on base that makes it a little different."

"We have different instructors every day," said Adam Braun. "Our overall task here is you make sure the airplanes on the runways coming in, if they have any emergencies, we are the first responders."

Craig said there was a second advantage to conducting the firefighting training. While teaching the new firefighters, the more experienced team members had to relearn some skills as well.

"It gave us a huge opportunity to get people that were already here back to the basics by allowing them to instruct it," said Craig. "They really had to get back into it, get back to the basics to teach the basics."



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