ALPENA, Mich. – From March 8 -17, a multinational training and exercise event for Mine Safety Appliance, Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) maintenance and hazardous materials (HAZMAT) handling was facilitated by the Michigan Air National Guard at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center.
The 80-hour HAZMAT curriculum, certified by the State of Michigan and the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA), was attended by five military firefighters from Latvia and two aircraft maintenance officers from Bulgaria.
The Latvian participants are from Lielvārde Air Base, the primary military airfield in Latvia that supports NATO, U.S. and Latvian air operations in Latvia and the Baltic region. The Bulgarian Air Force personnel hail from Graf Ignatievo Air Base. Since 2013, Lielvārde's fire department has been working with Michigan Air National Guard counterparts under the National Guard Bureau's State Partnership Program (SPP) while Bulgaria is partnered with Tennessee.
"As an Air Force firefighter, you have to have some HAZMAT experience," said Senior Master Sgt. Jeremy Wohlford, Alpena CRTC fire chief. "We're trying to help them get their feet wet dealing with these kind of materials."
Wohlford said that when planning the week's agenda, his team of instructors started with the State of Michigan HAZMAT course, which is also recognized by the National Fire Academy, and tailored it for special emphasis on factors relating to aircraft fires. Portions of the course were taught by civilian firefighters employed by the State of Michigan, which played to the interagency theme of the firefighters' mission.
"At Lielvārde, they typically have seven firefighters on shift at any given time," said Wohlford. "Whenever you're dealing with HAZMAT, it takes a lot of people and a lot of equipment – they would be augmented by their local civilian fire department if a situation occurred."
Wohlford added that the goal of the training was to provide firefighters with foundational knowledge necessary to establish an initial response in advance of their civilian counterparts arriving at the scene.
According to students and instructors, the training and exercise event in northern Michigan provided a unique opportunity for professional discussion, intense skills development, and cross-cultural exchange.
"We're all firefighters," said Steve Barber, a State of Michigan employee who taught a portion of the course material. "The more we can work together and the more we can learn from each other, the better we will function as a team."
One of the interesting discoveries for instructors was that in Bulgaria, response teams are dispatched to aircraft incidents that include fire fighters, medical personnel, and aircraft maintenance specialists to fully assess a scene.
"We're not first responders like the rest," said Capt. Nikolay Katsarov, a maintenance specialist for Bulgaria's fleet of MiG-29s. "We're interested in dealing with HAZMAT because we are aircraft maintainers and that's something we would encounter."
Officials are quick to point out that strategically, this type of multinational security cooperation activity supports U.S. European Command and NATO objectives, providing both tangible and intangible value. According to Lt. Col. Dustin Budd, Michigan National Guard Bilateral Affairs Officer in Riga, Latvia, such training opportunities directly strengthen NATO by contributing to the capabilities of partner nations, the capacity to support U.S. and NATO air operations, and an ability to operate seamlessly together.
"These events also introduce people to each other and foster the relationships that lead to greater professional understanding and personal friendships," said Budd. "We all gain from a strong, vigilant, and credible NATO force. This event adds another small piece to the puzzle as it builds airbase essential services and ultimately supports air operations in Europe."
Additional training events are planned to occur at Alpena CRTC later this year and beyond.
"It's always our sincere pleasure to host coalition partners for training or exercises and we're fortunate to have incredible facilities here that are uniquely suited for events just like this." said Col. John Miner, Alpena CRTC commander. "The chance to work with our Latvian partners in particular always brings with it a real sense of accomplishment, appreciation, and esprit de corps as we build on a long and successful history of mutual cooperation and friendship."
For students, the value added is tangible – and immediate. Pfc. Aleksandrs Tomsons, is excited to take new certifications on self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) equipment back to Latvia.
"I can now make adjustments and small fixing jobs on tanks," said Tomsons. "We'll take many good things back to improve our training and readiness at home."