ALPENA, Mich. – From July 23 to Aug. 3, firefighters from Latvia, Bulgaria, and Estonia attended an Incident Command course at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, gaining familiarity with tactics and techniques applicable during the initial decision-making phase of an emergency response situation.
The distinctively multinational, interagency flavor of the training provided a unique venue for knowledge sharing – useful in nearly any first-response scenario, including in-flight emergencies, structure fires, or requests for medical assistance.
According to State of Michigan employee Vince Cammack, assistant chief of training at the Alpena CRTC fire department, the multinational students were joined in the course by civilian firefighters from the communities of Alpena Township and Hillman, Michigan.
"We had 12 students in the class," said Cammack, "Four from Latvia, two from Estonia, and two from Bulgaria. In addition to our foreign guests, we also had three firefighters from local departments."
The twelfth student, Tech. Sgt. Terrence Jones of the Tennessee Air National Guard's 164th Airlift Wing, joined in as a liaison for the Bulgarian participants. The Tennessee National Guard is partnered with the armed forces of Bulgaria under the National Guard Bureau's State Partnership Program (SPP), which links National Guard organizations of U.S. states with the armed forces of a partner country in a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship.
"This is really the first time we've worked together, as firefighters from Tennessee and Bulgaria," said Jones. "There was a little bit of a language barrier at first, but because we have a passion for the same work, there was still an instant bond."
Jones says that the rapport established with his Bulgarian counterparts at Alpena is the starting point for a collaboration he hopes will stretch far into the future.
"I think the relationship is just going to get stronger," said Jones. "We really like what Michigan and Latvia have done together and we eventually want our partnership to get to that level."
Michigan and Latvia have had a rich collaboration under the SPP for more than twenty-five years. This year's Incident Command course – enabled by the National Defense Authorization Act 16 (NDAA 16), section 1251, which authorizes multilateral military-to-military training events between certain North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries – has evolved out of the existing long-term collaboration between Michigan and Latvian firefighters.
"Now in its 25th year, Michigan has a model state partnership with the Republic of Latvia," said Col. John Miner, Alpena CRTC commander. "This summer's Incident Command course is a textbook example of an emergency response training opportunity that directly supports our stated goal of building relationships and strengthening partnership interoperability and capability."
Miner acknowledged that extending the collaboration to include fire protection specialists from other eastern European nations, like Bulgaria and Estonia, is a direct result of the foundation of trust established between counterparts in Latvia and Michigan.
"I'm thankful and incredibly proud of the work our Michigan firefighters have done to strengthen the capabilities of our coalition partners," said Miner. "Planting seeds like these today allow these relationships to grow as we prepare for any future challenge together."
While Alpena's reputation as a hub for multinational firefighting collaboration continues to grow, cross-cultural relationships are constantly reinforced as students return for one training opportunity after another. In March, a curriculum was also attended by students from Latvia and Bulgaria that familiarized basic methods to confine and control hazardous material (HAZMAT) spills.
Pfc. Petris Seleznov, a firefighter from Lielvarde Air Base, Latvia, graduated from both courses.
"Our cooperation with the firefighters from Alpena is very good," he said. "We have learned some new information and will be taking some things from America home to Latvia with us."
According to Cammack, all curriculum taught is approved by the Michigan Firefighter Training Division. If students complete the course objectives, they receive a certification from the State of Michigan – an unusual resume-booster for firefighters from Eastern European nations.
"It's not something the state typically does because they cater most of their training to the Michigan firefighters," said Cammack. "But our state fire marshal is prior military and he thinks what we're doing here is pretty cool."
Although the incident command curriculum is mainly classroom-oriented, Cammack said that built-in activities are designed to help students think about emergency response methods from a dynamic, critically applied standpoint.
Master Sgt. Allar Siiroka, a firefighter from Ämari Air Base, Estonia, believes this type of training will impact processes fire protection services in his home country for the better.
"I think the best information we've been able to gather here is how it's possible to do things differently in our training programs," said Siiroka. "We're used to having much smaller manpower – so to properly engage our people in the job is a top priority."
Siiroka also pointed to the improvement of interagency and mutual-aid agreements in Estonia as an area where participation in the Incident Command course will pay dividends.
"In the U.S., there is really no difference between working with civilian and military firefighters because they all train to the same standards," he said. "Here, the Air National Guard guys we worked with are all firefighters on the civilian side also, so they helped us quite a lot to understand how that system works."
In Latvia, mutual aid has been a major focus in the development of fire protection capability at Lielvārde Air Base. In November 2017, a full-scale emergency response exercise tested interoperability between U.S., Latvian Armed Forces, and State Fire Department (City of Ogre) fire protection systems there.
"We have not had much professional contact with the Latvians," said Siiroka, "So learning about what they've been doing not only expands our knowledge, it helps with relationships so we will be able to build our operations together."
After the course, most of the multinational firefighters are staying on at Alpena CRTC to participate in exercise Northern Strike 18 (Aug. 5-18), the U.S reserve component's largest joint readiness exercise, staged annually from Alpena CRTC and Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center. From their foundation of combined training, firefighters from Bulgaria, Latvia, and Estonia will be integrated into routine shift operations alongside their Michigan counterparts, standing by to respond to real-world situations during the exercise if needed. A series of drills including high-angle rescue, vehicle extrication, live-fire burns, and aircraft familiarization are also planned.
In international training environments like this one, Cammack said he is most amazed by the new perspectives he's able to glean himself, despite having decades of experience in fire protection methods. These last two weeks, Cammack says he has learned new things about construction codes in Europe.
"If we took a bunch of firefighters and sent them over to Latvia to observe and train on how to do things, there would be take-aways for us as well – they have tactics and techniques that are similar to ours, and sometimes better," said Cammack. "There's more than one way to skin a cat, and anytime you learn a new perspective, you've learned something valuable."