ALPENA, Mich. – Sirens blare in the night as a first responder vehicle speeds toward the hot orange glow. In this live-fire training exercise, firefighters step from the truck with helmets, Nomex bunker gear, and self-contained breathing gear already in place. They take their positions and prepare for a heated battle against the flames.
With faces and features obscured under the weight of their gear, the firefighters are almost indistinguishable as humans. Like a mechanized assembly, they function together as a single, well-trained unit. One cannot identify that beneath the gear, their diversity transcends race gender, and nationality.
“As firefighters, we all share the same career field, and we all share the same passion for our work – that makes it easy for us to come together,” says Master Sgt. Terrence Jones of the 164th Airlift Wing, Tennessee Air National Guard. “We may not speak the same native language, but we all have something in common as firefighters.”
Jones is speaking about the fire protection team assembled at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Michigan, for Northern Strike 19. Held July 22 - Aug. 2 with more than 6,000 participants, Northern Strike is the Department of Defense’s largest annual joint, reserve component readiness exercise.
For July, the Alpena CRTC fire department is being augmented with nine firefighters from Latvia, two from Bulgaria and two from Estonia. Also participating in Northern Strike 19 at Alpena CRTC are firefighters from the 180th Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, the 110th Wing, Michigan Air National Guard and Jones’ unit from Tennessee. They come together to not only train but to increase real-world first responder capability during the exercise’s uptick in operations.
Michigan and Latvia share a strong bond under the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program, which pairs the National Guard entities of a U.S. state with the national armed forces of a partner nation to forge mutual defense capability and cross-cultural relationships.
Tennessee and Bulgaria have a similar cooperation under the SPP. Through events like Northern Strike 19, these partnerships continue to grow stronger throughout the Air National Guard’s firefighting community as shared experiences lead to mutual trust and interoperability.
After attending Northern Strike in 2018, Master Sgt. Kevin Ziehr, a firefighter with the 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, was inspired to initiate cooperation with military firefighters from Hungary, the Ohio National Guard’s partner country.
“Currently, we have two master sergeants from our fire department at the 180th over in Hungary, doing the exact thing we’re doing here at Alpena,” Ziehr said. “That is, training on different types of coalition aircraft with different types of firefighting equipment – they’ve been having just as good a time learning and passing on knowledge over there.”
Ziehr points out that engaging with multinational counterparts is excellent preparation for work in a deployed setting where language and cultural barriers may present challenges to the mission. Coalition firefighters at Northern Strike 19 agree that establishing relationships in advance of potential crisis leads to a more ready and capable response force.
“We have done a lot of exercises together, and all of the firefighters here are amazing people,” said Pvt. Lyubomir Martinov, a firefighter assigned to Vrazhdebna Air Base, Bulgaria. “It is always good because you meet different types of people. We’re helping each other; we’re understanding more. It’s interesting for us.”
Though Northern Strike 19 is the capstone of the coalition firefighters’ time in Michigan, their schedule has been packed with numerous high-value training opportunities since arriving early in the month.
Beginning July 6th, the coalition firefighters participated in an incident command course staged under 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.
By the time they return to their home countries, they will also have participated in aircraft familiarization events, high/low-angle rescue training, a mass-casualty response exercise, night and day live-fire burns, vehicle rescue and confined spaces rescue training.
Somehow, the multinational group finds time for team-building events outside of work, including day trips to Detroit and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“We are team-building all the time,” said Pfc. Ilza Jansone, a firefighter assigned to Lielvarde Air Base, Latvia. “We appreciate all that our American hosts do for us to take us places and show us new things. It’s a new experience and I really appreciate the opportunity to be here.”
Jansone is the first female firefighter in Latvia’s National Armed Forces.
Though this this Jansone’s first trip to Michigan, some of the coalition firefighters have supported multiple Northern Strike exercises. This year marks the third time the multinational incident command course has been held prior to the exercise and Jones says he anticipates even stronger cooperation at Northern Strike between U.S. and international firefighters in coming years.
“I enjoy Northern Strike because of the chance to meet and work with our foreign brothers and sisters,” he said. “It’s just amazing to me because we all come from different places to this exercise and become one.”