Posted 20 July 2011 - 03:36 AM

Today at 8 1/2 hours ahead of EST and a rather lazy morning I thought I'd look at some of the things that make life "interesting" here from a firefighting perspective.

Like all fire departments we always have to be vigilant when working scenes, as we all know complacency kills. But that philosophy takes on a whole new dimension when working in a desert war zone.

Along with the usual concerns of rescue, extent of fire on arrival, building construction, water supply, manpower ect, we have to always be cognoscente of the fact that we often work in temperatures well into the triple digits. Dehydration comes on quickly just walking around let alone making your way down a hallway charged with heat and smoke. Rehab is a number one priority here that must always include adequate supplies of bottled drinking water. We more often than not easily polish off a cooler full of water just doing our daily routine, so in the event of a fire we would special call the Class 1 yard for cases of water to the scene immediately...fortunately this has now become an SOP to ensure it happens every time. Of course keeping hydrated is one part of a rehab, the other unfortunately we are sadly lacking in facilities. That other part being cooling down. Engine 3 is without A/C at the moment and probably for the duration due to logistical issues, so we get no relief there. Engines 1 and 2 do not fare much better so while you will get moving air it will feel more like a hairdryer than A/C. Sometimes we can use a building not directly involved in the fire, but most facilities here are of a secure nature meaning that entry is limited at best, non existant many times...yes in some cases even in the event of a fire.

As has been mentioned in other installments water supply is another huge issue. Engine 3 carries 750 gallons, Engine 2 about the same in liters. Engine 1 is really nothing more than a brush truck with roughly 200 gallons. The only other FD asset is our Tanker (designated E-4) with about 3000 gallons. Now this sounds like a decent amount of water, and generally it is, but there are some mitigating factors in all this, the building construction itself for one. While we have many metal PEBs, hangars and warehouses there are hundreds of wooden structures here, most of which are tightly packed within the various compounds on base. Now add to that the fact that the wood itself is as dry as dust and I'm sure you will see the potential. Along with this menagerie we also have an abundance of tent cities scattered throughout the base, each with it's own issues (not the least of which being a tent will go up in about 30 seconds and they are sometimes no more than 5 feet apart for row after row). There is one more little facet to this as well, the wind. Being a desert there isn't much to block the wind here and most days finds a steady "breeze" of 10-15 mph, so wind is our nemesis more often than not. The wind can push a fire through a compound in no time so, almost like wildland firefighting, it is always a factor to be reckoned with regarding fire spread. Wind also brings on one more joy to life here....sandstorms.

Now these phenomena for those who've never experienced one can be brutal. Blinding sand blowing in your eyes, nose, mouth, ears, and yep everywhere else, can cause extreme discomfort and for some even breathing problems. Most times though they're just plain irritating. As far as firefighting goes, well operating blind is never a good thing, but at times it is a reality here when we get a visit from the sandman, so extra diligence is required when one of these storms hits. Weather wise there is still more to enjoy. Come January or so we will be blessed with the rainy season. While a welcome relief for about a day it quickly turns into a mess we'd rather do without as everything (and I do mean everything) becomes encased in a thick layer of cold mud (temps stay above freezing during the day, but there are nights of freezing temps). Rain is almost constant and often heavy to the extreme and with such dessicated soil drainage just doesn't happen. So much so that even walking becomes an issues as each step finds your foot sinking into deep puddles or worse, the morass of everpresent mud ...loose fitting shoes are definitely not recommended and sneakers are out altogether. As you can well imagine such conditions can create some real obstacles to effective fireground operations. But then as March rolls in the clouds roll out, not to be seen again til the next January.

I've already covered the operations during our almost daily Talibastard explosives delivery, so no more need be said there, but being a war zone there are other hazards associated with things that go boom. First off we work in a small city in which the vast maority of the populaion is armed. Guns need bullets and even though they are supposed to be stored in the armories, the reality is almost every room on base has some amount of ammo in it. Here it is assumed that you will have to deal with ammo as a matter of course. But it doesn't end with bullets. Grenades are almost ubiquitous and every call carries with it the potential to come face to face with them. In fact vehicle fires tend to be some of the most dangerous as most times they are either coming in from or going out on patrol, hence they are armed...sometimes pretty heavily indeed. And since this is an airfield there is all manner of smart, dumb and just plain big aerial ordinance about. Caution is the key and we exercise it here in spades. Unfortunately there is a more insidious problem that crops up from time to time. Thanks to the Russians this country is one of, if not the, most land mine infested patches of real estate on earth. Not only do these left over devices of death give those towel headed fiends ample raw bomb making material, they have been known to pop up in the most unexpected places. Here's a little story to illustrate this and another point.
Last night at about 1am we were dispatched to a reported structure fire in the Dutch compound. This compound lies only a short distance from the fire station, so as we were responding I'm looking for the telltale glow in the night sky. There wasn't one. Upon arrival our E-1 entered the compound to find it all dark and quiet. The flashing lights awakened some of the Dutch soldiers, who moments before had been dreaming of drinks on the beach with their scantily clad honeys. But alas our visit rustled them from their slumber to see what was happening. With a few gestures and accented English we determined that there was in fact no fire here. At almost that moment dispatched called to say that we had been given the wrong address and the fire was in another building which as it turned out was right across the street. We had positioned our Engine directly in front of the fence leading to said building and I confirmed that this was indeed the address. A quick walkaround found nothing, information which I dutifully informed dispatch.

A call to the JDOC (base command center) gave us a bit more info. It wasn't a fire at all but an unexploded bomb in this building that was the problem. So with that we called for the UXO team (unexploded ordinance) and awaited their arrival. During the interim a worker from a Turkish contractor building new parking ramps on the airfield nearby approached us and in highly excited and broken English called for us to follow him. I verified that it was ok with the IC as this man seemed to be almost hysterical and we assumed someone had been injured at the worksite. A quick two minute walk had my two FFs and myself staring at what was the cause of all the commotion. A backhoe had unearthed a large landmine, which somehow didn't go off. Amazingly workers continued to toil no more than 20 feet away. Thankfully I had been involved in a similar incident last year and knew the process. We stopped the work, cordoned off the area, secured the immediate area around the mine by building a burm about 10 ft around it and notified EOD to send the UXO team to this location. A call to the JDOC to inform them of this development found that they had known about this situation for a good bit of time but had "forgotten to tell our dispatch". The point of this little tidbit is twofold.

First as this paragraph explains bombs abound here, even ones our forces didn't bring which can literally be right under foot, and with all those explosives around comes the very real possibility of serious injury or death. But secondly the miscommunication involved is a regular occurrence. Communications here are spotty at best since our radios suck and on top of that the flow of information can be almost insignificant. Secrecy is a must with most activities on base so we are generally given precious little in the way of useful info. Compounding that is the fact that most people here are transient, so even though the roads are named and the building numbered, most people have a hard time trying to explain their location or that of an incident. The old joke about following the cloud of smoke sometimes can have real meaning here.

There is of course more to the story of the tribulations of life here, but we'll save that for another day.

In closing for today I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea, I'm not lamenting these facts of life here, in fact you could say in a sense I relish them. The challenges we face, or should I say overcoming those challenges, are what makes this job so rewarding for many of us. Life here is definititely one where it is what you make of it, and it's not for everyone. Complaining would be easy, and truth be told we do get our share of complainers, but in the end such an attitude will not serve anyone here. Most who come out to these parts with msconceptions find out real quick that it's not for them..and quite frankly we don't tolerate the b!tchers and whiners for long anyway. More often than not their on the first plane back to the real world having been humbled by the experience. Just a few more points for anyone who might be thinking of working out here.

First off you have got to understand that this is a war zone, and even the "quiet" places can be fraught with unforseen dangers and violence. Second, don't be fooled by the fallacy that you will come out here and become rich. That just isn't so, especially if like me your from the NYC metro area. Under my current contract you can make a decent living, support a family and if you're a little bit financially responsible see some of the world and still have a little nest egg when you're done. If you're looking for money alone (and there's nothing wrong with that) look elsewhere. (A word on ATCO my employer. I make far less than I have on other deployments but the leave package and the fact they treat us well, coupled with my personal conviction and sense of duty is why I took this job ). And finally if you want to come out here never forget that while you are working for the U.S. Government in support of our troops and their mission, you are doing so for a for-profit company. The bottom line will always win out in matters affecting your ability to do your job. This needn't discourage you, nor should it irritate you if you can, like most of us, be resourceful. Life here can easily suck, but it can also be one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever embark upon, it's up to you. Come here for the right reasons, take care of the troops and work hard and you will come away with benefits you didn't expect.