YOUNGSTOWN AIR RESERVE STATION, Ohio --
The red and rusted wreckage lay silent upon a bed of white stones that glare harshly in the midday sunlight. It is a hot day in the middle of July and it is about to get hotter. Much hotter.
At first glance the metal structure looks like a monument or a modern day artist’s interpretation of an airplane crash. A pool of murky brown water collects beneath the ruins and apart from the pool’s slight ripple, the area is silent. It stand out in the otherwise lush green surroundings and emits the feeling that something had happened here and would happen again.
Standing high above the scene in the command tower, the assistant chief turns a series of knobs and dials on his control board, patiently waiting for the “go” order. Suddenly, the radio clicks to life as a voice crackles through.
“Go ahead and light.”
The assistant chief turns a dial labeled FRONT RIGHT GROUND BURNER and the slow and steady trickle of water turns into a rapid bubble. There is a fleeting scent of propane and the zap of an electrical circuit shorting and sparking. Orange flame erupts from beneath the plane and black smoke begins to fill the air.
Sirens wail through the smog as two green Army firefighting vehicles arrive to combat the blaze. With just the turn of a few knobs, what was once a silent pit of rock and ruin swiftly turned into an inferno, a proving ground.
The 5694th Engineer Detachment from the Army National Guard (ANG) stationed in Mansfield, Ohio, visited the 910th Airlift Wing July 17, 2017, during their second week of annual training. For many Guard and Reserve units, annual training (AT) is the only way to truly hone the skills of their chosen craft.
“Today is an opportunity for the 5694th and their two detachments, the 295th and the 296th, to wrap up a year of individual training into a collective event that exercises both firefighting teams and the mission command piece of the firefighting headquarters,” said ANG Lt. Col. Bob Vagnier, the commander of the 110th engineer battalion from Mansfield, Ohio. “We spent last week working with our active duty counterparts and this week working on an Air Force station; that reinforces our joint firefighting capabilities.”
Vagnier said usually when firefighters deploy they won’t always fall underneath their dedicated branch of service, they might fall under a separate sister service or even the Department of Defense. So it’s important for firefighting teams to understand and work through different echelons and governmental agencies that could potentially command and control their detachments.
Understanding how to operate in different work environments is one of many challenges a firefighter in the National Guard faces.
“Being in the guard and working one weekend a month, we don’t have much time,” said Army Staff Sgt. Jason Winters, the flight chief for the 5694th Engineer Detachment from Mansfield, Ohio. “What we do is a very technical job, and most of what we teach gets done during AT when we get them for an extended period of time. My goal this week is to turn that technical knowledge into muscle memory.”
But muscle memory isn’t always an easy thing to obtain. Not only does it take time and practice, but in some cases it demands resources. And for the 5694th, the Youngstown Air Reserve Station has a resource it is more than happy to provide.
“We have Mutual Aid Agreements with our surrounding Fire Departments in the community and we support our DOD brothers and sisters (Army Guard and Air Guard) with real-time training, and this allows us as a base to build these working relations,” said John P. Lewis, the fire chief for the 910th Fire Department here.
The facility cost YARS about $1.5 million when it was originally built in 1997 and has been open to any fire team interested in the training. Although this is the first time the Mansfield Army National Guard has used the facility, their Air National Guard counterparts have been coming back for the past three years to fulfill their annual requirements.
“It’s half of our duties,” said Winters. “So finding a working trainer aircraft that we can actually get in and throw water on an actual fire, it’s invaluable. They get a ton out of this.”
Though airport rescue firefighting doesn’t happen often, it’s a skillset that is essential to keep fresh in the minds of every airport firefighter. YARS continues to do its best to simulate the real deal.
“A big thing at these training events is to give them the ability to feel the heat. It gives them that snap of, ‘OK this is real. Its training but I can still get burnt,’” said Winters. “This is absolutely as close as you can get.”