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Deployed firefighters modern day dragon slayers

by Tech. Sgt. Brian Davidson
447th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs

8/15/2005 - BAGHDAD, Iraq (AFPN)  -- Throughout Iraq, sleeping dragons lie in slumber, ready to wreak havoc, death and destruction if disturbed.

Air Force firefighters here remain vigilant serving as modern day dragon slayers who stand ready to bring down any dragon that threatens innocent civilians or coalition forces.

Iraq’s dragons are not the winged, fire-breathing creatures of mythology, but something far more frightening -- the countless industrial chemicals spread throughout the country in aging, often unsuitable, storage facilities and containers.

The firefighters are trained to identify, contain and mitigate any potential chemical spill before it happens.

Recently, 11 Airmen assigned to the 447th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron completed a 10-day training course to learn the tools of the trade in responding to a hazardous chemical environment.

The class culminated in an intense exercise evaluation where a deadly chemical release scenario challenged the Airmen to find, identify and slay the “dragon” before it could claim any victims.

Putting out fires may be the most visible part of any fire department’s mission, but it is actually only a small fraction of what they do, said Chief Master Sgt. Troy Basham, the 447th ECES fire chief.

“In today’s world, chemicals and compounds that are useful in improving our quality of life can turn deadly if mishandled or left unchecked,” he said. “Our responsibility is to be ready to deal with any potential threat -- intentional or accidental -- and to protect the Iraqi people.”

Without stringent laws and controls on chemicals like in the U.S., there is potential for a chemical spill in Iraq’s decades-old crumbling industrial infrastructure. This prompted Chief Basham to set up the training class, calling on local Army units for assistance.

As an Air Force reservist deployed from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., the chief is also a paramedic captain in Tampa. With more than 35 years of experience working with hazardous materials, he knew what training and equipment his Airmen needed.

In an Air Force and Army joint operation, more than $90,000 worth of excess hazardous material emergency response equipment was transferred to the Air Force firefighters, immediately providing them the capability to respond to a hazardous material incident.

During the training, Airmen learned all three phases of hazardous materials certification -- awareness, operation and technician.

Awareness is the ability to recognize hazardous materials and initiate emergency notification, operations is the ability to take defensive action, and a technician is someone skilled in actions required to contain and mitigate the threat, said Staff Sgt. Garry Russell, lead instructor for the training.

Deployed from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., Sergeant Russell has nine years experience in firefighting and hazardous materials emergency response.

“Some of the chemicals and compounds we have to be prepared to deal with can be so toxic through mishandling that any equipment used to contain the threat is rendered scrap,” he said. “Even a firetruck worth hundreds of thousands of dollars would have to be destroyed if it is exposed to vapors from some hazardous materials.”

To demonstrate how dangerous some materials can be even in small quantities, Sergeant Russell said that if someone filled a room with a million white pingpong balls, and then added 10 red ones to represent a hazardous material spill, those 10 would make the million white balls toxic -- possibly even fatal to anyone exposed.

“You wouldn’t need to touch any of the red balls to be in danger,” he said. “All of the white ones would be contaminated.”

In response to a hazardous materials incident, the team responds by sealing off the area and setting up portable decontamination stations and a command and control center on scene.

Airmen don fully encapsulating protective suits and prepare to enter the contaminated area in pairs to identify the substances they are dealing with and take the appropriate action to mitigate the threat.

Chief Basham said the importance of the equipment is like that used by deep sea divers.

“It’s like diving in an ocean of gasoline -- one mistake or breech in the suit can be instantly fatal,” he said.

During the evaluation exercise the team successfully identified the substances they were dealing with, encased them for safe removal and decontaminated the area.

“There are so many more things I can do now with this training,” said Airman 1st Class James Spence, who earned certification as a hazardous material technician. “And ultimately, it’s all a matter of saving lives.”

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