When COVID-19 shuts down formal firefighting schools, Nebraska Air Guard responds by training new firefighters itself

Offutt Air Force Base Fire Department Firefighter, Brent Bergstrom, advises new firefighters with the Nebraska Air National Guard Base Fire Department during training on Aircraft Rescue Firefighter (ARFF) operations, Aug. 26, 2020, at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb. (Nebraska Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. R. Denise Mommens)
September 21, 2020

LINCOLN, Neb.- For the better part of six months, the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has caused numerous unforeseen impacts across the nation and locally in Nebraska.

One of those impacts that had the potential to cause a significant effect on the Nebraska National Guard air base has been the closing down of formal firefighting schools. This in turn made it difficult for the Nebraska Air Guard Base Fire Department to fill openings as members of the team either deployed, retired or and transferred to new jobs or departments.

That’s when members of the fire department decided to try a novel approach to solving its problem: Instead of waiting for the formal firefighting schools to reopen, they would train their own.

According to Bruce Craig, Nebraska Air National Guard Fire Department assistant chief, by training newly-hired firefighters locally in Lincoln and at Offutt Air Force Base, they were able to meet the critical shortage of trained and qualified firefighters, while also giving them the crucial training they need to respond to both aviation emergencies as well as the multitude of other duties they’re responsible for.

“The amount of people out on the streets to be able to do this job with prerequisites, (those) numbers were way down,” said Craig, prior to a 3-day progressive training at Offutt Air Force Base, Aug. 24-26. “So we opened it up with no prerequisites.”

Typically, Craig said, there are standard prerequisites that a potential Nebraska Air Guard firefighter must meet before he or she is hired. For example, selected individuals normally have already attended firefighter schools, or, they are sent to a formal school shortly after being hired. COVID, however, forced schools to limit the number of students who could attend, or they simply cancelled courses altogether.

“With schools being closed, we are having to teach them to be a firefighter,” Craig said. This training includes such skills as vehicle extrication, putting on protective gear, correct ladder techniques, licensing on various vehicles and how to successfully rescue people trapped in a building or an aircraft fire.

“Our fires are usually hotter for the most part because a fuel fire is hotter than regular combustible material fire,” Craig said, adding that base firefighters must also know how to deal with hazard materials, while also have additional emergency medical response training to help people injured in such fires.

Probably the most important skill, though, is the ability to know how to quickly and accurately respond to an aircraft fire, Craig said.

“We respond out onto an airfield. We don’t have hydrants out there, so our distance for hydrants are a lot larger,” he said. “Most of our trucks carry large quantities of water” along with special fire retardant material “because we fight fuel fires.”

According to the new firefighters, the training has been a great way to learn under realistic conditions.

“Everything that has to do with the aircraft, engines, the fuel, makes it a bigger challenge, which makes it more exciting,” said Rob Rector, one of the five new firefighters. “There is that element of aircraft and being on base that makes it a little different.”

“We have different instructors every day,” said Adam Braun, new-hire firefighter talks about supporting the airport. “Our overall task here is you make sure the airplanes on the runways coming in, if they have any emergencies, we are the first responders.”

Craig said there was a second advantage to conducting the firefighting training themselves. While teaching the new firefighters, the more experienced team members had to re-learn some skills as well.

“It gave us a huge opportunity to get people that were already here back to the basics by allowing them to instruct it,” said Craig. “They really had to get back into it, get back to the basics to teach the basics.”

“While they’re teaching, they are learning it all over again,” he added.