The Fire Within - Students in 'hot' seat from day one at Goodfellow's firefighting school

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Mike Hammond
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs Office
She couldn't have been much more than 5 feet tall and a hundred pounds, dripping wet. And after traveling nearly the length of a football field in the toughest, most agonizing steps she'd ever taken, Airman 1st Class Erin Metzger of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard was just that: dripping wet with sweat.

Just days into Block IV of training at the Louis F. Garland Department of Defense Fire Training Academy at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, the diminutive young woman, who holds the Air Force basic training push-up record for one minute (81), found herself struggling to move another inch. She'd already dragged the dead weight of a 150-pound fire hose some 250 feet, while clad in 40 pounds of protective gear. With about 50 feet to go before reaching the waiting hydrant and with the unrelenting, humid Texas summer heat bearing down on her, her eyes rolled back in utter exhaustion.

She attempted another step forward, lost her balance and fell to the ground.

The only woman in a class of 18 Airmen, Marines and Soldiers, Metzger appeared to have succumbed to her seemingly impossible task.

Then, slowly, her head lifted as a soundtrack of encouragement reached her ears.

"Let's go! Don't stop, Metzger!" "Keep it up!" the shouts began in unison.

If she could finish this training objective in the time required, she would move on with her classmates to meet the beast they all came here to subdue: fire. But as minutes ticked by and her struggles continued, Metzger's prospects looked grim -- and this was only the practice attempt.

She would have to find the fire within her to make it through the test that counted. ...

First Taste of Fire
The physical demands of the Garland Academy quickly weed out the wannabes. That may sound harsh, but that's the way it has to be according to the school's instructors, who contend that every second counts when it comes to saving lives.

According to instructor Tech. Sgt. Luis Ortiz-Acevedo, it only takes minutes for an out-of-control fire to burn a house down. And when people are denied oxygen from smoke inhalation, brain damage can occur in less than 5 minutes and becomes irreversible after 10.

"There's no time to lose," he said.

For those who have the inner fire to make it, the intense training at the academy prepares students of all military branches in the basic aspects of firefighting safety, techniques and performance.

There are six blocks of instruction in the course, which lasts 68 academic days. The first three blocks are focused primarily in the classroom and on basics like knot tying, first aid and equipment familiarization.

Only in Block IV -- 43 training days into the course -- do students get to feel the heat of their first fire.

In a large square fenced area just a small hike from the schoolhouse itself, a team of Block IV students finds itself battling an outdoor brush fire.

Using hay and straw for fuel, the instructors set a blaze and watched the teamwork and excitement ignite.

"I actually expected the fire to be a little bigger, but it was still fun. We still got to 'play' in the fire!" said Airman Basic Thomas Moyer. "We didn't think the stuff they taught in class really worked, but it (does)!"

Ortiz-Acevedo knows it works. In his career, he's fought aircraft fires, responded to structural blazes in base housing, and been involved in multiple rescue situations.

Now on his second instructor tour, Ortiz-Acevedo said his experiences in the field strengthened his resolve to teach.

"I just like to teach -- especially Block IV, because it's hands-on for the most part," he said. "We cover basically everything in our training: structures, aircraft, vehicles, liquid and rescue. We've been adding more training so the Airmen come out of the school ready to perform their duties and fight fires."

Mark Ledford, a former academy instructor and the current fire chief at Randolph AFB, Texas, can attest to that.

Ledford faced multiple structural fires and even an F-15 crash with live munitions during a 24-year active duty firefighting career. But no call stands out more than the five days he spent fighting a "POL" (petroleum, oil and lubricant) fire on Guam.

On Dec. 8, 2002, Super Typhoon Pongsona slammed the tiny island as a Category 4 storm packing winds gusting to 173 mph. The storm's damage included setting fire to tanks containing more than 8 million gallons of fuel. Ledford and other members of the Anderson Air Base fire department responded to help the Guam fire department battle the huge blaze.

"When we got five to seven miles out, we came around a mountain and saw this huge column of smoke," he said. "When we got there, we pulled up a road to look for water sources. Just then, a lid from a POL tank exploded. We thought we were goners."

Fortunately, they survived the explosion unscathed. Ledford and his crew knew they couldn't put the fire out; there was just too much fuel and not enough water. So to protect the adjacent tank containing the rest of the island's unleaded fuel, they relied on "basic firemanship" they learned at the Garland Academy.

"Since we didn't have enough water, we took some of the fundamentals these guys learned at the schoolhouse and set up a relay operation," he explained. "We had a brand new Airman, straight out of tech school, manning the turret, and his job was to put out that fire. He did a heck of a job. When these Airmen come out of the school now, they are mission ready."

But they don't become mission ready overnight. Before students at the academy hear the first hiss of water on fire, they have to overcome realistic training obstacles geared to the most physically fit and mentally strong. They must master challenges like the 300-foot pull that pushed Metzger to the brink, plus a confined spaces trainer that sends some trainees into a claustrophobic meltdown.

They have to be fired up before they can put a fire out.

Fire -- Inside and Out
The prospect of failure, along with some divine intervention and earthly advice, helped fuel Metzger's inner fire as she stepped back up for her evaluation attempt on the 300-foot pull. After her disappointing practice attempt resulted in a time far above what was required, Metzger said she prayed and reflected on how to improve.

"I thought to myself, 'No matter how bad it hurts, as horrible as it feels, I have to do this,' " she explained. "Then the instructors and some fellow students gave me some tips -- like putting a lot of pressure on the hydrant wrench, using the balls of my feet and leaning forward as far as I could. And when I hit that 'brick wall,' I just kept pushing as fast as I could."

Her persistence -- and the support of instructors and classmates -- paid off.

"I shaved almost six minutes off my time!" Metzger said.

Her new time of 3:27 was well within the required timeframe, and she advanced with her class to the hands-on portion of training: fighting real fires.

She says she knows she'll make it through the course now, and even has more motivation from which to draw strength.

"My whole family has been very supportive of me," the Airman said. "My dad has written me every single day since May 1. I can't wait to walk off the plane (as a certified firefighter) to see my parents waiting for me."

Metzger will be easy to pick out. She'll be the one wearing the shiny new firefighter's badge ... and a bright smile to match.