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Know Your Military: 128 ARW Fire Department

A U.S. Air Force fire protection truck assigned to the 128th Air Refueling Wing Fire Department sits on the ramp ready for response, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Oct. 11, 2018.

A U.S. Air Force fire protection truck assigned to the 128th Air Refueling Wing Fire Department sits on the ramp ready for response, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Oct. 11, 2018. The 128th Air Refueing Wing has one of the only accredited fire departments in the Air National Guard. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Kellen Kroening/Released)

128TH AIR REFUELING WING, Milwaukee, Wisc. -- The role of a fire protection specialist at the 128th Air Refueling Wing could require fighting a forest fire in northern California, battling a hazardous material fire on an Air Force base overseas, or even controlling a burning home in one of the neighborhoods of a surrounding community. The main mission is to prevent the loss of life and property from fire. To do that, this unit’s Airmen and civilian firefighters must train for an array of situations in many different environments. 

John Charlier, deputy fire chief of the state at the 128th Air Refueling Wing, has no doubt his firefighters are prepared for any situation.

“It is the nature of our intense training program to assure our personnel are equipped and ready for whatever gets thrown our way, whether structural or aircraft related,” Charlier said.

The training for a firefighter is substantial. With so many potential operational environments and an extensive list of duties, the training is relatively constant. Whether it’s initial training, or a re-certification, the requirements are year-round. 

Earlier in the year, Senior Master Sgt. David MacCudden, fire chief of the guard at the128th Air Refueling Wing, and a group of the fire protection specialists traveled to Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center for live fire training. The facility offers fire protection specialists the opportunity to fight fires in a multi-level building and on a simulated aircraft. 

“Volk Field is the absolute perfect locale for us to go to. It provides real-world structural and aircraft firefighting simulators that are as close to the real thing as we can get,” said MacCudden. “We also benefit from Volk Field’s location in the fact that being so secluded, we are free of any distractions that usually present themselves at home station, especially during regularly scheduled drills.”

MacCudden said when they aren’t training or on a call they are preparing for whatever the day brings. Gear checks, functionality of their tools, and checking their apparatus are some of the things they do to fill the time during their long shifts. 

“Conducting monthly training, as dictated by the Air Force, is what usually consumes our day. The Air Force mandates approximately 16 classes a month that need to be not only completed, but also documented,” MacCudden said.

For a fire fighter, being prepared for a multitude of situations is key. And because the 128th Fire Department can be called to support the control of fires in local neighborhoods, they have to know the streets and know the dynamics of that type of fire. 

This is why the leadership within the 128th Fire Department reached out to local city fire departments to coordinate ride-a-longs and partnership in training. 

“By joining forces with the City of Cudahy, we are able to have our firefighters get exposed to emergency situations and have patient contacts that may not otherwise be seen on our installation,” said MacCudden. “This program also highlights the strengths and benefits of community involvement and participation.”

Putting out aircraft fires isn’t a common occurrence for 128th firefighters, but it is something for which they need to be prepared; and while there haven’t been many in the wing’s history, there is one that still resonates with many 128th Airmen.

“For the few remaining firefighters who were present, December 10, 1993 will always be a day we will never forget,” said Charlier. “Most firefighters will never experience an emergency of that magnitude. Unfortunately for our crews this one came with a disastrous cost: the loss of six lives that we could not save. Our constant training is conducted in preparation for real world experiences such as the explosion of 1470.” 

On Dec. 10, 1993 a KC-135 Stratotanker, tail number 1470, at the 128 ARW exploded due to a pump that produced a spark igniting fumes in a fuel cell of the aircraft, killing six 128th Airmen. 

Firefighters seem to share a bond that you don’t see in many other careers. The camaraderie is like that a sports team; it’s competitive, jovial, and encouraging. It’s what pulls them through the stressful and even tragic times.

“The fire station is our home away from home. We spend hours a day with each other; training together, eating together and spending holidays with each other,” said Charlier. “They call the fire service a ’brotherhood’ for a reason… we are willing to put our lives on the line to protect each other, just like you would for your own brother or sister.”

According to the National Fire Protection Association website, since 1922 the NFPA has sponsored the public observance of Fire Prevention Week. In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed Fire Prevention Week a national observance, making it the longest-running public health observance in our country. During Fire Prevention Week, children, adults, and teachers learn how to stay safe in case of a fire. Firefighters provide lifesaving public education in an effort to drastically decrease casualties caused by fires.