NEWS | July 22, 2009

Airman celebrates birthday, helps extinguish her first fire

By Staff Sgt. Chad Thompson Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs

When a call comes in to the Soto Cano Fire Department, the firefighters have to get their gear on and be out the door in a matter of minutes -- because every second counts when dealing with a fire.

Practice and preparation play a huge role in firefighters' ability to respond quickly, and one member recently put all her training and hard work to the test by fighting her first fire.

Senior Airman Alisha Rowe, in her second year of service, got an unexpected gift for her 23rd birthday July 16 when the phone rang at about 10:30 a.m. with a report of a fire at a building on the west side of the base.

"[The fire] was started at an ammunition storage bunker that had been welded on earlier in the day, leading to a preliminary cause of residual heat catching the wooden interior on fire," said Master Sgt. Timothy Grimes, assistant fire chief.

The container itself was empty. However, nearby containers still contained explosives which meant the firefighters had to act quickly to put out the fire, Sergeant Grimes said.

When it was time to get the job done Airman Rowe was at the nozzle and ready, he said.

"My heart started racing as it does on every call since I'm not quite sure what to expect on each emergency," Airman Rowe said. "Once on scene, I could see smoke coming out of the door of the building, and I got a little excited knowing this was my first fire."

She parked the vehicle she was driving, grabbed her gear and suited up.

Two other firefighters had entered the building and were already putting out the fire. Once the fire was under control they came out of the building and relayed to the incident commander the fire was extinguished.

When they reentered the building, Airman Rowe went in with them to make sure the fire had not rekindled.

"We could see wisps of smoke and small flames as if the fire was starting to reignite," Airman Rowe said. "So I sprayed water on it to make sure the fire extinguished and cooled down the walls and ceiling."

Once the building was clear they began to salvage and overhaul the room by removing burnt wood. They used a thermal imaging camera to detect heat and ensure the fire would not reignite.

"After it was over I remember how distinct the smell of charred wood was and how warm it still was in the small building," Airman Rowe said. "When we were cleaning up our equipment I thought about how I will never forget my first fire or my 23rd birthday."

Fire is hard to predict and it's this unpredictable nature that the firefighters at Soto Cano train for.

"The training we do is critical to ensure our firefighters are ready when we get an emergency call," Sergeant Grimes said. "It is crucial that we are prepared to help someone who is having what could be one of the worst days of their lives, and they expect us to make it right for them."

Soto Cano Air Base is equipped with a full-sized burn house, so the training the firefighters receive is as real as it gets.

"The intent of our training program is to create a situation that is as realistic as possible and to treat it as such," he explained. "For it has been proven many times -- how one practices is how one will perform."

Sergeant Grimes said it is easy to keep the firefighters here motivated because the base doesn't get many false alarms. "In the past six months we have had enough major emergencies to know better than to get complacent."

Complacency is one of the last things he worries about when it comes to Airman Rowe.

"Airman Rowe brings a willingness to do the job right the first time ... and on top of her job performance she also brings a different perspective to us," Sergeant Grimes said. "She is the first to point out that there is no difference between a male and female firefighter. We are all firefighters and the job needs to be handled no matter what gender you are."

"I wanted to be a firefighter because it sounded like a fun job," Airman Rowe said. "And I didn't want to be stuck behind a desk."

Now that she has been doing it for a few years, she said she wouldn't want to do anything else. She plays a huge role in saving lives and making a difference and said "I think I have the best job in the Air Force."