Fire drill
Sean Horrigan, of the 96th Civil Engineer Squadron, ensures the aircraft burners ignite prior to a live-fire exercise at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The aircraft fire training is a yearly requirement for Eglin’s Airmen and civilian firefighters. The firefighters must battle a fire on the inside and outside of the aircraft to complete the training. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)
Fire Department top in Air Force

by Lois Walsh
Team Eglin Public Affairs

6/14/2012 - EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --  For the past four years, Eglin's Fire Department was the best large department in Air Force Materiel Command. Now, for the first time in the most seasoned fire fighters' memories, it's the best in Air Force.

The fire department services a unique location. Broken into seven districts, eight fire stations protect more than 724 square miles and support 18 local communities through mutual aid agreements. Operations are non-stop. More than 1,900 responses, including 145 downtown, were handled by the 192 military and civilians who make up the department. All, including approximately 15 percent new DOD Fire Academy graduates, roll up their sleeves to sustain superior support through their skills and training.

Fire Chief Mark Giuliano said winning at AF-level is a great accomplishment considering the competition against other excellent large bases with great leadership.

"For us to be selected is really an honor. I know my folks work hard, are dedicated professionals and are always willing to do what it takes to get the job done," Giuliano said. "Our awards package is indicative of the exceptional services delivered across a wide spectrum of emergency response activities presented by Eglin's unique mission."

Christopher Young, Assistant Chief of Operations, said new arrivals are immediately assigned to a truck and through continuous training and education, strive towards becoming a skilled firefighter and eventually a fire officer.

As Eglin adds new mission, or continues existing ones, the needs are constant. A good example is the 33rd Fighter Wing. Even though the F-15s left in 2009, the fire station located there remained staffed to protect the existing infrastructure and Northwest Florida Regional Airport and the arriving F-35s.

Young said the addition of the 7th Special Forces Group (A) helped the flight grow, adding 14 new positions, a new fire station, and two vehicles. The 7th Special Forces Group (A) has approximately $1 billion in assets, just part of the $53 billion portfolio the department protects daily.

Fire assets go "outside the gates" on average five to seven times a month whether it is for a vehicle accident, structural fire or aircraft crash response. The department also supports the communities through joint exercises. Recently, Eglin fire personnel played a critical role in an active-shooter exercise at Niceville High School and a FAA certification exercise at the airport.

"Through our base exercises, we have a lot of experience in planning, executing and evaluating these events," Young said. "Because we're first responders, we can demonstrate our capabilities to help them exercise and improve their plans, only making them better and ready for the next inspection or real-world event."

Recent events like responding to a private aircraft crash on Eglin's reservation and playing a critical role in the county's Urban Task Force activation for a wildfire makes Giuliano aware the fire department doesn't have much time to rest on its laurels. Whether it's improving the quality of life for his firefighters through fire station upgrades, or facing a 25 percent staffing shortage through deployments and civilian vacancies, there are challenges to face each day.

"I encourage my firefighters to celebrate and enjoy the moment but advise them this is a snapshot in time as the award recognizes what we did. We need to continue to improve operational capability through continued training and education and acquisition of new resources to make our job easier, safer and more efficient because every day we face new challenges," he said.

Maj. Eric Queddeng, 96th Civil Engineer Squadron commander, is new to Eglin and is already impressed by his department's professionalism, dedication and pride.

"The day of my change of command, I went on a response and saw first-hand our fire department in action, and it was easy to see why they were named the best in the AF; truly amazing," he said.

The next step is for Eglin's fire department is to compete at the Department of Defense level. That award will be announced Aug. 3 at the fire chiefs' convention in Denver, Colo.