It happened a couple years ago, but it can happen again tomorrow. It was Sept. 18, 2009; an ordinary day for the firefighter/emergency medical technicians of Naval District Washington/NAS Patuxent River Fire & Emergency Services Stations I and II. Some were answering emails, others were checking apparatus inventory, and a few were taking a break between work assignments.
Then the house bells sounded, signaling an emergency. All hands immediately leaped into action, donning their personal protective equipment and rolling out their vehicles.
"Dispatch will tell us what type of emergency it is," said Lt. Joe Bean, firefighter/EMT with Station II.
On that day, they received word that a T-38 twin-jet trainer aircraft had skidded off the end of a runway.
A fire engine and ambulance were dispatched from Station II with the primary mission of locating the pilots and assessing their medical needs.
With a T-38 involved, a chief officer, fire engine, crash trucks and crews from Station I were also dispatched with the primary purpose of securing the aircraft.
Crash trucks are special aircraft rescue firefighting vehicles designed for use on airstrips.
"A crash truck will carry 3,000 gallons of water and 420 gallons of foam and deal exclusively with Class B fires, and incidents involving aircraft" Bean explained. Class B is a classification of fire that involves flammable gases or liquids, such as jet fuel.
Battalion Chief Charles Adams of Station I recalled that when emergency crews arrived, the pilots had already ejected, but the aircraft was still running and the grass surrounding the jet was on fire.
"One crew located the pilots and the others extinguished the fire and directed water into the intake to shut off the aircraft," he said. "Then they climbed into the cockpit and manipulated the proper controls to cut off the fuel supply."
The aircraft was secured, the grass fire was extinguished, the pilots were transported to a trauma center according to protocol, and all that was left was the cleanup, restocking of equipment, routine decontamination of the ambulance and about 45 minutes of paperwork to fill out regarding the incident.
Such efficiency doesn't come easily. Basic training involves 165 classroom hours and continuing education to maintain certification.
"Certification is good for three years," Adams said, "and within those three years you must earn 24 hours of continuing education including 12 hours of skills practice and 12 hours of classroom instruction in medical, trauma and local option." Local option training might include hazmat (hazardous materials), field operations or emergency driving.
Classes are administered by the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, the state's fire and emergency service training agency. Testing and certification come under the auspices of the Maryland Institute of Emergency Medical Services Systems, which oversees and coordinates all components of the statewide EMS system.
Pax firefighter/EMTs must additionally be certified as airport firefighters, Adams said. That involves learning about the various aircraft on base including specific craft hazards, danger areas, how to shut off fuel supply, and the location and safe procedures of ejection devices for the safety of the pilots and fire rescue crews.
Training updates are a constant. Each month, different topics are covered. Past months have included live fire training, respiratory protection, types of building construction, back injury prevention, basic sign language, hose testing, and musculoskeletal care. Future sessions will cover asbestos/lead awareness, radiation safety and reproductive hazards, among others.
Most emergencies do not involve aircraft.
"We're often called out to the Child Development Center after a child has fallen or bumped his head," Adams said. "We're responsible for everyone at Pax."
Commander, Naval Installation Command, or CNIC, recently presented life-saving awards to seven firefighter/EMTs for two separate incidents. One involved an individual on base who had collapsed in an office building from cardiac arrest, and the other involved a Leonardtown resident who was not breathing. In the latter incident, a Pax ambulance had just transported a patient to St. Mary's Hospital and was pulling out of the parking lot when the call came in. Being closest to the victim, they responded to the Leonardtown emergency. In both cases, the victims were successfully revived through CPR and defibrillation.
While the installation is their primary territory, Pax firefighter/EMTs have a mutual aid agreement with St. Mary's County and will respond if they are the closest to an emergency scene or if there is an incident at the county municipal airport.
Currently the firefighter/EMTs work a 24 hour-on/24 hour-off shift, but Adams said starting Oct. 7, they will begin working a 48 hour-on/72 hour-off work shift breaking into seven groups with three of those groups on duty per day. "That means there will be 27 people working each day," he explained.