Sill firefighters battle blazes, budget
August 18, 2011
FORT SILL, Okla. (Aug. 18, 2011) -- Municipalities have been losing police officers and firefighters for the past few years and it seems the Army is no exception. With current budget constraints the Fort Sill Fire Department is feeling the heat.
They acknowledge they are extremely lucky for what they have and that other departments are suffering even more. That being said, they are juggling typical emergencies and an atypical Oklahoma drought.
The firefighters at Fort Sill Station 3 had a few minutes to sit and eat lunch Aug. 11. However, the moment was short-lived as they inhaled their food and were out the door once again.
The morning proved to be a busy one as they responded to three building alarms, a wildfire and an explosive ordnance disposal standby.
"We run medical calls, hazmat (hazardous materials), rescues, any specialized rescue -- we're it. We're all hazards," said Clint Langford, fire chief.
The four fire stations are staffed regularly with four firefighters each working two 24-hour shifts.
The days are broken down into three segments: an eight-hour workday, eight hours of standby, eight hours of sleep. That sequence, though, might not happen consecutively, and the firefighters may have to find sleep when they can.
"Basically, the lifestyle of a firefighter on duty has changed. There's a lot of misconceptions that we sit in recliners all day or we play dominos just watching TV and it's not like that," said Langford. "There's a lot of things we do while we're here anticipating emergencies to come in. We're proactive. Especially here on a military installation. We believe prevention is the key to any emergency response."
Ideally, after those duty days, they would then get three days off, but throughout the summer, wildfires have called the firefighters back to post.
"Unfortunately we recall our off-duty firefighters a lot. If we have several days in the week where there are wildfires, these guys don't get a day off," said Langford.
He said the volume of fires is no different than previous years, but there is a huge difference in the intensity. The ice storms a couple years ago added fuel that is kindled with great ease by the dry conditions. It is not so easy however for the firefighters.
"We have seen fires react in ways that we never thought they would. When we have recurring grass fires in the same locations, we know where the fire is going to go and how to fight it. With conditions the way they are now our methods aren't working this year," said Langford.
Langford has worked at the fire department for 16 years. He said in that time the call volume has increased from 1,100 calls a year to more than 3,100. The explanation is the population increase. BRAC supplied more Soldiers and the Fires Center of Excellence has also become one of the major Basic Combat Training centers.
Besides providing more emergency medical response, the firefighters are also dealing with more range useage which originally they were not set up to handle.
The fire stations were set up to support structural fires only. That has been the least of their problems with drought conditions hunkering down and making a home for the foreseeable future.
"We're not staffed for wild land," said Langford. "When I was a new firefighter, our call volume was less on the structural side so we could afford to basically close a station and send those guys out to fight range fires and do prescribed burns."
Recently, range fires have called for all those working to help, leaving not enough response on post for structural or medical emergencies.
To combat this problem they've tried to implement what Langford called the installation wild land fire management plan. In that plan, they've identified the need for wild land firefighters assigned on the ranges due to their increased use.
"We've actually proved that financially it's a sound plan. We can offset the cost of the personnel with the reduction of lost training time. Unfortunately while that sounds good and that can be a zero net cost to the government it's still an increase in payroll," said Langford.
Those who suit up in the flame retardant gear and head into the trenches said this summer has been extremely long. Capt. Stacy Orf, recalled he and his fellow firefighters have battled fires for more than two days running on only six hours of sleep.
"Pretty well all of us have had IVs (intravenous solutions) at some point this year. I've had it twice, another person has had it twice. A lot of times it's just to get fluid back in our bodies because we just get dehydrated. We get a couple pints and just go again," said Orf.