MIHAIL KOGĂLNICEANU AIR BASE, ROMANIA – They are the best shows on prime-time television – shows about police officers, firefighters, and health-care professionals, serving communities and saving lives. Now, put them all on one show serving a massive military population, without commercial breaks, late-night television show appearances, or well-heeled agents chasing fat fees, and what do you get?
The prime time team of the Area Support Activity-Black Sea Directorate of Emergency Services. They provide 24-hour law enforcement, fire support, and emergency services to commanders, Soldiers, civilians, and guests of Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base, Romania, and the Novo Selo Training Area, Bulgaria. The DES team includes 60 Soldiers and two civilians who serve about 2,000 people from the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, Romania, Bulgaria, and others for DEFENDER-Europe 21.
"The beauty of our job is that it doesn't change, whether we're in a home garrison or a deployed environment like this. The number of customers we have changes, but the job doesn't," said John Smith III, DES director for Bulgaria and Romania. He noted that as DEFENDER 21 rolls on, leaders shift in DES business practices to meet demand, like bolstering customs staffing.
The ASA-Black Sea sites in Bulgaria and Romania, aligned under U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz, have varying missions. Part of the Romanian mission includes NATO enhanced air policing based in Romania and other smaller, more permanent mission sets. Bulgaria has a similar but differing workload. With DEFENDER-Europe 21, the bases, particularly Romania, become something of a weigh station before Soldiers gear-up, get stuffed into cargo planes, and dropped by parachute onto training sites across Europe.
The security landscape differs in Bulgaria. Staff Sgt. Skyler Genest, deputy provost marshal at the training site in Bulgaria, said the most demanding challenge involved with DEFENDER 21 has been “syncing all partner forces on base-access procedures and ensuring a solid physical security posture.
"With so many moving pieces between units arriving at NSTA, occupying the tactical and cantonment areas, and needing rapid access to the training area, we need close coordination at the unit level. While this task was tedious and subject to changes at short notice, I can state that NSTA MP's working closely with our Bulgarian MP allies has not diminished the overall security posture of the installation and likely increased it," Genest said.
For the deployed fire protection team, training takes stage front and center. Army firefighters get to liaison with their British, Bulgarian, Canadian, Dutch, German, and Romanian counterparts and learn about that aspect of the NATO air policing mission, learning how to put out fires on some of the world's most advanced jet fighters during an emergency.
Part of the learning is being "uncomfortable," according to Sgt. 1st Class Karl Crist, the fire chief at MK from the Indiana Army National Guard. He said being uncomfortable works well for training.
"Our soldiers have implemented steadfast resiliency and a hunger for the uncomfort that consistently shows itself when learning new elements of the job," Crist said. "DES fire and police have performed impeccably together. The joint exercises have proven beneficial to command and unified command operations."
Smith said that training also applies to his leaders, some first-time commanders leading soldiers in police and fire branches. Smith noted that this might also be one of the first times during a deployment police and fire leaders work with a directorate of emergency services, an Installation Management Command function, and not directly for the battalion or site commander.
"Scenarios like this usually present folks with their first chance for leadership; their first command," Smith said. "I want to give my commanders to the opportunity to grow while they are here."
Often overlooked, the physical security team's work often goes unheralded. That includes storing weapons in secured arms rooms, conducting background checks on people before arrival, and stopping theft, often referred to as "loss prevention."
"Physical security is the most visible division when the exercises kickoff. Base access, arms rooms, background checks; that's really where DES has an impact leading up to the exercise. We're busy," Smith said.
With his team’s work squarely in prime-time focus and three summers' of these exercises under his belt now, Smith said the excellence he's seen his team achieve is partly due to the simplicity of its mission.
"Our job is to make the bad go away when it happens and help commanders maintain good order and discipline," he said. "It's really that simple."