Soldiers from 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) know everything there is to learn about their aircraft, but firefighters in surrounding communities could be seeing them for the first time if they have to respond to a crash.
To boost readiness in those mission-critical situations, Fort Campbell Fire and Emergency Services invited dozens of civilian firefighters from Tennessee and Kentucky onto the installation for Aircraft Familiarization Training, hosted June 7-10 at the Gen. Bryan “Doug” Brown Compound on Fort Campbell.
“For the department as well as the surrounding communities, having firefighters familiar with the aircraft is important,” said Wes LaFortune, district chief, Fort Campbell Fire and Emergency Services. “If there’s a mishap or any kind of incident, they know the ins and outs and could quite possibly save a life.”
Fort Campbell Fire and Emergency Services has hosted the training annually since 2016, though COVID-19 prevented last year’s sessions. Donny Plaster, assistant chief of training, said the program reaches about 10-15 fire departments each year and averages 30 or more participants a day.
“I always tell them, it’s not necessarily that we’re going to have an emergency within our service area, but within yours,” he said. “They fly these choppers all over and that’s the thing. Keeping these volunteer fire departments and some of these paid departments up on the hazards keeps them safe when they’re responding and extricating the flight.”
Firefighters gained hands-on experience with the MH-6 Little Bird, MH-47 Chinook and MH-60 Black Hawk through the training, which prepared them to safely approach and shut those aircraft down in emergencies.
“The big goal is familiarization,” said Richard Lestienne, a firefighter with the Pembroke Fire Department and veteran. “Learning how to approach and mitigate risk when you encounter a downed aircraft is important, and helps protect your life as a first responder and protect the Soldier in the aircraft.”
Lestienne served at Fort Campbell for roughly a decade as part of the since-inactivated 159th Combat Aviation Brigade. That gave him personal experience with the aircraft to draw on, but he said the training was still rewarding and informative.
“Even if you’re in the Army, this is valuable training,” he said. “We went over an emergency engine stop technique I never knew about, and this also helps with cohesion between Fort Campbell and its community partners.”
Being invited onto the installation itself is unique for many of those partners, but working directly with 160th SOAR’s aircraft is an especially rare opportunity in a post-9/11 world.
“Since Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom their operations tempo has been sky-high and we don’t get on the aircraft as much as we’d like to,” said Benjamine Peetz, deputy chief, Fort Campbell Fire and Emergency Services. “So it’s a good day for our department.”
Fort Campbell Fire and Emergency Services employees received the same training as the civilian agencies, which allowed them to make connections with workers in nearby communities such as Nashville.
“We appreciate Fort Campbell allowing us to come on post and do this training,” said Lt. Gary Glover, Nashville International Airport and Fire Rescue. “It’s great hands-on training, and we’re always looking for opportunities to get better. We want to be more efficient in our response to an aircraft or helicopter crash, and the goal for all of us is to save lives.”
Glover said he attended the training previously, and brought along nine firefighters this year so they could bring that same experience back to Nashville.
“It was a first-time thing for a lot of the firefighters with me,” he said. “This was helpful for them, knowing the dangers of these helicopters and actually putting their hands on something to see how it works.”
Plaster said the ultimate goal is to make sure firefighters across the region are combat ready and familiar with military aircraft, and he hopes to continue Aircraft Familiarization Training as an annual event on the installation.
“When you look at the amount of people that we’re reaching and what they’re getting out of this, they’ll be a whole lot safer responding,” he said. “Fort Campbell Fire really appreciates these outside agencies and the professionalism displayed in wanting to learn about these aircraft. It helps better serve not only the community, but the American Soldier.”