Flight engineers safe base through training

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --  Airmen with the 30th Medical Operations Squadron's bioenvironmental engineering element test a sample of a suspicious powder during a training exercise here recently. The element conducts weekly training, but plays out a more in-depth scenario quarterly. (Courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Airmen with the 30th Medical Operations Squadron's bioenvironmental engineering element test a sample of a suspicious powder during a training exercise here recently. The element conducts weekly training, but plays out a more in-depth scenario quarterly. (Courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- In a small, bright office, the scene is intense. Four Airmen in Tyvek suits, purple Butyl gloves, rubber boot covers, tape at the wrists, ankles and around their full-faced respirators, lean over a small pile of white powder. Checklists and biological agent reading equipment are close at hand. 

"What are you going to do now?" an NCO asks. 

Welcome to a training day at the 30th Medical Operations Squadron's bioenvironmental engineering flight, where realism is key. 

Although most of the weekly training involves table-top exercises, the sessions are more intense during their monthly exercises with the 30th Medical Group and reach their apex during quarterly exercises. Those are the times the bioenvironmental engineering Airmen suit up and use all their equipment as they run through a scenario. 

"During our quarterly exercises we're seeing it, talking about it and actually doing it," said Tech. Sgt. Ryan Fictum, the NCO in charge of the bioenvironmental engineering flight. "You can talk about it all you want, but until you actually put the gear on and go for it, you really don't get a good feeling for how it's done." 

While making use of the equipment a second nature is a key part of training, so is getting the Airmen used to wearing the full-faced respirators and protective suits. During a real-world scenario, the Airmen could be in the suits for hours at a time. 

"If we have to go out on a scene for eight hours in our (protective gear) for the whole time, we have to feel comfortable," said Airman 1st Class Jonathan Cavier, a bioenvironmental engineer apprentice. "You can't just put that thing on for an hour and expect to feel comfortable in it for eight hours." 

Another important aspect of the training is making sure everyone understands what to look for in a particular scene. When the Airmen go out to a site, following the checklists is important, but they must also be able to think in terms of the larger picture. 

"In our career field it's very important that you know more than just you're going out and detecting something," Sergeant Fictum said. "You need to know what you're detecting, why you're doing it and why it's important, because if you don't know that and are just there trying to read back numbers, your life could be in danger." 

Not only could it save their lives, but being cognizant of everything around them helps the Airmen better work together, he said. Each team member has a job to do, but they also fit in the larger picture with the Emergency Operations Center, the fire department and other agencies. One of the goals of training is to make the flight aware of all the positions and agencies that make up an investigation, how they work together and how each one uses information from the other. 

"The best part is being a part of everything, working with everyone in the Air Force in a scenario and everything comes together," Airman Cavier said. 

It all comes together through weekly training, monthly training and quarterly training. The diligence of the bioenvironmental engineering flight ensures that Vandenberg remains safe, whether it's a water line break or a biological agent. 

"If we're at a site and we're not on the top of our game and don't know what we're doing, we're putting our responders in jeopardy, we're putting the base populace in jeopardy," Sergeant Fictum said. "We need to make sure we're protecting everybody."