VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
The Vandenberg Air Force Base Fire Department is uncommon amongst the uncommon. As a Space Wing, Vandenberg lacks the aircraft and heavy use of its runway that would reflect greatly on a fire department during award season. Even in the lack of these two arenas, the 30th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department has been awarded not only the “Best Fire Department in the Air Force,” but also the “Best Fire Department in the Department of Defense” for 2018.
Following their mission to “Serve – Save – Survive,” last year the department distinguished itself in California with their immediate response to the Montecito mudslide disaster. Due to blocked roads, this had one of Vandenberg’s own as the site commander for the first twelve hours of California response. For these actions the department was also awarded the “2018 Air Force Heroism Award.”
“The reality is most fire departments never win the ‘big one,’” said Mark Farias, 30th CES fire chief. “So, it’s certainly an honor to be selected as the best-of-the best! As big of a deal as that is for us, it’s even more important to maintain that level of performance and service. We’ve been selected as the best in the business seven times since 2003…and we were not eligible to compete in the years in-between.”
All while Vandenberg’s fire department has lacked aircraft and a mission that is normal to an Air Force base, the fire department has innovated new ways to stay ready in a changing landscape. For example, Vandenberg is the only base with a Hotshot crew who specializes in wildland firefighting, a qualified Urban Search and Rescue team, and a water rescue team.
“Our firefighters are the only Air Force nationally certified Type I USAR Team,” Farias said. “We pursued this capability because our most compelling natural disaster threats are earthquakes, and our base didn’t have any organic emergency intervention capability. So, we felt as professionals that we needed to develop one…and we did! Same goes for our water rescue team. We have 46 miles of coastline that frequents a lot of recreational and commercial water activity. On a good day the Coast Guard is 3.5 hours away so we developed a water rescue team.”
Most Vandenberg fire officers are on a Type I (all-hazard team) or Type II (wildland team) National Incident Management Team and regularly respond to the worst incidents in the nation. Also, since the development of the water rescue team, they have recovered or rescued 17 people. For Farias, though, it is not his department's qualifications and success that make it so great but its culture.
“One of our agency’s greatest innovations has been our culture,” Farias said. “This is our secret sauce, the unifying force across all of our sections and functions. Our culture is a point of pride for us and the envy of others. Our culture is our ‘why?’, our sense of purpose. When we’re clear about why we’re here, where we’re going, who we serve, and how we’re getting there…people start to feel ownership for what we do. They feel fulfilled because it’s personal.”
Personal ownership is not just required for a “feel good” work day. Firefighting deals with very real, potentially dangerous problems. Because of this reality, and a mission to “Serve – Save- Survive,” the department fosters the development of field leaders, or those who are accountable to make time sensitive decisions on their own.
“Our department is filled with leaders, not philosophers, not bureaucrats, not bean counters,” Farias said. “We have leaders that understand that the best organizations don’t make decisions based on wishful thinking or hope but rather on the reality they operate in. Our teams are composed of unrivaled talents and opportunists whose hard work, professionalism and innovation are fully engaged at every level in the organization.”
Leadership inoculation starts immediately after a firefighter arrives from technical training school. Known now in the fire circles as the “Rookie Program,” new firefighters learn the ropes of their job for a full year before donning a yellow hard hat.
“One of the things that came up during the Air Force fire chief conference this year was that our 12-month rookie program was specifically highlighted,” said Tech. Sgt. Mathew Quackenbush, 30th CES north battalion chief. “They were impressed so much so that they are trying to add this to the firefighting curriculum Air Force wide. If we could make a recommendation, it would be for our rookie program to be used as a template and tailored to each specific base as ours has been. Not everyone is going to have a wildland firefighting mission or space launch mission, but they very well could have a more active flying mission.”
Focused on developing confident leaders at every level, the program includes all of the key components for a new fire fighter to later progress into the fire officer ranks.
“The program is very structured for them to hit their benchmarks,” Quackenbush said. “It focuses on structural fires, USAR, rope rescue, wildland firefighting, and the space and missile capabilities that we have. Through the process these members become better firefighters to support the base and community. We also developed a 12-month fire officer program that really develops their people skills, business skills and leadership skills. They learn strategic planning, budgeting, public speaking, coaching, mentoring, communicating and incident command.”
This culminates in what makes the 30th CES Fire Department so special; they innovate how fire is fought. In the last few years, members have even trained outside agencies on the tricks of the trade.
“We imagine things others don’t, train the way others won’t, and deliver services others can’t,” Farias said. “We bring together the heart and mind in ways no other fire department can. That’s what makes us different, special…better! Our leaders are purpose-driven. They focus on customers, service delivery and solving problems. They do fewer things but with bigger impact. They don’t delegate important decisions; rather, they position decision-makers close to the action. They use judgment, they move fast, they move forward, and they are accountable.”
Through every ladder peg of leadership, the 30th CES Fire Department understands their impact on the mission.
“We build our reputation – one 911 call, one emergency response, one fire safety inspection at a time,” Farias said. “Knowing that every action we take has an impact on the lives of our customers, we are solution providers! We respond to and solve some of our community’s toughest problems. We work hard, and we sweat hard to support our customers in every aspect of their lives: at work, at play and at home. We innovate and drive new performance paradigms for our career field. We operate with the highest integrity and commitment to serve. Our people dedicate themselves day in and day out to fulfilling our mission to Serve – Save – Survive.”