Academy firefighter to receive national award

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
An Air Force Academy firefighter will receive the National Image, Inc., Meritorious Service Award during a presentation in Los Angeles Sept. 13.

Elaine Perkins, a Honolulu native and captain of Fire Station 3, won the award for numerous achievements, including a 15-percent improvement in emergency response time and actions that saved at least one person's life during a vehicle accident on Interstate 25.

Perkins, the Academy's first female station captain, joined the Academy Fire Department in January 1998 after serving four years on active duty at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and two months of civil service with the Army in Atlanta.

"I love working here," she said. "They've been very good to me, and I want to pay them back for everything. I am very loyal."

Ken Helgerson, the Academy's deputy fire chief, said Perkins' loyalty and performance made her a perfect choice for the award.

"Elaine Perkins has always been a top performer and is a role model for our military firefighters," Helgerson said. "I thought this award was a great way to highlight her efforts, and I am certainly glad she was selected."

Because the award nomination was submitted earlier in the year, it did not include Perkins' contributions to the Waldo Canyon fire. She was among the firefighters who responded June 23 to the Cedar Heights subdivision of Colorado Springs to try and protect the city's southwestern borders. She also helped protect the Peregrine subdivision and the Air Force Academy's southwestern border June 26-29.

"It was like a once-in-a-lifetime fire," Perkins said, searching for words to adequately describe it. "It made you feel ... you wanted to help, but you knew you were too small to help, but you were trying to do your part."

Perkins said she experienced a whirlwind of emotions as she watched and fought the fire.

"You're excited, you're scared, you're curious ... and then you're also ... at one point, I felt helpless," she said. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, this could be devastating.' We were lucky that we were able to stop it from touching any structures on the Air Force Academy because ... if it had gone past the Air Force Academy, the last stand would have been at Mount Herman, and that's in Palmer Lake.

"It could have destroyed a lot of historical buildings on the Air Force Academy. If it had gotten past us ... 343 houses in Mountain Shadows would have been just a drop in the bucket," she added. "I was scared that if (a fire started) in Black Forest, the Springs would be trapped in-between, and that would be ... I don't know. We were just eager to help. Luckily, we held it here, on our southern boundary."

Most of a station captain's duties are supervisory, involving time cards and facility management, but that doesn't stop Perkins from hopping into an engine.

"It always depends on staffing: I could ride the engine one day or a rescue truck depending on what's needed," she said. "I try to keep versatile, to fill in positions. ... Nowadays we work more with less, so you get thrown into positions wherever you're needed."

Most of the responses from Perkins' station involve in-flight emergencies at the airfield or structural emergencies for the buildings along the airfield. However, Station 3 also responds to incidents along a seven-mile stretch of Interstate 25, from Mile Markers 151 to 157.

"Part of that strip is Air Force property, so we get to run on the interstate," she said. "It keeps us busy, especially in the winter. It gives us some experience and a chance to use our skills. So we don't tend to only military; the civilian population gets to see us every once in a while."

In one vehicle accident, Perkins served as the lead medic, saving the life of a victim with life-threatening injuries, according to the award citation.

However, not every emergency is easily accessible. A number of Perkins' responses involved injured hikers or bicyclists along the Academy's mountainous west side and the rugged Falcon Trail.

Perkins also holds part of a world record in the Firefighter Combat Challenge. She and four other firefighters -- Andrea Caraway and Senior Airman Jessica Condon from the Academy Fire Department and Stacey Billapando and Lisa Smith from the Colorado Springs Fire Department -- set the record for fastest women's relay in 2009 with a time of 1:44.49. The record still stands today.

"Our team is retired now," Perkins said. "(Condon) left the Air Force and became a college student. Now she's in school to be a nurse. It just wouldn't be the same without her and the five of us."

Perkins' competitive streak extends to her Station 3 firefighting team and helps explain the 15-percent turnout and travel time. The crews would "race" one another to see who could prepare for a response in the shortest time. She said she'd rib her teammates with statements like, "You can't let this old lady beat you!"

"In 60 seconds, we have to be bunkered out (in full personal protective equipment), in the truck and ready to go," Perkins explained. "It's one of those things -- it's a crew thing. We're just pushing each other and making sure we're taking care of each other and watching out.

"It doesn't hurt to make it fun, either. There's always this competitive air, especially with men. If a girl's on the truck, they can't let a girl beat them," Perkins added with a laugh. It's a friendly rivalry she's comfortable with, having grown up in a home with four younger brothers. She's similarly outnumbered at home, with her husband, Travis, and their twin boys, who turned 9 on Aug. 31.

"We were telephone interviewed ... about a second apart," Perkins recalled. "They called and interviewed me, and then they called him to get an interview, too. That's why I say I'm very indebted to this department, because they hired both of us."

Balancing work and home life took effort. For several years, Perkins said, she and Travis were essentially single parents: Each took a different 24-hour shift so one parent could be home with the twins.

"When the boys were born, we couldn't afford a nanny, so we were both on different shifts for three years. We'd come and visit each other for dinner, but ... the boys either saw me, or they saw him," she said. "But now I'm really lucky because my mother-in-law watches them while we're at work, so we're able to be on the same shift now."

Items on Perkins' "bucket list" include planting 100 trees, donating 100 inches of hair and giving 100 gallons of blood before she retires. She's taken strides toward the latter goal, having donated a lifetime total of 8 gallons of blood.

"Even though in movies and shows like 'True Blood' where they create synthetic blood, there's no way you can create synthetic blood," said Perkins, who donates platelets every few weeks. "So I just feel a need to give blood, to help out, because it helps save a life.

"I'm just sad because once you hit 5 gallons, they (the Red Cross) invite you to dinner, and when we went to the annual dinner, all I saw was a sea of white hair," she continued. "The younger generation isn't doing it. I need to find out a way to get more people my age to donate, because it's in high demand."

Perkins thanked the Fire Department for the award, saying she was honored and humbled.

"It makes me happy that they think of me this way," she said. "I never want to disappoint them, because they have taken good care of me here."