Serving their community: USAFA, civilian fire depts. protect El Paso County

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • Academy Public Affairs
(Editor's note: This is the first in a series of reports highlighting the close tie between Academy emergency responders and their civilian counterparts.)

Strong partnerships between the Air Force Academy, Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District and city of Colorado Springs fire departments allow for efficient and effective action to systematize and protect lives during major emergencies such as the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.

Through mutual aid, regular meetings on improved training and response plans, communication technology and personable relationships, Academy Deputy Fire Chief Ron Prettyman said Academy firefighters have upheld professional, reliable relationships with surrounding partners, working very well together.

"There's not a lot of trading business cards at incidents here," Prettyman said. "People show up and know each other. We shake hands and then get right to work. We know what's expected of us and what our capabilities are."

Christopher Truty, fire chief of Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District, said the North Group -- including chiefs from the Academy, Black Forest, Donald Wescott, Tri-Lakes, Larkspur and Cimarron Hills fire departments -- meet once a month and are working on developing more comprehensive auto aid plans to create a larger automatic response for reports of structure fires, wildland fires and other incidents.

"If we have a report of a fire in our area, we'd include an automatic response from the fire districts around us, including the Academy," Truty said. "The North Group meetings are beneficial because any time all departments get together and work together, you have a much more effective and much more aggressive operation in dealing with whatever the incident is. You understand each other better, training is better and you effectively operate like a larger, single fire department which is much more efficient."

Truty said they have eight agreements with surrounding fire districts to support one another with necessary aid.

"If the Academy is looking for help on the interstate or if they have a fire on the grounds, we provide assistance to them based on whatever they need from us," he said. "Chief Helgerson (the Academy's fire chief) has been more than accommodating in saying, 'Whatever you guys need, we'll send to you' so we've actually built our response plans to include Air Force Academy equipment and resources."

Just last month Truty called the Academy for support with a structural fire in Tri-Lakes that was spreading to grassland.

"Other times we work frequently with the Academy on the interstate south of Baptist Road," he said.

Prettyman said familiarity, prior experience between Academy firefighters and local firefighters allowed crews to work professionally and efficiently during the Black Forest fire.

"The fire chief knew us from the North Group meetings, he knew we were qualified and put us right to work," Prettyman said. "We've done a lot of pre-work with local partners, and I think overall cooperation and camaraderie of the fire service keeps communication open and our relationships good."

All North Group partners are dispatched by the El Paso County Dispatch Center, Prettyman said.

"It creates more cooperation with our local partners because they use the same radio systems, they're dispatched on the same frequency and the same agency is dispatching them that's dispatching us," he said.

Integrated in Oct. 2012, Prettyman said through the radio communications system, information is received at a faster and more effective rate.

"Our crew chiefs have iPhones and the rest have pagers," Prettyman said. "If we get a call, it's paged out to us, sent through the Public Address system and leaders receive a text message. Firefighters are directly talking to El Paso County Dispatch and they also have computers in their trucks to receive updates while on the road."

The Academy hosts about three training events every year and has great interagency cooperation with Defense Department installations in Colorado Springs, Prettyman said.
"We'll bring in an outside instructor to teach on strategies and tactics, to the emotional side or stress that happens when you're on scene," Prettyman said. "We send out an invite to all of our partners and usually representatives from Tri-Lakes, Donald Wescott, Fort Carson and Pueblo will attend."

Prettyman said Academy firefighters have covered fire stations south of the Academy for Colorado Springs crews when they're at a big event and the Academy backfills their stations.

"If we stay isolated on the base and don't try to reach out to our local partners -- when we face incidents like the Waldo Canyon fire we'll be exchanging business cards on the scene and we want to avoid that," Prettyman.

Providing mutual aid for incidents that occur outside Academy gates allows Academy firefighters to get to know local firefighters and gives them experience in their craft, Prettyman said.

"It's valuable experience," Prettyman said. "During the wildfires, we had firefighters that had been on station for less than a year and went to what's considered a 'career fire.' That will probably happen to them only one time in their career."

When the Waldo Canyon fire broke out June 23, 2012, Prettyman said the Academy had firefighters at Crystal Park the next day providing mutual aid for the Colorado Springs Fire Department.

"With the exception of two people who were on leave and out of the area, everyone from our team was working to put out the fire," Prettyman said. "We had roughly 65 people, split into two shifts, working 12 hours on the fire line. We had hotshots, U.S. Forest Service representatives and help from Buckley Air Force Base, Peterson AFB, Schriever AFB and Fort Carson. We had a big contingent of partners here on base to help out with the fire and we worked very well together."

Helgerson has made the Academy appear no different than any other local fire department when it comes to providing resources and aid, Truty said.

"Helgerson has almost made it transparent in handling everything that needs to be done and has made it look like the Academy's fire department is no different than any other fire department, which has been tremendous for us," he said. "He has been absolutely outstanding with offering the Academy's resources, being a team player in the area and has made it as easy as possible for neighboring fire chiefs to use their resources which we are really grateful for."