Fire has been a useful and dangerous companion to human beings since the dawn of time. Thanks to the constant training, exercises and drills run by U.S. Air Force firefighters fire incidents can be prevented and controlled, leading to countless lives saved. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Airman 1st Class Joshua J. Seybert/Released)
by Senior Airman Jarad A. Denton
633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
7/27/2012 - LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. -- Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series highlighting service members with exceptional experiences throughout their military careers.
I could feel the sweat running along my body as Airmen from the Langley Air Force Base, Va., Fire Department, Station 2, helped me into a structural fire suit, weighing 70-pounds.
"We have a minute to put all that on," said Airman 1st Class Thomas Stewart, 633rd Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter. "A lot of guys fail out of tech school because they can't get the gear on in time."
My own internal clock told me I had just passed the five-minute mark as the Airmen helped me zip up the fire-resistance jacket. Looking at Steward, who started at the same time and had already been fully dressed for at least four minutes, it was easy to accept the fact that I was never going to be a firefighter. That was fine, I thought. It takes a special breed to knowingly put themselves in harm's way to save the life of another.
"Saving a life has got to be the best feeling ever," said Joseph Serafini, Station 2 driver-operator and retired U.S. Air Force master sgt. "It's great to know that there are eight to 10 people alive today because of me and my crew."
Serafini, whose firefighting career has spanned more than two decades, said he doesn't retain the memories of lives saved as vividly as other, less pleasant, memories.
"I was a young Airman in Spain," he said. "This woman brought her baby into the station, it wasn't breathing. It had already passed away. But, we couldn't presume anyone dead, so we did CPR and tried to comfort the mother. It was awful. Years later, the smell of baby powder would bring be right back to that incident."
He paused, seemingly scanning his memory for the right words to describe how he was feeling.
"It's unfortunate," Serafini continued. "I remember the ones we didn't save more than the ones we did."
Willie Walden, the captain of Station 2 and a sergeant major in the U.S. Army Reserve, nodded when Serafini spoke.
"You can't take this job home with you," Walden said. "You have to leave it here. Sometimes it's hard, but over the years you figure out how to separate the two worlds."
Walden recalled an incident five years ago at Ft. Munroe, Va. He and his crew responded to a group who had fallen victim to a boating accident. The people on the boat had toppled overboard and couldn't swim. Walden and his team were able to rescue three, but the fourth victim didn't make it.
"To this day I'm left wondering what I could have done to save him," Walden said. "My guys had a hold on him, but he slipped away and they lost him."
Serafini looked at Walden, as if understanding where he was coming from. Both firefighters were now veterans in their career, responsible for training a new generation to eventually take their place.
"You have to feel for people," Serafini said. "You have to have empathy, but you also have to put your safety first. If we get hurt, how can we help others?"
Serafini looked at Stewart.
"How many ways are there to do things right?" he asked to the young Airman.
Stewart responded immediately, as if reciting a phrase he'd heard a thousand times before.
"The right way, and the right way," Stewart said.
After Stewart answered, Walden looked proudly at his crew.
"Between all of us we get the job done," Walden said. "And these guys want to do it. They are hungry to learn and train. We have some good guys here."
Through all the training, the drills and exercises the firefighters still remain on call - ready to respond to emergencies on a moment's notice.
"We are there to help people when they are at their absolute worst," Serafini said. "We don't say we are too busy, or we are on lunch. We never, ever turn people away."