AF firefighter, flames keep burnin’
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- The shrilling sound of an alarm echoed throughout the corridors of the 27th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron fire department. As responders jumped from their beds, they wiped the sleep away and focused on the mission at hand—a confirmed fire call.
“I remember it was 1:30 a.m.; I was groggy from waking up until we turned into base housing, and I could see the glow of fire,” said Staff Sgt. Cody Williams, the 35th CES logistics NCO in charge. “My crew chief looked at me and said, ‘hey, this is the real deal—be ready.’”
Recalling the tragedy, Williams said, when the team first arrived on scene, he had an eye-opening experience, as he felt his situational awareness shoot up.
“We opened the garage door of the house and flames shot out,” Williams described. “The whole garage was engulfed in flames so hot we could not go inside. We had to fight the fire in the garage first to gain entry to the house.”
Nine hours later, Williams and his team, exhausted after battling the gruesome inferno, peeled off their heavy, life-protecting gear drenched from sloshing around in more than two inches of water used to extinguish the flames. But, regardless of his fatigue, he did not let that keep him from doing more than what was expected.
“Every firefighter will put out a fire, one way or another,” said Williams. “What separates a regular firefighter from a good one is when they put the fire out, they gather the family’s belongings and place it in the middle of the house to salvage whatever is left.”
When the flames were a distant memory, the fire crew saved the family’s items including furniture and photos. Williams said the experience changed his whole job perspective.
“A month later, the family came out to the fire station with a plaque thanking us for saving those things,” Williams said. “There is nothing in our [Air Force Instruction] requiring we stay after and save anything, but it pays dividends when somebody comes to you crying and saying, ‘Hey, we lost a lot, but thank you all for saving the important things.’”
Those are the moments, Williams said, which make someone’s job feel meaningful—something he has always imagined feeling since he was younger.
Williams grew up in of Ocala, Florida, a town he said is full of aspiring firefighters due to Florida State Fire College’s influence.
“I always wanted to be [a firefighter], but when every 18-year-old in Florida goes to fire school, job availability is limited,” Williams said with a chuckle.
On top of that, firefighting school is expensive, Williams added. He had seen people go into debt at the cost of schooling and he did not want to be one of them.
Uncertain of his future, Williams found hope while sitting in a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps class. An active duty Air Force firefighter came and talked with his class about working in the fire department, all while being part of a family.
“I told myself, ‘that is what I want to do,’” he said.
After talking with his AFJROTC instructor and meeting with Florida’s lead Air Force recruiter, Williams enlisted as a firefighter.
“I love my job,” he said. “I think being in the Air Force and being a firefighter challenges and pushes me to be better every day.”
Williams explained during his career he wants to contribute to the Air Force by improving the training processes of firefighting–bridging the gap between real-world scenarios and simulated ones put on by a fire department’s unit.
“It takes approximately eight minutes for a building to be fully consumed by flames,” he said. “My goal is to make sure we are ready for the challenge.”
He added there are measures families can practice to keep themselves safe, including having an evacuation plan, establishing a meet-up spot and keeping their fire extinguisher up to date.
In efforts to teach Misawa, proper fire prevention methods, the 35th CES fire department hosts their own fire prevention week from Oct. 9 to 15, emphasizing the importance of fire safety and prevention.
“Fire Prevention is a vital component in our ability to keep the base populace safe,” said Tech. Sgt. Nathaniel Salas, the 35th CES fire prevention NCO in charge. “It gives us another avenue to stop fire, mishaps and accidents from occurring, besides our more traditional ‘putting water on the red stuff.’”
Williams added practicing safety plans can also keep the fire crews out of danger.
“When we ask if someone is missing and no one knows where they are at because you do not have a meet-up spot, it can cause trouble,” Williams said. “The missing person could actually be safe in the backyard, while we unnecessarily send a team in a flame engulfed building.”
Although Williams cannot stay in the Air Force forever, he said he hopes to continue his passion by working with companies that experiment with firefighting tactics and equipment certification when he retires from his military career.
“I would like to still work with fire equipment when I retire so I can make sure equipment is safe for the individuals risking their lives, to use.” Williams said.
“We train for many hours, sweating in our gear and answering late night calls,” Williams added. “I realize now why we do those things, and seeing how my actions directly impacted someone’s life makes the whole experience come full circle.”