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    Colorado natives with the U.S. Air Force train Central American firefighters

    Colorado natives with the U.S. Air Force train Central American firefighters

    Photo By Maria Pinel | U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Cassandra Padilla, Joint Task Force Bravo, 612th Air Base...... read more read more



    Story by Maria Pinel 

    Joint Task Force Bravo

    Soto Cano Air Base, a Honduran military installation located in the Comayagua valley, hosts the oldest standing task force in the U.S. military. Joint Task Force Bravo operates under the United States’ Southern Command and is a joint military unit comprised of Army, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel where U.S. Air Force Tech. Sergeants Cody Freel, Steven Rousseau, Jonathan Merritt and Senior Airman Cassandra Padilla, train firefighters from across Central America.
    As part of JTF-B, the Colorado natives are assigned to the 612th Air Base Squadron Fire Department, where every year firefighters from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Costa Rica and the U.S. come together to exchange knowledge and best practices on firefighting skills.
    The Air Force led exercise known as CENTAM SMOKE (Central America Sharing Mutual operational Knowledge and Experiences) is an intense fire-and-rescue training that provides an opportunity for multinational firefighters to work as a team and build relationships among partner nations under the direction of the 612 ABS Fire Department.

    Freel, a program coordinator for CENTAM SMOKE, was born to a military family and decided to join the Air Force in 2010 to pursue his passion for firefighting, “I like doing physical activity, I like working with my hands and I also like the brotherhood aspect of it. We live with each other, eat with each other, we do everything with each other; there’s a huge team concept and that’s something that I was really attracted to,” said Freel.

    Tech. Sgt. Rousseau, 612 ABS chief of operations, had his first assignment at the Air Force Academy in Colorado and had dreamt of being a firefighter since his childhood. “I’ve been a firefighter my whole career, that’s why I joined, to be a firefighter,” said Rousseau. “Honestly, it was always something I wanted to do as a kid. I think I had a big heart for helping people, and I thought that was a good career path; to be able to give back to the community and help people in a good way.”
    Merritt joined the Air Force a decade ago and earned a Fire Science degree from Pikes Peak Community College. This is his first iteration of CENTAM SMOKE since he arrived at Soto Cano Air Base for his assignment as a Station Chief at the 612 ABS.
    “I’ve been here about a month and a half and I like it a lot,” said Merritt. “It’s definitely a different experience, but it’s a good experience. I hope to gain experience and knowledge from the other countries after seeing how they do things. We all come together to execute this plan [612 ABS firefighters], and meeting the other countries and playing host to them; helping them out to where we can has been really great.”

    Unlike her teammates, Senior Airman Cassandra Padilla, from Montrose, Colorado, joined the military to gain experience prior to pursuing her passion for law enforcement. Graduating at 17, she joined the Air Force right after high school.
    “Growing up I always wanted to be a cop. For most places you have to be 21 and I always thought that if I applied and my resume said that I had college experience and military experience it would look better, and I would have more of a chance of getting hired at a good department,” said Padilla. “When I left for basic training my recruiter calls me and he said a firefighter job had opened up so I said, ‘Why not?’ If I’m going to be a cop for the rest of my life I might as well try a different skill for a few years and see how I like that; and I do like it!”

    As the only female firefighter at Soto Cano, Padilla reflects on some of the challenges of being in a predominantly male led profession.

    “In most jobs it doesn’t make a difference whether you’re male or female but in this job it’s just more uncommon and it definitely puts you in the spotlight a lot more with everything. I’m used to being the only female firefighter in my department. For this exercise, I’m the only female firefighter as well, so at times that can be a little bit challenging, but I think it keeps me going strong and it motivates me,” said Padilla. “When you start comparing yourself to the abilities of what men can do, you start aiming higher. Physically, men do have more testosterone and are naturally stronger than females, but that doesn’t mean you cannot do the job; it just means you have to work harder to get up to that level of strength. It’s definitely not impossible.”

    The concept behind CENTAM SMOKE is the sharing of practical experience and tactics that can enhance all fire department in preparation for a potential joint response in the region. A multifaceted exercise includes not only training for partner nations, but most importantly, maintains readiness for the Air Force firefighters.

    “It’s interesting to see their capabilities, their resources and how they do things by us working together. A lot of it matches up with us; it’s just a different tactic to get there and we discuss different strategies,” said Rousseau. “Central Americans have limited resources compared to the United States so they use different tools than we do so they can accomplish tasks; they just have different ways of doing it. Their call volume is also greater in their cities than ours, here. Therefore, they have a lot of real world and practical experience and we have a lot of great training. So it’s good to experience that mesh up of things.”

    Each nation brings something different to the table and forces the 612 ABS firefighters to think outside the box, preparing them on how to respond to complex situations where they might not have the tools they would normally utilize state side.
    “There’s no one way to do our job. Every emergency is different. So having a bunch of different tools and seeing how different people utilize them to get the same job done safely expands your knowledge across the whole career field which makes you a more versed firefighter over all,” said Rousseau.

    CENTAM SMOKE takes place twice a year with different representatives from Central American nations. The region is vulnerable to wildland fires and the workload for these firefighting professionals is high, with limited-resource conditions making the risk for them higher.

    “We put a lot of focus on fire prevention and we take a lot of time on prevention matters. They don’t have as many resources as we do for this and they do get more calls, and their incidents become larger because of it,” said Padilla. “A lot of them have more experience and they’re risking their lives even more everyday than we are, yet they’re still not recognized for their hard work.”

    Padilla, impressed by how these hard workers appreciate their craft and how conditions in Central America are not always favorable for their profession, made her admiration for her counterparts even stronger. Despite these challenges, they gear up and prepare to save lives.

    “I’ve traveled to a few countries around here and it’s very different to see the tourist side of a country and then getting to meet people who actually work in the country. They tell you about their everyday lives, how it works, how they are paid, and the kind of shifts they work. You understand a lot more of what their struggles are and what they go through,” said Padilla.

    During the multinational event, firefighters had the opportunity to work as a team and establish strong bonds of camaraderie and support among partner nations.
    “The experience is pretty overwhelming to be honest,” said Rousseau. “At first I was a little nervous because of the language barrier but once you get past that you realize that these guys are just like us. There is a brotherhood and sisterhood inside fire departments; we all have one main goal and cause, and everybody looks out for each other. It’s funny to see how even though we just met each other we all bond on these similarities.”

    Merrit emphasized how the camaraderie aspect of it is what makes this exercise great. “People come together when we train hard. You learn different things from different people; it is not necessarily ‘us’ teaching them. We show them how we do it and they show us how they do it, we give suggestions and we learn from each other,” said Merritt.

    As for Freel, he believes that the support and planning that goes into preparing this exercise by the 612 is crucial to U.S. Southern Command goals in the region. “It’s very beneficial to our fire department but also to the military in general - building relationships and building that camaraderie with everybody else just enhances what we’re trying to do overall in the military,” said Freel.
    CENTAM SMOKE included training on safety, personal protective equipment, structural and helicopter live-fire evolutions, basic medical training, vehicle extrication, aircraft familiarization and wildland fires in physically demanding conditions and weather; making this a rewarding experience for all participants and enhancing their abilities and readiness.

    “I was kind of hesitant when I got this assignment, but now I feel really good about it and I feel confident in my job,” said Padilla. When asked about her plans for the future, and if she would follow her passion for law enforcement she said, “I know my next assignment is going to be good as I go up in rank as well. Once you get familiar and start having love for this job you have to reset everything.”

    For Freel, Rousseau, Merritt and Padilla, this is their first time in this part of the world and the first time training with so many different cultures and nationalities.

    “My experience has been amazing; big eye opener. When you read the news and the media stuff everybody says that’s it’s a dangerous country, families get concerned, and it builds that impression like you’re going to leave the gate and be in danger, but everybody has been super friendly. The community has nothing but open arms for us, so it’s been a great experience and it’s a beautiful country,” said Rousseau.

    Padilla has taken this as an opportunity to follow different hobbies such as bodybuilding, water sports and jujitsu, a sport she has even competed in while in Honduras, winning first place in the female division and said, “At the end of the day grappling is the same in all countries.”

    Since 2007, the 612th Air Base Squadron has trained 1,200 firefighters from all across Central America, strengthening professional and personal bonds. Today, iteration 19-2 concludes with the graduation of 25 more.

    “It’s been extremely successful. I’m hoping that everybody learns a lot, bonds a lot; make good relationships with these other countries and that everyone gets home safe without injuries, that’s number one,” said Freel.



    Date Taken: 08.23.2019
    Date Posted: 08.26.2019 11:17
    Story ID: 337427
    Location: COMAYAGUA, HN 

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