November 27, 2005

Fort Polk Fire & Emergency Services: Beyond the Lights & Sirens

This was an article that I especially enjoyed working on because I was a volunteer along with my brother in college. He continues to work in emergency services, something that he has always loved. The firefighters and emergency personnel here at Fort Polk are exceptionally accepting of me and my hundreds of questions. Keep p the good work guys!

-- Published Article (11.11.05) --

Fort Polk firefighters are dedicated to making sure the community they serve is safe through fire and safety education. They have seen first-hand the devastation caused by fires and many have experienced unique once-in-a-lifetime tragedies that have helped shape and mold their dedication.

In the early morning hours of April 19, 1995, Fort Polk firefighter Robert Nord, then a firefighter at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., awoke, feeling sick.

He called into work to let them know he would not be in, then took some medicine and went back to bed with hopes of sleeping off the illness.

A few hours later he was stirred from his sleep by the ringing of the telephone and a message left by his mother, in Kansas, asking how he was doing.

“It was a strange message because I had just spoken with her the day before,” he recalled.

He said he dismissed it and went back to sleep unaware of the events unfolding in nearby Oklahoma City.

Earlier that day, at 9:02 a.m., a massive explosion ripped through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, destroying the north side of the structure.

It was later determined that 168 people were killed that day, including 19 children attending day care in the building.

“I got up later and turned on the (television) and they were showing the bombing, but I couldn't make out where it was,” he said. “I couldn't make out any of the (emergency service) department (logos) on the jackets.”

Nord soon learned that his fire district was involved in search and rescue efforts.

“I got on the phone and called my station chief. I said ‘Look I don't feel good, but I am not that sick,'” he said, aware that manpower was essential for recovery efforts.

“He told me to stay home, but (report in) tomorrow to help. When I went in the next morning they had recalled everyone in the unit plus an Air National Guard unit and National Reserve unit to (assist).”

Nord said there were about 100 firefighters and workers sleeping at the fire station which usually accommodated 15.

“There were guys sleeping on the trucks, in the bays, on the floor, wherever they could find room,” he added.

Although he reported to work the day after the bombing, it was not until the third day that he was sent to the site.

Nord said he didn't recognize the site when he first arrived. “It doesn't look that big on (television), but when you got down there it was (overwhelming).”

He said at one point while he and other workers were waiting to go to the basement they began talking to some of the FBI agents next to a cordoned-off area.

“They were on their hands and knees and I asked them what they were doing as they picked up little pieces of metal,” Nord said.

“We're picking up pieces of the truck (that contained the bomb),'” they said.

“We started looking around and picking up pieces, there were 10 or 15 of us and we all had handfuls, and we just handed them to the FBI agents,” Nord said. “It was unbelievable.”

He said the events of that day brought together those who were a part of the recovery.

“There was a honeymoon phase, where you came together, even with people you didn't get along with before,” he added.

He said after leaving the site each day, workers were required to undergo a stress debriefing to help deal with what they had seen. He recalled the fears and tears following the end of a shift, especially for those who worked on the day care center area and had to deal with the task of removing the bodies of children.

Six years earlier, Fort Polk firefighter Joe Percival experienced a similar high-stress incident when an explosion ripped through the No. 2 turret on the USS Iowa on April 19, 1989, killing 47 crew members.

“I was in turret No. 1 when I heard an explosion,” Percival explained. “We thought we had fired the gun (in turret No. 1), and our turret was on fire.”

Percival was an electrician and member of the fire party on the USS Iowa.

“We started fighting the fire and the order was given to flood the turret. After that it was just salvage and overhaul for the rest of the day,” he added.

“We tried to get as many of the bodies out that we could,” Percival said, adding that he doesn't remember many of the details of that day.

“I was in shock, I couldn't believe what had happened,” he said recalling the fire and lives lost that day. “We were all scared because a gun had just blown up.”

He said it was especially hard for him to learn that electrician's mate, Fireman Apprentice Dwayne Battle, who he had worked with on a daily basis, was one of the fatalities.

“Many of our firefighters have unique stories (such as these),” said Chief Michael Kuk, Fort Polk Fire and Emergency Services. Kuk is a U.S. Army Vietnam veteran firefighter who has collected his share of emergency encounters.

Kuk said it is important for those in the fire and emergency service field to learn from each other's experiences because it helps build trust and understanding.

Fort Polk firefighters face unique situations through their work on a military installation. Aside from normal emergency calls such as auto accidents, medical emergencies and house fires, Fort Polk firefighters are faced with the possibility of training accidents, hazardous material spills and joint unit operations such as working with the Joint Readiness Training Center Flight Detachment.

For these firefighters, the life behind the lights and sirens is not always glamorous. The safety of Fort Polk and the lives of residents often rest in the hands of these skilled technicians.

“For most of these firefighters it is a passion and love for the community, not the glory, that keeps them here,” said Kuk.

1 Tea Party Guest:

Kelly'sEffeminateAngel said...

Great post! Hope all is well with you!