Federal firefighters in action

Firefighter Kevin Paggao talks about pulling duty on the naval air station runways behind the wheel of a special crash truck. - Christine Smith
Firefighter Kevin Paggao talks about pulling duty on the naval air station runways behind the wheel of a special crash truck.
— image credit: Christine Smith

Responding to two different flame-detector alarms, a fuel spill and a medical emergency within about five minutes is all in a day’s work for this crew.

Considering the alarms came from an aircraft hangar, the fuel is jet fuel and the personnel and assets involved in the possible emergencies are military, the events are all the more harrowing.

But, the members of Puget Sound Federal Fire Department, the firefighting and emergency medical personnel at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, kick into action without missing a beat.

“Sometimes it can be really busy. Sometimes it can be really quiet. It all depends,” said Kevin Paggao, upon his return to the fire station from the hangar alarm call. Paggao has been with the department for four years, and prior to that he was in the Air Force.

On top of ordinary training at a fire academy, federal firefighters on a military installation like the naval air station are specially certified as well.

“They go through airfield firefighter (training),” said Lyle Zimmerman, a dispatcher at the department.

Zimmerman is also a fire captain for Island County. In fact, most of the federal firefighters at the base say they also volunteer as county and city firefighters.

“Most guys are committed to the area,” Paggao said.

All Puget Sound Federal firefighters are trained emergency medical technicians and follow a “nationally recognized program” of training and continual refreshing and refining of skills.

“It’s daily,” said Paggao.

All federal firefighters here fall under the Department of Defense certification system.

“There’s certain criteria we have to meet,” Paggao said.

But, they are civilian, not Navy, personnel.

“Most people don’t even know we exist, and if they do know we’re here, they think we’re Navy,” said Jason Hebb, the fire captain on duty that day.

Puget Sound Federal firefighters respond to “any and all” emergency calls on the base. The staff of 48 firefighters and captains, as well as two battalion chiefs, work “24 hours on / 24 hours off” shifts.

Whenever aircraft fly at the naval air station, federal firefighters wait in a special crash truck at a juncture of the two runways, in case of an aircraft emergency. Crews pull four-hour shifts at the site, standing at the ready.

“The two most dangerous jobs in the world are working on an aircraft carrier and firefighting,” Hebb said. “And we do both.”

Much of the flight operations the crash truck crews stand by for are carrier-arrested landing practice on the runways at the naval air station.

The base fire department also has the only hazardous materials clean-up truck on Whidbey Island. Through mutual aid agreements, the federal firefighters, with their equipment, assist all civilian fire departments in Island County if necessary, whether it’s fighting fires, rendering medical aid or cleaning up a haz mat mess.

Puget Sound Federal Fire Department has a station house along the flight line at the air station, where the firefighters live and work together. This closeness has helped them to build strong bonds of friendship and trust.

“We’re really close to each other,” Hebb said. “We get to know each other really well.”

The firefighters often spend their off-time together as well, hosting family barbecues at their homes or just hanging out.

These feelings of camaraderie and community connection have made this group eager to become an even greater part of life beyond the base.

“We want to get out in the public more,” Paggao said.

What seems to spill over most from both Hebb and Paggao is not their technical knowledge or bravery, but rather a sense of caring that comes from within. The stuff these guys are made of can’t be learned.

“I don’t feel like this is just a job,” Paggao said.

Hebb agreed.

“It can be frustrating at times and at other times really interesting,” Hebb said. “But I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 22
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates