Plan, prepare, respond: The 788th Civil Engineer Squadron keeps Wright-Patt safe in times of peril

  • Published
  • By Brian Dietrick
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – In times of crisis on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the rapid response of the 788th Civil Engineer Squadron is critical in a successful outcome.

The 788 CES is comprised of three flights; Fire and Emergency Services, Emergency Management and Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Their mission is to provide a safe operating environment for installation air and space services.

“We are an emergency response squadron,” said Maj. Nathan Thomsen, 788 CES commander. “If any incident happens on the base, other than medical and security, the bulk of the response comes from us.”

Thomsen said his team, comprised of 130 personnel, bring a ton of experience to the table and that is what sets his squadron apart from the rest in the Air Force.

I think it's really having that experience that makes us key professionals for the Air Force, for the 88th Air Base Wing and our crucial mission partners on and off the base,” Thomsen said.

Fire and Emergency Services provide an all-hazard response

The Wright-Patt Fire and Emergency Services flight provides fire prevention and protection, firefighting, rescue and hazardous materials response capabilities to prevent or minimize injury, loss of life and damage to property and the environment. They have three fire stations and each one focuses on a separate specialty, while maintaining the availability to provide welfare checks and respond to emergencies and alarms.

Fire Station 1 is located on Area A and focuses on technical rescue while Fire Station 2 is equipped for aircraft emergencies. Fire Station 3 is on Area B and works to contain any HAZMAT response.

When you think of firefighters, most think of people in protective equipment shooting water from a hose onto a fire. We do that plus much more. Our Wright-Patt Fire Department provides an array of technical rescue operations to include; HAZMAT, confined space, trench and structural collapse rescue and the Air Force’s only dive team.

“We respond to anything and everything right when we get the call,” said Jeff Kitzmiller, 788 CES fire chief. “One thing that sets us apart from every other fire department in the Air Force is our dive team. Because no other base has a dive team, we conduct a lot of training throughout the year.”

The squadron has 14 qualified divers but routine training sessions ensure everyone on the team is familiar with the basics. During their most recent training evolution, 12 firefighters from the squadron embarked on the shores of Dayton’s Mad River to conduct swiftwater rescue operations. 

The team members, equipped with wet suits and protective equipment, took turns floating down the river and navigating obstacles to make contact with a distressed “victim” and assist them to the shoreline where another team member throws a rescue line to complete the rescue and bring both parties onto shore.

“Water gives you a false sense of security,” said Brian Wilcher, 788 CES lead firefighter. “You don’t really know how fast it’s moving or the power it has until you get in there. You can have all the training in the world but if you don’t respect the power and intensity of the water current, you can easily fall victim to it.”

During the training, Wilcher estimated the water speed to be 10 to 12 miles per hour. Typical water rescue involves a team of four, bracing each other and walking in unison to the area of the search. This was the tactic they used in their most recent real world emergency where they had to save a kayaker who was stuck on the jagged rocks and stranded on the Mad River all night. Wilcher said they average 10 water rescue calls a year from outside the gate.

Wilcher explained the importance the dive team’s expertise in all aspects of water rescue and how the training is teaching them to become experts.

“I don’t like the term ‘jack of all trades, master of none,’” Wilcher said. “The most dangerous thing you can be in technical rescue is 70 percent good at it because that 30 percent is where you're going to get bit.”

He discussed past rescue operations where the act of calculating risks and making decisions is one of the hardest parts of a rescue.

“You train for situations and then you calculate the risk,” Wilcher said. “You use your past experiences to come up with a decision on whether you're going to go or not go. We train to create a rolodex of responses in the back of our heads to make that decision-making easier. Our unofficial motto is ‘risk a little to save a little and risk a lot to save a lot.’”

When the weather doesn’t permit or the water around Wright-Patt is frozen, the 88th Force Support Squadron enables year-round training at their indoor and outdoor pools, when available.

Another highlight of the team is their Peer Support Program to provide mental health and well-being support for flight members. Programs like this have been demonstrated to be an effective method for providing support to occupational groups, such as fire fighters, emergency medical services, and law enforcement. Members have access to trained personnel who they trust in times of need.

“Our people are our biggest asset,” Kitzmiller said. “We have trained peer supporters on our department now and they’ve done a lot of great things. When our team goes out and sees something that may affect their mental health, it’s nice for them to talk to a medically trained individual from the team rather than a random hospital member who might not have any idea what they are talking about. We’re out there 24/7, 365 for your people and ours.”

Training and equipping the warfighter

The Emergency Management flight develops, plans and trains personnel to meet mission needs and minimize casualties in the event of a natural disaster or man-made disaster because of a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incident.

“The public expects us to train our Airmen to deploy to a contested environment, thrive and survive,” said David Frank, installation emergency manager. “The public expects us to train our Airmen to deploy to a contested environment, thrive and survive. So thats what we strive to do every day.”

In order to meet that expectation, the installation utilizes the Warrior Training Facility. Nestled in the foliage between the Huffman Prairie Flying Field and Twin Lakes Golf sits 83 acres of training area that is fully customizable to better meet the goals of the intended training.

The WTC consists of 25 permanent facilities including classrooms, offices, multi-use hooches for command and control or housing, a security forces shoot house, medical training area and storage. The location supports more than 200 calendar days of training per year and sees an estimated 2,000 people annually, to include our mutual aid partners; the 445th Airlift Wing, Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, Army, National Guard and Marine units, the Dayton bomb squad and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The squadron also conducts Ready Airmen Training at the center where they teach their team the fundamentals and where they can become brilliant on the basics.

Frank said. “We want to make it as realistic as possible. We have a .50-caliber simulator, smoke and noise machines, barriers… all the stuff to make it more realistic.”

The 788 CES inherited the property in 2018 and immediately invested $1 million to restore it and get it operational and functional for training. Frank originally called it Camp Spider “because there's more spiders out there per square foot than in a tristate area.” They removed three, 30-yard dumpster full of HAZMAT and another four dumpsters full of trash just to get it ready for use.

“I want the camp to look like it should so when an Airman shows up, no matter where they’re from or deploying to, they see a familiar environment that they’ve trained in and it’ll keep surprises to a minimum,”

Another vital function of the flight is the Emergency Operations Center. The EOC serves a critical role in every phase of emergency management, from being the hub for all coordination during an incident to facilitating and directing recovery and clean-up.

The EOC has 24 emergency support function representatives that run 24-hour operations. These 24 representatives provide resources to the incident commander to resolve the situation.

“If you draw a circle on a piece of paper, anything within that circle is the incident and the EOC is supporting it,” said Frank. “It's a multifunctional coordinating agency or what I like to call it, ‘herding cats.’ As the EOC manager, I advise and provide recommendations on decisions.”

With the primary EOC on Area A and the alternate on Area B, the EOC will gear up in response to incidents around the installation and in preparation during large-scale events like the Air Force Marathon.

Another critical element of emergency management is the notification system to relay information to the base populous of more than 30,000 people. With the ad hoc computer notification system, mass text alerts and the giant voice that can be heard around the installation, Frank is certain that information is getting to the masses in times of crisis.

“We strive to get 100 percent coverage of notification,” Frank said. “The giant voice is essentially an alarm system that uses a voice instead of a sound. It may sound garbled but you know something is going on. If you call 904-4111, it will repeat, with clarity, what the message was on the giant voice.”

Frank also urges base employee to know the meaning of the following terms to help lead a response in the event of a man-made or natural disaster:

  • Shelter in Place - chemical hazard: Immediately go to your assigned shelter in place location in your building.
  • Take Cover – extreme weather or natural disaster: Get to a hardened shelter, like a bathroom or a space with concrete walls, immediately.
  • Lockdown– active shooter or security alert: Barricade yourself, lock doors and secure the facility.

“We have an amazing mission and amazing people who bring a ton of experience to emergency response,” Thomsen said.