Building Trust With Burning Buildings

Lieutenant Colonel Quincy Handy, commander of the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion, with Iraqi Ministry of Civil Defense firefighters. (photo by John Goodman)

The soldiers of Santa Barbara's 425th Civil Affairs Battalion have been very busy in a number of different aspects of getting the war torn country of Iraq to a state of relative order. From economic projects and elections to training Iraqi policemen who are already patrolling the streets, their job has been to teach a man to fish, so to speak. One of the more important projects currently underway is to train firefighters. Operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Civil Defense, fire departments throughout Iraq perform fire, rescue, explosive ordinance disposal, and sometimes police services for communities. While there are approximately 16,000 firefighters spread around the entire country, about 3,000 of those are in Baghdad alone. According to training officers at the International Zone fire station, Baghdad's main training facility, there were only 6,000 firefighters in Iraq before the war began in 2003.

However, as Iraq gradually mends from the damages of a long war, its firefighters face many challenges not normally encountered in the public safety field. In 2006, Baghdad lost 25 firefighters during attacks by insurgents. Not all were from explosions. Captain Mohammed Al Khafajee, a senior officer at the IZ fire station and one who is very involved in the training process, said that many of those men - who were fighting active fires - were shot by insurgents because they were working for the pro-American government. There haven't been any attacks recently, but there is talk around the station of death threats. Firefighters don't like to have their pictures in the local press. Some stations are permitted to keep an AK-47 for protection.

The distribution of firefighters has been an issue as well. The IZ has a healthy fire company and not many calls, but there are areas of the city that Al Khafajee said are under serviced. "The fire stations outside the IZ are very busy," he said. "We need in Al Sadr City ten fire stations." Currently, some two and a half million people live in that densely populated section of Baghdad, with only a single fire department to serve it. Nearly seven million people live in the entire city, and there are only about 40 fire stations there.

The IZ fire station bears reminders of a more harsh reality than is typically seen in the US and Europe, such as the small holes perforating the garage where the fire engines are kept - the result of a rocket that landed right outside a few years ago. Vehicle extrication training is conducted using old cars, some of which have already been burned. The rusty, burned-up remains of one of these cars is peppered with shrapnel holes, with the soles of a pair of boots melted to the floor. One is still on the gas pedal.

A group of us stood atop the fire training tower, one of the places where students learn the proper way to enter a burning multi-story building. A distant explosion could be heard, followed by a few sirens. Blackwater's helicopters were quick to follow. Packed full of black clad men carrying rifles, they buzzed the area for twenty minutes or so. When you're up in the tower, not surrounded by the T-wall and barbed wire maze, the city opens up. You can see not only large government buildings (or their ruins), but houses, businesses, and people. We watched the bustle of a busy gas station below. The normal city sounds of sirens, honking cars, and construction equipment could be heard. "Life is going on out there," said John. Still, it is peculiar, especially when a normal part of the scenery is a pair of blackhawk helicopters - which are everywhere - dropping flares to test some weapons system or other.

Despite the problems faced by the Iraqi fire training program, training rolls on. Today, almost 20 firefighters from Civil Defence and the Iraqi Air Force were in attendance for the ten-day course, learning the tenets of American style incident command structure and safety. Lieutenant Raid Badr - who has been a firefighter since 1987- runs the training center, and looked on as his students absorbed the new knowledge. In addition to classroom training, students go through a course that includes the fire tower, a confined space course, and a state of the art, propane-powered trailer with live scenarios designed to test the students in a realistic setting.

The Iraqi firefighters were an affable bunch. During class, they listened intently to the translator, many of them asking questions for clarification. Outside during breaks, they were eager to laugh and joke, and several of them pulled out digital cameras for a snapshot or two with the two American journalists and with their military instructors. An Iraqi Air Force firefighter named Chief Warrant Officer Abood Lateef Jassim seemed to be one of the more popular men in the group. Wearing a tan jumpsuit with the fire patch prominently displayed, a pair of patent leather loafers, and an easy smile, his mates always seemed to be asking him for advice or slapping him on the back in appreciative laughter. Someone would ask a question. "Abood, Abood!" people would chime. Abood was the man.

From what I've been told by soldiers who have been to Iraq a few times - during this war and Desert Storm in 1991 - the Iraqi leadership and command model of years past was based on Soviet principles, which were highly centralized and did not accommodate communication from subordinates. In the American system, back and forth communication is key, as is accountability - the class taught that an incident commander must always keep track of his subordinates. "It simplifies things to know who is doing what, and where they're at," said US Air Force Technical Sergeant Jay Wingfield to the group of students.

The US Air Force began training Iraqi Air Force firefighters last year as a mission of the Coalition Air Force Transition Team, and it wasn't long before the Army's civil affairs component became involved, adding civilian firefighters into the mix. Now, their training center includes a computer based testing room, mannequins and equipment for medical and fire training, and a plethora of donated instructional material, which is slowly being translated into Arabic. The Arabic language manual currently in use is a massive volume issued by Sallyport Global Services, and Technical Sergeant Brian Partido said that it is an excellent resource for them.

What this all comes down to though, is creating an infrastructure and a government upon which people can depend. "Civil Affairs tries to promote a chain of events that will increase peoples' trust in government," said Sergeant Michael Kuca, a soldier from the 425th who has been one of the instructors at the school. On February 21, a more intensive 60-day fireman apprentice course will begin.

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