ATLANTA, GA 2014
In July 2013 contact was made between our organization and The Atlanta Fire & Rescue Department to establish a training and ride along program. Within the next few hours we received a positive reply from the Fire Chief himself and the planning for the first program of 2014 began. We have conducted a program with the AFRD back in 1999 that was very successful and this time it was expected to be even more successful.
This is a story about the Atlanta, Georgia 2014 program. One with a lot of action…way sooner as expected…
Thursday, March 13th, 2014:
Nine Fire Observers out of Belgium and The Netherlands gathered at Brussels Airport around 7:00 am. Along with the Fire Observers there were four members who tagged along for a few days on their own initiative. Everybody was right on time so the routine of saying goodbyes to friends and family, check in, security checks and breakfast could start. Around 10:00 am our US Airways flight to Philadelphia departed.
The flight went pretty smooth. There were games, music, drinks, food, movies and enough time to get to know each other better. Touchdown in Philadelphia was rather bumpy due to the high winds but we arrived safely. Immigration, baggage claim, customs, baggage check in and security checks were done in about 90 minutes which gave us enough time to relax and have an early dinner before boarding our connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was 6:29 pm when our plane took speed at the runway.
Shortly before the pilot informed us take off would be rough due to the crosswinds, it became very clear during take off. The plane was shaking and dancing on the runway but we managed to get up in the air. At a height of approximately 20 feet it dropped back down real quick and smashed very hard on the runway making it go airborne again. It bounced two more times but at the last bounce the nose gear collapsed making the plane slide over the runway on its nose. It came to a stop after a few hundred yards with the nose right on the edge of a grass field. Everything happened so quick that nobody really realized what happened until it came to a stop. First it was very quiet but then light smoke and a burned smell came into the cabin creating some panic here and there. We let the crew know there were 13 firefighters on board and we were available for help. A few moments later the captain ordered the evacuation of the plane. Six emergency slides unfolded but we could only use the two in the front of the cabin and the two over the wings. A few Fire Observers went out first to assist the passengers off the slides on the ground and some stayed on board to help along with the crew. When the plane was evacuated the Fire Observers led the 136 other passengers away from the aircraft to a secure zone where they were able to conduct a preliminary triage. There were no people injured. Shortly thereafter the Aircraft Rescue Firefighting units arrived. Most of the passengers were without jackets standing outside, needless to say that could become a problem in freezing temperatures and high winds. Emergency vehicles blocked some wind and women and children took place in those vehicles.
Ten minutes after the crash occurred Peter Frederickx called Carl Verstrepen, who is also a leader of this group and had already arrived in the States a week prior. Carl was already on his way to Fort Lauderdale to welcome the group upon their arrival. Operations started between Peter, Carl, the President and the Vice-President of the organization. The President and Vice-President were in Belgium. We all gathered as much correct information as possible and issued several correct briefings and notifications through social media, email and the organization’s website towards family members in Belgium and all our other members.
All passengers were brought back to the terminal in several buses and were taken care of in a separate US Airways lounge. It needs to be said that the support and information coming from the airline company was very informative and correct. Their service was really good and within two hours of the crash, we got our hand luggage back, our main luggage was already booked and checked for another flight and boarding passes were issued. There was an aircraft fueled up and ready to go, a crew available but we still had to wait for a pilot coming in from Washington, DC. That gave us some time to close our eyes and get some sleep. Six hours later than the initial arrival time the group arrived at Fort Lauderdale safe and sound. Carl picked them up at the airport with two buses of the Delray Beach Fire Department. Thank you John Fischer, Traci Moore and Joey Cafone! Everybody was very happy to be reunited. We left for the hotel where the group went to their rooms for a well deserved good nights sleep. The night still wasn't over for Peter and Carl. By the time they were back in the hotel it was morning in Belgium where everybody learned of the crash. A lot of Press started to call and wanted to do interviews. For very specific reasons we chose to answer every call and agree with every interview making it a night with no sleep.
Friday, March 14th 2014:
Breakfast was served at 6:00 am so that’s where Peter and Carl went. A hearty breakfast, a few shots of very strong coffee and we were ready to tackle the day! The day started with a beautiful sunrise over the beach of Delray, Florida. After that we went back to the hotel and filled the morning with more press briefings and interviews. Thanks to Tara Cardoso. This time it was the American press for news channels, websites and newspapers.
The other two cars were picked up around noon while the rest of the group walked over Atlantic Avenue checking out the area and enjoyed some pool time as well.
Around 5:00 pm we all walked over to the Old School Square where the activities and pre-parade party started. There were numerous stands to eat, drink and shop. Up on the stage there where dancers doing Celtic dancing, there were bands playing, there was a mini fair for the children. Hundreds of firefighters from all over the States were present, as well as from France and Australia. It was very good to see some friends again and it was even better to meet and become friends with some new people. This weekend to me can be described in five words: class, style, pride, tradition and brotherhood! Pipers were playing, people were enjoying the good time, the local pipe band offered us drinks and a very good bbq!
During the official opening ceremony the Mayor of Delray Beach requested the Fire Observers join him on stage. We were introduced to the crowd and of course a few words were given regarding the incident. The Mayor and the group exchanged some gifts. We were given a key to the city and people were getting all wild and crazy, giving us a loud applause. The Belgians were in town! The rest of the evening and night was a chain of bars and restaurants on Atlantic Avenue, pipes and drums, laughter and fun.
Saturday, March 15th 2014:
In the morning everyone bumped into each other in the lobby or the breakfast area and it was pretty clear the first night was one big success!
At 11:00 am everyone showed up at the hotel lobby, all dressed up, shining and ready to represent two countries and 14 different fire departments. The parade stepped off at 2:00 pm and this year we were the first ones in the parade again. The Australians were the band in our regiment and they played everybody’s socks off! Thousands of people were applauding, cheering and taking pictures. After my 3rd time walking in this parade it’s still unbelievable to me. A mile of pure adrenaline and respect!
Due to the hot temperatures we went to the hotel to change before we got back to the after party at the Old School Square. Today again lots of music, lots of spectacle, lots of drinks and lots of bbq! This year was also the first year awards were being given by a jury and we got one of them, the Kennedy Award. It was given to us since we represent international brotherhood and because we’re a group extraordinary. The award was a big honor for us and we were very humbled to accept it. We will bring this award and its flag back to Delray Beach on our next trip and carry it with pride for the Kennedy family.
The rest of the evening and night was a repeat of the night before…barhopping on the rhythm of pipe bands, a lot of good conversations, laughter, a whole lot of pictures…awesome times!
Sunday, March 16th 2014:
We left the hotel around 11:00 am and set course more South. We drove straight to the Everglades where we stopped at an alligator farm and took a ride on an air boat deep down in nature where we saw beautiful birds, turtles, magnificent flora, fish, snakes and gators. When we left the Everglades we drove towards Miami and made several stops in Coral Gables, Little Havana, Coconut Grove and Key Biscayne. We continued our way to Miami Beach where we mingled in the crowd on Ocean Drive, visited a few clubs and had dinner in a Cuban restaurant.
Once back in Delray some of us went straight to bed while others take a nightcap at Boston’s before going back to the hotel.
Monday, March 17th 2014:
Time to leave Delray Beach and head North today! After breakfast we loaded up the cars, make a quick stop at Delray Beach Fire Department’s HQ for some t-shirts and then we were out!
We were asked by Pete McGrane to come speak to a paramedic class at Palm Beach State College, something we happily agreed to. We told them a little about the organization of fire and ems services in Belgium and answered their questions. We also got the grand tour of the college with their own paramedic school and fire school.
Today was also the first day for new recruits of Palm Beach County Fire & Rescue. Here too we were asked to come by and speak in front of the class. Captain Bruce Clark gave us a tour at the training facility and HQ as well, where we were welcomed by the Assistant Fire Chief.
We got up on the Turnpike ready for a four hour drive to Orlando in the pouring rain. We made one 30 minutes stop halfway before we arrived at a Premium Outlet Mall. The next stop for shopping was an Outdoor World and the Millenia Mall. Everybody came back to the cars with happy faces and very big shopping bags! This will be a baggage issue on our flight back to Belgium! We got to the hotel, claimed our rooms, showered and got ready for dinner. We choose a Japanese Steakhouse nearby. Since a few within the group were tired, they went back to the hotel for some sleep while others decided to visit the local Hooters bar.
Tuesday, March 18th 2014:
Time for some recreation in the movie them parks of Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. A whole day filled with rides and shows from Twister, Shrek, The Mummy, Transformers, Disaster, MIB, The Simpsons, Jurassic Park, Spiderman, Harry Potter and many more. The whole group met again at 5:00 pm around the bar of the biggest Hard Rock Café in the world. We had a few beers before getting back to the hotel for a shower and dinner at TGI Friday’s.
Wednesday, March 19th 2014:
We left the hotel and got breakfast at a nearby IHOP. When traffic started to clear out we got fuel and set course for Daytona Beach. We tried to get our cars on the beach but weren’t allowed after an incident that occurred a week before. So we drove North on A1A and stopped for an hour for some beach time in Ormond Beach. After that we continued our way to St. Augustine where we had some time to walk through the old city section, the Bridge of Lions and the old Castillo de San Marcos. It was 2:00 pm when we got back in the cars and headed to Jacksonville. We claim our rooms at a Days Inn in Orange Park, leave for some groceries and kick the door at Papa John and Sweetie’s. They invited us again for the best bbq in town! It’s very good to see them again, as well as approximately 20 more guests, even the crew of the nearest fire hall.
A very fun evening and night with the best food and lots of laughter!
Thursday, March 20th 2014:
We attack the breakfast buffet at Shoney’s together with Papa John, Sweetie and Tabatha. After breakfast, presents and contact information were exchanged and the last pictures were taken. it was time to say goodbye and to get this show on the road. That road is I10 and I75 towards Atlanta. We were making good time at an easy pace of 80 mph with 2 stops along the way.
The clock ticks 4:00 pm when we were checking in at our Comfort Inn hotel at Turner Field. We went to a nearby BBQ restaurant for dinner and drinks. Nothing fancy but really good food. We were all in our beds by 10 o’ clock because we know the next coming week will be busy with little sleep.
Friday, March 21st 2014:
At 6:45 am, Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, Chief Rhodes welcomes us. He’s gonna be our chaperon for the next coming week and it was very clear and unanimous by the whole group he had done an awesome job!
We loaded up the cars and drove to Station 1 where we met the Shift Commander and the crews of Station 1. We had to fill out some paperwork, get some gear and then it’s straight towards the training facility or “The Yard”. There we were welcomed by numerous engine and truck companies, the GSAR company and the squad. They give us a tour of the rigs, show the equipment and then it’s time for some high angle rescue drills up at the tower. After lunch we went to the training academy for some confined space training.
Next stop is at a large field where they do EVOC training. Fun times when we each take the driver’s seats of the Engine and Tiller.
Station assignments are next: Peter and Cindy go to 11’s, Erik and Simon to 17’s, Seppo and Johan get 9’s, Neil and Roel go to 13’s and Kenny and Carl can call Station 1 their home for the next week.
We got a warm welcome by the crew of Station 1 and show us around the house. We got our beds, they tell us how things are done around there and then it’s time for chow. Right after dinner the calls came in, Kenny goes out on the engine and I take all calls with the truck. The engine gets medical calls, a grass fire, 2 fire alarms and a shooting. The truck rolls out on an elevator rescue, smoke in a building and a house fire.
Saturday, March 22nd 2014:
We all met at Station 11 where we were invited for breakfast. First stories and experiences were being told in the group and it seemed like it was a short night for most of us.
We go to a nearby fire hall for the weekly battalion drill which is a sit down with a guy who comes to speak about leadership. Actually he talked about a whole lot more like PTSD for example, but the main theme was about leadership. This veteran works the Wounded Warrior Project and it’s clear that everybody is sitting at the edge of their chairs while this guy talked about his tour in Afghanistan, his life before being deployed and the life after being severely wounded.
We got lunch and headed towards a private pond where we will get some swift water rescue training with the members of Station 11. They showed us the equipment and demonstrate numerous rescue scenarios.
Around 4:00 pm we were back at the hall and making calls. Nothing fancy but we were busy all evening. After dinner we were rolling out for some inspections in town and also a visit to the set of Fast and the Furious 7. which is being shot in the streets right across from our hall. Throughout the night we made back to back calls with both the engine and the truck.
Sunday, March 23rd 2014:
Special Ops training today. We met with the companies down at The Yard and start training in heavy lifting, building collapse, shoring, rigging and trench rescue.
After lunch we go the Martin Luther King Center for a visit but it’s interrupted 20 minutes later when they call us to come down to a 3rd alarm apartment fire. By the time we got there, the main body of the fire is knocked down but there are still numerous hotspots and heavy smoke conditions. The tenants of 7 units were displaced because the two story apartment building was completely destroyed. This fire brought numerous emergency vehicles on scene like 7 engines, 5 trucks, the squad, the air truck, 3 chiefs, the shift commander and a medic unit. There were more than 60 firefighters! The Fire Chief and the Chief of Operations also come on scene to see how things were. The main body was out prior to our arrival but it was still very interesting to see the work of a large scale operation and the ICS from nearby.
We went back to our own halls where we respond from one call to another. Kenny goes to medical calls with the engine, I go truckin’ to elevator rescues, fire alarms and jumpers. At night, the calls slowed down for the truck but the engine doesn’t stay at the hall for long times.
Monday, March 24th 2014:
A medical day today. We started with the deployment of the mass casualty unit. A reconfigured school bus for medical emergencies with a higher number of victims. We can see how quick it can be put to work, how it is built and how it operates. Next stop is the trauma room of Atlanta Medical Center where we also go out on the helipad to meet with Air Life Georgia 5, a trauma helicopter.
After lunch we are awaited by Atlanta PD’s SWAT team at a secure location. The members tell us more about the work of SWAT, their equipment and about the drill they’ve set up for us today. It’s a rescue of own of their own under hostile fire. AFRD delivers the med unit and the tactical medics, special trained medics to work with SWAT.
For dinner we go to Station 10, these guys wanted us to come over tonight to have a delicious meal with them. The food was extremely good and the laughter loud!
Back at the hall we entered an easy night. There were only a couple of medical calls for the engine and an MVA at the Interstate for the truck.
Tuesday, March 25th 2014:
Engine and Truck 1 roll out early for two separate house fires. Nothing special but they had to spray water and work for about 10 minutes each.
We visited the 911 center downtown Atlanta. This communication center handles all incoming and outgoing calls for police, fire and rescue, as well as dispatch and house the entire camera division of APD. We get the grand tour and are able to meet and talk with the operators.
Atlanta is the HQ to CNN so we can’t let that go unseen. Very nice to walk around in the impressive building through all studios, newsrooms and research centers.
After dinner and clean up at the hall we jumped on the rigs again for several medical and technical rescues, house fires, alarms and more. It was approximately 10:00 pm when the Shift Commander hears units being dispatched for a fire. He jumps in his car and takes the call. We get to ride with him. On the way to the fire it becomes clear this can be a good one. First due companies announce a 3 story wood frame with a gable roof, heavy fire conditions on the 3rd floor at the chalie and delta sides of the building, heavy smoke conditions and now reported victims. Men entered the building with several hand lines, ladder companies ladder the building with ground ladders. T he chief requests an additional engine and truck. Upon our arrival flames are bursting out through windows and the roof. The Shift Commander orders a 2nd alarm bringing 3 more engines and 3 trucks on scene. ICS is run by the first arrived chief, the other chiefs split up with front and back side of the building, staging and resources. A minute after the Shift Commander orders his people out and go over on defensive mode, the roof collapsed. The horns are sounded and crews conduct a PAR. Everybody is accounted for and there’re no injuries.
We leave the scene a few hours later with the air truck since there’s another fire going on where they need spare bottles. We get on scene, deliver new bottles and talk with the crews before we hop back on the truck. We hear that a firefighter is missing at the previous fire. We set course, as well as numerous other companies. All fire operations are stopped and everybody puts full attention on the search and rescue of the missing firefighter. RIT is put to work. After a while it appears the firefighter wasn’t missing but during a structural collapse on the 3rd floor, the floor gave way and he got stuck. That’s why he called out a mayday. Other firefighters were able to get him out pretty quickly and he got medical attention outside before being transported to the trauma center. During the rescue efforts another firefighter got injured too.
Wednesday, March 26th 2014:
The entire group is picked up by a bus and driver of AFRD while Peter and Carl attend a lunch meeting with Chief Cochran.
After breakfast the group visits the Georgia State Fire Academy. It’s very clear they deal with a better budget here. Several departments are conducting training and drills and we can see them work while we tour the facility. On the way back to Atlanta, the groups stops for lunch before meeting up again with Peter and Carl at Station 11.
Peter and Carl were already busy with preparing dinner. As a farewell dinner, the group of Fire Observers invited the Fire Chief and his staff, Chief Rhodes, the PIO, the training staff, a battalion chief, the shift commander and the men of Station 11 to join in for the best spaghetti, garlic bread and salad. This was highly appreciated!
Thursday, March 27th 2014:
It’s 8:00 am when the AFRD starts his pick up to bring our guys to the Hartsfield – Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Hartsfield is the worlds busiest airport. They transfer approximately 260,000 passengers a day with just under a million flights a year. The airport has several terminals to deliver the 5 runways, they have their own underground and train station there and parking for thousands and thousands of cars. Over 434,000 people are working at or for the airport and the positive economical impact coming from the airport for the city is about 32.5 billion dollars and over 68 billion dollars for the entire state. The airport never closes and there are 24/7 flight activities for passenger transport, cargo transport and general aviation.
Such an airport demands for highly trained and well organized emergency services and those are delivered by AFRD. The airport counts 5 fire stations and over 250 personnel. AFRD responds to all kind of emergencies like aircraft emergencies, fire suppression, medical emergencies, technical and rescue assignments, incidents with hazardous materials and many others. The AFRD fleet at the airport is almost half of the entire AFRD fleet. They have normal engines, trucks, squads, cars and medic units but also the typical ARFF vehicles like crash tenders, water tenders and foam tenders. In 2013 these vehicles came into action for more than 17,000 incidents.
Most of the personnel is cross trained so they can be put to work for fire suppression duties as well as the medical duties. The department also has a mobile medic team which is a team of 10 paramedics riding around on bicycles all day in the terminals to provide quick medical aid where needed.
A van brings us down to the “burn pit” which is the ARFF training field. They have two mock ups of aircraft that they can do different training on. Out of a very sophisticated control center, they can provide all kinds of fire for numerous drills. Today 5 crash tenders are present to show us several scenarios.
After the training is finished we get the grand tour of the airport before going to the departure terminal to meet up with the mobile medic team. Deputy Chief Baker also joins in and takes us to a room for lunch. Apparently they are very honored to have foreign firefighters coming to the airport to learn and train from their department. The lunch is offered by the airport and besides Chief Baker and a few people of the fire department, all directors and managers from the airport company take seats at the table. There are many titles there: Assistant General Manager, the Chief Financial Officer, the Director of Public Safety, the Director of the Command Center, the Manager of Risk Management, you name them and they were there! During lunch the Assistant General Manager talked more about the airport and its service. We also got presents and pictures were taken right after lunch.
We still went to 2 more fire stations at the airport and were able to see more equipment and talk with the crews. Right before going back to our own halls we made one last stop which was at the Airport 911 Center and the Deployed Command van.
This is our last day in town and the last day at the hall, therefore Kenny and I decide to take care of dinner for the men at Station 1. They took us in like family, gave us a bed, fed us and shared knowledge about our profession. It was a bunch of very nice and very funny but most of all great firefighters here at 1’s. Upon our arrival at the hall we see everybody is out on calls so we can start preparing dinner and have some time to re-organize our luggage. We cooked some chili fully loaded and brought ice cream and chocolates for desert. Cooking for them was highly appreciated. It’s a fun night with lots of conversations, pranks, laughter and pictures. A good ending to our stay here at Atlanta Fire & Rescue Department Station 1.
Friday, March 28th 2014:
We woke around 7:00 am by the first calls of the day but the rigs roll out without us since it’s time to leave. We take a shower, have breakfast, load up the cars and say our goodbyes to the crews of Station 1.
The whole group of Fire Observers meet at the AFRD HQ where we’re welcomed by Chief Cochran, Chief Slaughter, Chief Baker, Chief Rhodes and Miss Ward. The Fire Chief thanks us in his speech for choosing AFRD to come over to train and learn from his department. He also says that we’re more than welcome to come back anytime and it doesn’t need to take 15 years this time, not even 3 or 5 years. He calls everybody up front to hand over official training certificates and a goodie bag filled with presents of the AFRD. After the very kind words of Chief Cochran, Carl took the mic and thanks, in name of Fire Observers vzw and all Fire Observers present, the Fire Chief, Deputy Chief Meadows, Deputy Chief Slaughter, Deputy Chief Baker, Chief Rhodes, Chief Woodworth, the Captains and Lieutenants of the training staff, Miss Ward and all personnel of AFRD for their warm welcome, the great hospitality, all the work they have done for us and giving us the opportunity to come over and learn from them. Peter and Carl present a few gifts followed by the necessary pictures.
Time to say goodbye and set course to the airport. We turn in the cars and are able to check in immediately for our flights to Philly and Belgium. After lunch and a few drinks we board our plane for the first leg to Philly. Again there’s a delay and for a moment we think it won't be possible to catch our connecting flight but the flight went smooth, touched down in Philly on time making us able to catch our plane to Brussels.
When boarding the aircraft we were welcomed by the entire crew. The Commander and the Chief Purser come up to shake hands and thank us for what we did two weeks ago in Philly. They let us know if there’s anything we need we just need to ask. At departure the pilot thanks us again over the intercom.
The flight goes by very smooth and quickly and 9 hours later we touched down on Belgian soil. During taxi towards the gate the pilot thanks us again and upon arrival at the gate we’re welcomed by the Brussels Airport Fire Department. Three rigs give a water salute which is a high honor and is normally only given to retiring pilots, the first landing/arrival of a new airline company, VIP’s or panda bears.
We need to get through passport control to get back into our own country and there are no problems. We claim our luggage and the whole group walks through the doors to be welcomed by friends and family, President Marc Opstal and Vice-President Filip Van Acker. We can see a few tears left and right, everybody is happy we’re back in the country safe and sound. Press is also present so again a few of us need to talk about the aircraft incident. When the last group pictures are shot and the first beers are empty, everybody says goodbye and turns to their homes. The first program for 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia has finished.
On behave of Peter and myself I wanna thank all members for the past few weeks, the great moments and the friendship we have built. Also out of the AFRD we have received nothing but positive feedback and congratulations. And again, a big at-a-boy to all of you for the actions during and after the crash in Philly where all showed how emergencies are handled. Peter, myself and the entire board of Fire Observers vzw are very proud of you all. Thank you!