Travel Report Austin 2003

In April AFD hosted 12 firefighters and paramedics from Belgium who visited Austin to observe emergency operations and share information. They stayed at various fire stations, toured AFD facilities, talked to firefighters, and rode along on emergency calls. Thanks to those who hosted one or more of the visitors during a recent shift (Stations 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 14, 16, 18, 22, 30).The firefighters are part of a non-profit organization, Fire Observers VZW, that arranges trips for Belgian firefighters to observe fire departments in the United States. In recent years they have travelled to Jacksonville, Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego, Dallas, Miami, and Washington D.C., among other locations. They cover all of their own expenses for their trip, using personal vacation time.During their trip to Austin members of the group met with Command Staff; spent three full days doing ride-outs; visited AFD Training, Fleet Maintenance, the new Communications Center and AFR; and went on a Duck Tour of the City. Their Duck tour was led by Firefighter Don "Goathead" Williamson. The purpose of our trip is to give firefighters the ability to see a working fire department and every aspect of it, from operations to training," explained trip coordinator Paul Vanlook. We also had the opportunity to participate a little bit (training) and to spend few days in working station, which not only lets you see the operation, but also the way of life of an American firefighter family."Before they departed they met with Fire Chief Gary Warren and were presented with "Honorary Citizen" certificates. The group also spent a day in San Antonio at Sea World. After leaving Austin they were scheduled to also visit San Antonio, Houston and Dallas before returning to Belgium May 3.

Austin is a well-organized department with a lot of good equipment.We saw many dedicated firefighters who were really busy with their jobs," noted Vanlook.For Vanlook, who is part of the organizing team, this is the 7th trip to the United States he has taken with the Fireobservers.
The Fire Observers VZW have a website at where they post photos from many of their trips.
For AFD, Battalion Chief Bruce Tay-lor assisted the Belgians with their ar-rangements and schedule and acted as a liaison throughout the visit.
Austin firefighters certainly made us feel welcome and accepted us immediately into the group," he said. "No question was too big or small. Everything was explained and everything was shown to us," summed up Vanlook.
The Belgian visitors had a chance to bunker out at the Training Center and run through some drills, including use of the flashover container.
The group toured AFD facilities, including the AFR station.



Trip Austin 2003

Day 1 (2nd Easter day, April 21st 2003)

At 04.00 AM ready to leave with my colleague Jurgen and Ilse from the Zelzate Fire Department to go to Zaventem (Brussels National Airport) where all the 12 fireobservers gather for the flight to Frankfurt. The plane left at 07.00 AM sharp for a quick flight. In Frankfurt we transferred to the flight to Dallas. We had a 9.5 hours smooth flight; all we had to do was enjoy the service. The fact that we had 60 empty seats on the plane made the flight all the more comfortable. We arrived at 18.00 European time, but since we crossed 7 time zones, it was only 1 PM so we had all afternoon to finish our trip to Austin. We picked up the rental cars, two seven person mini-vans, and started our 4-hour trip to Austin, which took us through the beautiful Texas countryside full of wild flowers. It was around 6 PM when we got to our hotel for the first night: The Rodeway- Inn Downtown. This was an ideal location for a quick late night dinner and our first American beer. By the time everyone got to bed (it was 4.30 AM in Europe), I was reminded that life goes on. A lost phone call from Europe kept me from a good night sleep.( Next night, my cell phone will be turned off).

Day 2 (April 22nd 2003)

Our day starts with a good American breakfast at the Star Café, across the street from our hotel. At 10.00 AM, we meet BC Bruce Taylor, who escorts us to the Fire Department HQ, where we get an information briefing about the Austin Fire Department. The different division chiefs came by to meet us and joined us for a BBQ lunch. In the afternoon all fireobservers were escorted to the assigned stations. The list of the stations are :

STATION 01: Luc David and Patrick Vantroyen FD NIEUWPOORT
STATION 03: Jurgen De Witte FD ZELZATE
STATION 06: Eric De Theije FD WESTDORPE (Netherlands)
STATION 08: Brecht Vandeburie FD GENT EN Peter Hilderson AFD OOSTENDE
STATION 14: Erwin Timmermans FD GENT
STATION 16: Paul Vanlook FD GAVERE

After dropping off 5 observers, who were with me in my van, I arrived at station 6, where, immediately after I arrive, I can leave for the first few calls. First a medical response; after that a small roadside brush fire. Station 6 houses an engine and a “Smoke Buster” (big positive pressure ventilator mounted on a truck, that can be injected with water and foam). That evening we get a call to clean up some spilled oil and by 10 PM I’m ready to take a rest. A quiet night it turned out, only 1 medical call that night.
Day 3 (Wednesday April 23rd)

07.00 AM. Test call and time to get up. One of the FF starts working on the breakfast. He is Hispanic, so on the breakfast menu this morning we have stuffed Taco’s. They warned me that it might be a little spicy, but I felt it was HOT). In Austin, they change shifts at noon (has advantages with things you have to do at home, and traffic is much slower around noontime). The crews work 24 hours and 2 days off. So, before the next crew arrives we clean up the station, give the kitchen a good rinse and make sure all the equipment on the engine is ready to employ. After I meet the new shift, two of them take me to station 35, where they have to go for a test. The drivers of the apparatus have to give proof of their knowledge on the streets by drawing all the streets and their names in the quarter on a blank piece of paper. On the way back we stop at the grocery store and shop for the next dinner and breakfast. It’s exceptional quiet, by 5 PM still no calls. The guys in the station tell me this is not normal.

Day 4 (Thursday April 24th)

The day starts at 4 AM with a medical call. At 6 AM it’s time for Paul and I to start our pick-up run. We have to collect all the participants at their station for a number of visits that are planned for today. We gather at station 1 with Luc and Patrick and go to have breakfast. This is the first time that we can tell our stories of the last day. The stories go from saving a deer that was trapped in a fence, and going to the river to fish for two escaped prisoners who had jumped in the river. The first visit for today is AFR (Airport Fire & Rescue). This is a modern fire station that houses 3 crashtenders, 2 powder-trucks and a rescue vehicle. The crash-tender gives us a nice demonstration of the nozzle. And then we take the obligatory group pictures. After the Airport facility we are ready for some action at the training facility. They have us scheduled for a flash-over training. After the safety briefing, it’s time to get into the bunker gear. On the training floor, they are already firing up the flash-over container, so they can be sure that we have a hot experience. After a few dry runs, we are all lead to our position in the container, and the door is closed behind our back. ‘Let the show begin’, says the captain, and as the temperature rises, we can all experience the flash-over phenomena first hand. Speaking of ‘hand’, one of our guys burns his hands (due to wet gloves), and had to go to the hospital for treatment. Because it took so long in the training facility, we have to postpone our visit to the maintenance facility and the 911-dispatch center. We stop for a quick sandwich on the way to the capitol, our next stop. The Capitol building is a little bit smaller than the one in DC, but houses more people, because of the underground annex that was added a few years back. The annex was built underground because a law prohibits that the view of the capitol be obstructed. It houses over 4,000 employees. After the tour, we head back for 6th street, and have a cool beer on one of the roof terraces. After that, we drop everybody back off at their station. Jurgen uses this move to change to station 22 to be with his spouse. When I return to station 6, engine 6 just returns at the bay, they had a call for a house fire, that’s one I’ve missed.
Day 5 (Friday April 25th)

The night brings us 2 calls, a car accident with two injured, and a fire call where it turns out that some dust has settled on the heating coil, giving off a burned smell as result. In the morning I work one hour on my diary and look at my camera so it is ready to use on the next call. The guys on the crew give the engine an equipment check and we drive to the gas station to fill it up. At noon the A-shift comes in and within 5 minutes we are ready to roll. The first call brings us to a false alarm for gas odor. After a short inspection, we return to the fire station, stopping for our grocery shopping on the way back. Back at the station, our chef of the day starts cooking. Another excellent meal is prepared for us all. I have to complement the chef, I think a lot of splendid meals are prepared every night at fire stations all over the USA. Between 7PM and 1 AM we have 6 calls, and that’s less than expected. Today was payday, so lots of people go out and party and run in to trouble. What we had was: Somebody was doing a BBQ on a wooden terrace, an old lady got sick in church, a lady inhaled fumes from a dieseltank, a women with cardiac problems in a very high class hotel, an old man fell from his wheelchair in an elderly home and fire showing on the 17th floor of the Hyatt hotel. This turned out to be a light panel on the outside wall, but a high-rise alarm was sounded, so we had more than 10 fire vehicles on the scene.

Day 6 (Saturday April 26th)

We, Paul and I, start our day with the pick-up round and we all assemble at station 1 at 8 AM. Today we will visit Sea World, San Antonio, this is a 2.5 hour drive, so we have lots of time to exchange stories of what we all experienced yesterday. Calls for many different reasons, citizen call 911 for whatever reason. Some of the guys were picked up by off duty firefighters and spent the night on the town. What they did, and where they went, you have to ask them. They tell all kind of wild stories. Sea world is a magnificent entertainment park, where they do everything to entertain their guests. The Killer Whales (ORCA) impressed me the most, but the sea lion show, the rollercoasters and waterslides, the sharks and the dolphins, the water-ski show etc.. etc. were all fun to do and see. So, only happy faces at 4.30 PM, when we assembled again and headed back to Austin.
We were expected there at 6.30 PM for the annual banquet of the Austin Professional Association of Ffirefighters. At this meeting, awards are given to people who have done something special for the department or the community. It all happened at the banquet hall of the Hyatt hotel, where we were last night for the burning light sign. Once inside, we noticed the formal character of the event, something we weren’t dressed for, but not the less welcome. Everyone enjoyed the food and the company. We stayed until 10 PM and dropped everybody at their stations or down-town. Those who wanted to stay had to take a taxi to get back. I had another call at 11.45 PM for a man who got sick, and then I went to bed. One more call at 2 AM, 3 year old with breathing problems (and a mother out of control)

Day 7. Sunday April 26th

We start the day early with a call to an elderly home. A man is found in the toilet, between the wall and the sink, in an unnatural position. It takes some time to free him, but the damage to his spine gives me some worries. We just started breakfast when the next call comes in. A woman is sick and has to be taken to the hospital for a check up. We return to the fire station and finish our unfinished breakfast. The rest of our Sunday is very quiet; so we do the daily chores, cleaning, checking, drive by the gas station, no more calls. We can hear on the radio that the other stations have found their way out. Two water recreation accidents and an exercise with the Haz Mat team.

Day 8 Monday April 27th

8AM and assembly at station 14. Quick breakfast at Mc Donald’s and off to the future communication building. They are still working on it but we get an idea of what it will be when it is finished. This will have all the latest High Tech equipment that will allow the services of the city of Austin to coordinate and operate their service in the future. Then we go back Downtown where we have a meeting with the Fire Chief at HQ. We are all given some presents on behalf of the FD and the City (we’ve all become honorary citizens and received the key to the city) and take some time to chat with the Chief and his Staff. After our words of thanks and a TV interview we all board a strange looking vehicle for the famous Duck Tour. We make a quick stop at the union’s office, who offered this excursion, and drive up town past all the fire stations in the area. In station 1, they were waiting for us. They hosed us down with water when we drove by, not knowing that the Fire Chief and the Assistant Fire Chief were also onboard. It was a nice refreshment, but not everybody enjoyed it as much. The weather was good enough, so by the next stop, we had all dried off. We stopped at a local Bar-restaurant and had lunch in the back yard of the place. We said goodbye to the Fire Chief and the Assistant Fire Chief, had a few more drinks and got back onboard for the 2nd leg of our journey. Because our vehicle was amphibious, we had to go in to the water, but the driver misjudged his speed going in, so we went a little deep and the force of the water broke the front windshield. The driver was showered. It gave us all a big laugh, but not the driver; he had to explain this to his boss at the rental agency. He managed to bring us back on dry land and we returned to HQ. By 3PM we were back at the cars, did a little shopping and assembled at station 1 at 6PM to watch the evening news. It took a while, but we were on TV. They showed only a two-minute fragment and 1 person’s interview; but we made it, we were celebrities now. So we brought everybody back to the fire stations for the last night. Tomorrow would be the beginning of the second part of our trip.

Day 9 Tuesday April 29th

After saying good bye at station 6, Paul and I start at the final pick up round. We assemble at station 1. BC Bruce Taylor, who has been our contact man the last seven days and taken care of the fireobservers, is there also to say farewell. At 11 AM, it’s the final opportunity for group pictures and it’s off to San Antonio where we arrive at 1 PM. After lunch we head for the Alamo, the local museum, where we get a look at the history of this part of Texas. After that we take a bus tour through the downtown area and stop at the Mexican Market for a break. We check in at the hotel, have a quick dip in the pool, and get ready for a night on the town by 6.30PM. We go back downtown and head for the Riverwalk. On the banks of the river, that runs through the city, you find all the bars, restaurants and shops you want. When the night falls, and all lights are turned on, it’s even more beautiful.

Day 10 Wednesday April 30th

At 8 AM, we assemble for the trip to Houston (not easy for everyone) for a visit to the NASA Johnson Space center. We stay there with the group from 1 PM until 5 PM. One of the things we see is the Apollo 18 rocket, which was built for, but never launched for a mission to the moon because NASA started working on the Space Shuttle program. It’s sure a huge piece of equipment when you see it lying there, displayed for the public. We also visit the old Mission Control Center that was used during the Apollo project and the early Space Shuttle launches. The movies, shown in the main building, were also impressive, with all the light and sound effects. A Space Shuttle launch with simulated sound and artificial smoke effects gave you the feeling that it was the audience that was launched into space. After the visit, we head for the Gulf Coast in Galvaston, where we check into the Sand Piper Motel. We start on the beach for a game of American – Belgian football. That night, at the poolside, we relax with a few beers or coke, eat ‘fried chicken out of a barrel’ and tell lot’s of jokes. Between 10 and 12 PM everyone retreats to their rooms.

Day 11 Thursday May 1st

Today will be a long day, traveling from Houston to Dallas. To make it enjoyable for everyone, we plan a few stops along the route. We start with a big breakfast before we leave and make two more shopping stops before we arrive in Dallas in the middle of a thunderstorm. We check into our hotel in Arlington, freshen up, and are ready for a cowboy night in Fort Worth. The Stockyard Station is the place to find a nice steak dinner. We spend the rest of the night amongst cowboys with lassos and cows and enjoy the authenticity of the place. At 10 PM we return to the hotel, and some of us go looking for a local bar to spend the rest of the night.

Day 12 Friday May 2nd

This morning, we let everybody do the shopping they want. There are some who need boots, others want souvenirs, another one wants a cowboy hat. So it’s shopping express until 11 AM. Then we all assemble and head for downtown Dallas. Between the High Rise buildings we start looking for a place to lunch. We just follow the crowd and we find what we need. Next stop is Dealey Plaza, the assassination site of John F. Kennedy. In the museum, The Sixth Floor, we get an overview of what happened that day in 1963 and over the Kennedy presidency. That night we had dinner at the Chinese Buffet and spend the rest of the night in a local sportsbar.

Day 13 Saturday may 3rd

Our final day on this trip starts with a visit to the Texas Fire Museum where we find a number of old fire trucks in the old maintenance building. This facility is now run by a few fire buffs who restore the old fire trucks to their old glory and have a meeting that morning on the banks of a lake close by. We follow them to the lake and enjoy their company while all the members arrive with their engine, truck or ladder. They are all willing to show how everything still operates and functions. We have lunch again in the same Chinese buffet and then we drive to the airport to drop off the rental cars and board the plane to Frankfurt. We leave at 3.30 PM sharp for the 9.5 hours flight and after our stop we continue on our flight to Brussels where we touch Belgian soil again at 10.12 AM. The trip went well and we are all welcomed by our waiting family and friends. We are ready for our next trip.
Eric De Theye and Paul Vanlook

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