Army National Guard, municipal firefighters collaborate in training

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Lebanon - posted Mon., Dec. 10, 2012
U.S. Army National Guard firefighters prepare to enter a home near Lebanon Elementary School during a training exercise on Dec. 8. Photos by Melanie Savage.
U.S. Army National Guard firefighters prepare to enter a home near Lebanon Elementary School during a training exercise on Dec. 8. Photos by Melanie Savage.

Heavy smoke poured from the windows and doors of the blue house on Exeter Road the morning of Dec. 8. A group of firefighters, in full gear, prepared to climb a ladder to the second floor. It was chilly and drizzly outside. While many area residents were still in their pajamas enjoying a cozy morning around the woodstove, the firefighters were honing their skills so that they’d be better prepared to serve the public in the case of an emergency.

The men, members of the U.S. Army National Guard, came from various towns around eastern Connecticut. They’d come to Lebanon for a training exercise facilitated by the Lebanon Volunteer Fire Department. “We have the luxury to have this building,” said Lebanon Captain Alan Olenick, as he stood beside a town pumper truck watching the house. The blue house was purchased as a burn building, and is used by the local fire department for training purposes, as well. “The majority of structures in Lebanon are residential,” said Olenick. “This is the real thing.” The department, under strict supervision, burns hay bales and wood pallets which produce smoke and accompanying heat, as opposed to simulated smoke that produces no heat. “It’s a much more authentic situation,” said Olenick.

Staff Sgt. Ron Avery and Joe Burnham are members of the U.S. National Guard firefighting team out of East Lyme. Burnham is also a member of the Lebanon Volunteer Fire Department and a Lebanon resident. “This offers a unique training opportunity that other facilities don’t,” said Avery, adding that one of the goals of the day would be to gain experience dealing with a cellar fire. Such an exercise gives firefighters experience in a real-world environment.

“The only difference between this and a real fire is that it’s controlled,” said Burnham.

Many of the National Guard firefighters are members of municipal departments. Some are career firefighters, others hold outside jobs as well as volunteering their time for smaller departments. Their service as firefighters for the National Guard falls into two different categories, according to Burnham and Avery. There is service outside of the continental United States, such as that provided by the 246th firefighting team which recently returned after a year of deployment to Afghanistan. And there is service within the continental U.S., such as that provided during hurricane Sandy and tropical storm Irene. Teams were deployed during Sandy to help out where needed. Municipal departments can request the assistance of the National Guard if needed. “But the long and the short of it is, we work for the government,” said Avery.

Lt. Col. Craig Nowak, out of the 192nd Engineer Battalion in Stratford, and Col. Al Higuera, from the 143rd Regional Support Group, arrived partway through the exercise in a Ford sedan. Dressed in fatigues, the duo watched the firefighters complete their exercises.

“These are citizen soldiers,” said Higuera. “They dedicate a lot of time to the National Guard. These are civilians as well as soldiers.” Though the U.S. Army National Guard supports both the state and the national interests, “We are here for the citizens of the state of Connecticut,” said Higuera.

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