Devil Dogs share fire fighting skills with Iraqis

27 Aug 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

When Marines recently watched a lone firefighter in sandals attack a fuel fire in An Najaf, Iraq while the rest of his engine company stood by watching, they decided the fire company could use a little help.

Marines and soldiers assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, which is providing security and humanitarian aid in Iraq's holy Shiite city, held a fire academy Aug. 26 and 27 for senior firefighters, who will then pass the knowledge on to the rest of the fire brigade after the Marines go home.

Since An Najaf was liberated in April, American military police units have been training the local police department in modern law enforcement techniques. However, with help from the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, an Army Reserve unit based out of Green Bay, Wis., firefighters had their day to learn something new.

Army Spc. Justin C. Mccallum, 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion firefighter advisor, found more than a dozen Marines in battalion with previous firefighting experience and training to put on the academy.

"We are not here to teach them to do things differently," said Mccallum, a resident of Douglas, Mass. "We are just going to show them how we do it in America and if they want to, they can adapt it to their own use."

One of the main problems facing the Najaf Fire Brigade is the lack of equipment, according to Mccallum.  He explains that without proper safety gear such as boots, protective clothing, gloves, hand tools and breathing apparatuses, the brigade is limited in its ability to fight fires.

"They can only attack a structure fire from the outside," said Mccallum, who is an emergency medical technician in his civilian job and studying to become a firefighter in his native Milford, Mass.  "We have adapted some techniques, but we want to emphasize safety and professionalism to them. 

Firefighting is not all hoses and ladders.  The Marines also taught classes on operating the pumps on the fire engines, conducting fire rescues and victim carries, administrating first aid and managing command and control procedures during a fire.

"Anything I can do to pass on knowledge on how we do things will be great," said Pfc. Demetrius Campbell, B Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines infantryman, who was a firefighter for Marina, Calif. for seven years before he joined the Marines.  "What we do here today will help the people in Najaf long after we leave."

When the students get a chance to show off their skills they came alive.  In spite of the mid-day sun, the Iraqis wanted to show their teachers that they had learned well when they were being tested on a new technique.

"We are used to doing things fast," said Dakel Hussein Nasaeif, a 27-year veteran of the Najaf Fire Brigade, through a translator.  "Some things are different, but other things are the same as what we do."

During the final exam, the Marines conducted a controlled fire in an abandoned building and sent the students to extinguish it.

With a wave of his hand, Mccallum signaled for the Najaf Fire Brigade to respond. They sped up to the scene with two bright red fire engines. When they arrived, the firefighters brought their trucks to a halt.

In spite of years of practice, the Iraqis used the skills that the Marines just taught them in the past couple of days. 

"You see that," said Mccallum, pointing out the way the students were handling the hoses on the fire. "We just taught them that today.  They told us they didn't do it that way here."

As smoke billowed from the small building and the flames began to die down, one team of fire fighters, to the amassment of the Marines, entered the fire to finish putting it out.

"Do you see that," said Lance Cpl. Douglas J. Mowry, who was a volunteer fire fighter in Sheridan, Ark., before he joined the Marines as an infantryman. "They're inside - man, they actually went inside."

With the fire out, both the American and Iraqi firefighters congratulated each other on a great job.

"We will be showing this to the others," said Nasaeif as he sprayed water on his face from the hose.  "We still need more equipment so we can save lives, but this is something my men can use now."

The Devil Dogs that put on the academy had just spent the past seven months fighting their way to Baghdad and going on daily patrols and raids in search of terrorist in the region.  Even during the academy, they had to perform their regular assignments, whether it was pulling guard duty or going on patrols in Najaf. 

When it was over, the sense of satisfaction made up for the lack of sleep the men of the "First Team" had to endure.

"I wanted to say that I helped them," said Cpl. Jacob E. Thomas, B Company infantryman, from Yelm, Wash.  "You know, I came here to fight, and I helped liberate them. Now I can say I helped them."