Another Air Force day ends as darkness falls on Arizona and Colorado. Firefighters at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., finish a day of training and listen for a signal tone that alerts them to the next emergency, and at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., 21st Operations Support Squadron weather flight specialists keep their eyes on the next day’s forecast while other Airmen staff the Peterson Installation Control Center.
In the Luke AFB fire department, it isn’t uncommon for the tone to activate for several emergencies only minutes apart, especially during a night in Arizona’s West Valley.
“The statisticians always say two emergencies don’t happen at the same time on base, but I guess they never spent a night at Luke Air Force Base,” said Dave Givens, a 56th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Emergency Services assistant chief of operations for B shift. “From 4 o’clock p.m. on, it can be a busy time just for the fact that everybody’s leaving work and headed home. We also have some of the most dangerous intersections in the valley right outside our base.”
The duty day, a 24-hour shift, for Luke firefighters begins at 7 a.m., and consists of training and other military duties. But after 4 p.m., the focus shifts to responding to emergency calls. Luke is one of the Air Force’s busiest fire departments, with 1,100 calls in 2011, said Tech. Sgt. Shawn Welborn, assistant chief of operations for A shift.
Between calls, firefighters exercise in a gym that was converted from an old locker room, work on career development courses, college classes and computer-based training for Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force deployment and sleep. However, once they hear the emergency tone, everything changes instantly.
“For the average person like me, to wake up in the morning before I come to work, I need a good half hour before I’m actually up and at ‘em,” Welborn said. “Here at work, when the tone goes off, it’s instant. You’re out the door and you’re already thinking about what you’ll have [to face] when you get to the scene.”
Luke Air Force Base at night is predictably quiet in some areas, but others, like the flightline and housing areas, remain almost as active as during daylight hours.
“Parts of the base are a ghost town at night, but on the flightline, they’re turning wrenches and moving aircraft,” Givens said. “The flightline is a whole different story at nighttime. We fly pretty late out here because of our mission and weather. If you go out there on a response at nighttime, you’ll see a sea of blue taxiway lights and you’ve got aircraft taxiing. You have to be cognizant of where you are, where the aircraft is and where the emergency is you’re going to. At nighttime, if you’re a little groggy, it’s pretty dangerous on that flightline at night.”
Despite the danger and what they miss at home with their families while working the night shift, many firefighters like Givens and Welborn are accustomed to the hours and wouldn’t be as happy with a more traditional shift. There are also moments that make the sacrifices well worth it.
“Even if you’re just on one call, it’s going to take you a while to wind down and go back to sleep,” Welborn said. “There have been a lot of long nights, but I wouldn’t trade this job for anything. When you know you’ve helped save somebody’s life, that makes it worth it. When you get the save, there’s no feeling like that out there.”
The Colorado night brings different challenges to the people on duty at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. The 21st Space Wing’s unofficial motto is “The sun never sets on the 21st Space Wing,” and the operations support squadron’s weather flight live by that saying, especially while the rest of the base is home in their beds. The flight is responsible for around-the-clock weather support for wing staff at Peterson and Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station and geographically separated units, in addition to weather briefings for the North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern command center director, said Capt. Todd Blum, weather flight commander.
“We’re so spread out across the world that the sun literally doesn’t set on us,” Blum said. “This wing is one of the most diverse wings in the Air Force, in that we’re operating with 16 unique weapons systems in 12 different countries, and we support the second-busiest (distinguished visitors) traffic in the Air Force next to Joint Base Andrews. We support those GSUs by giving them a heads-up when there’s going to be severe weather potentially impacting their site. We also work with the operational weather squadrons that are scattered throughout the U.S., to coordinate support to those separated sites.”
The flight also provides local aviation support and resource protection with weather watches and warnings for Peterson and Cheyenne Mountain. The weather can be quite different, despite the short distance between the two locations.
“Cheyenne Mountain is a little tricky because we’re here at Peterson, and Cheyenne Mountain is across town,” Blum said. “So we’re always looking out the window to see if it looks like snow, or we’re on the phone with them asking if they have snow or calling the police or fire department.”
The weather flight’s night shift briefs air crews before their training flights and watches the next day’s forecast in case the weather flight has to provide a short summary for wing staff. If the weather is expected to be severe enough to warrant a late reporting delay for the base, Blum is usually on the phone with leadership at about 4 a.m. to give them information they will need to make the decision.
“At Peterson, we type up email updates for our senior leadership,” Blum said. “We call it the Blackberry update, but it’s a text product they can read quickly that says we’re expecting severe weather tomorrow. Especially with this base being such a big (distinguished visitor) base, it’s all about keeping everybody in the know.”
The flight’s second mission is providing space environment and terrestrial weather support for NORAD and NORTHCOM in a small room weather flight members call “The Hole.” Their job’s main classified responsibility is to support the NORAD/NORTHCOM command center director by monitoring the environmental factors that could affect space operations.
“The folks back there are the true 365-day, 24/7 people, working (mid-shifts) and holidays,” said Frank Simon, NORAD/NORTHCOM section chief.
“After a certain time, about 10 p.m., both the aviation forecaster and aircraft operations go home, so the person working in the NORAD/NORTHCOM section is the only one in the building until someone comes back in at 5:30 in the morning.”
When Staff Sgt. Hiram Rivera, a weather technician, left a job at Walmart to enlist in the Air Force, he thought his graveyard shift days were behind him.
“I thought I was finished with working nights when I joined the Air Force,” Rivera said. “The hardest part is the change in sleep habits, but you just have to adjust. My kids also keep me busy at home. They don’t understand that I have to sleep when I get home.”
While the flight monitors Colorado’s winter weather, Staff Sgt. Zacharie Castro and Airman 1st Class Danielle Novotney are the on-duty command post controllers in the Peterson Installation Control Center. The center now serves as the command post for the active-duty 21st Space Wing and the Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Airlift Wing.
“The big thing with us, being space command, is we have units all over the world,” said Castro, a senior command post controller for the past five years. “When something’s important, we call the commanders to let them know so they have the situational awareness on what’s going on, and if something is important at one of the units that needs help right away, we can assist them in getting that help. Our biggest job here at night is being ready for (any crisis or emergency). We’ve got to be ready to take care of everything at the drop of a hat.”
The center operates on 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shifts, with two controllers on duty at all times. An emergency will make the center a hectic place to be, but there are also considerably quieter moments. Controllers spend that time studying many documents they need to remain proficient in their duties. They have to take a test monthly on emergency action plans, and a score below 90 is considered failing.
Novotney just arrived at Peterson and is becoming accustomed to working through the night. The shift gives her time for on-the-job training and studying.
Like the fire department and many other jobs on base that require staffing around-the-clock, the center has its busy moments and times when it’s slow enough to get caught up on other tasks like studying. Many aspects of the job are the same as the day shift. But something about working through the night and in the center is different.
“One of the things I like to say is when the rest of the base is working, we’re really working,” Castro said. “And when it’s quiet on base, it’s really quiet in here.”