Up All Night

The base is predictably quiet at night, but work continues

By Randy Roughton

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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.”

8 thoughts on “Up All Night

  1. A nice article. It would have been nicer had you done a more exhaustive article on all the afsc’s on a base that work the night shift.

  2. I very much enjoyed the article…however I would like to see an in-depth article about USAF Firefighters…from tech school to full fledge firefighters at different bases here & overseas. As an Air Force vet & firefighter I served at GFAFB & RAF Alconbury from 73′ to 77′ and I’d be very interested as to what is going on now with the fine men & women of USAF Fire Protection. Thanks!

  3. Being both ex-USAF (1976-1982) and a retired Assistant Chief with the Boyd, Tx Fire Dept, I take great pride in saying “Been there, done that.”
    As a USAF crew chief, I can’t honestly remember what the flightline looked like in the daytime. I was either swings or mids.
    As a firefighter, I learned just how long you can go without sleep. Our shifts were 24 on/24 on call/24 off. It could get brutal in Texas during brushfire season.
    I agree with both Jack Driggers and Art Bailey: Do something in-depth on USAF Firefighters.

    • I also served as a fire fighter in the Air Force from 1968-1972. I can honestly say I enjoyed each and everyday of my career. I’d also like to see an article on the Fire Fighters of today compaired to when I served. After leaving the Air Force I joined the Fire Dept here in Columbus Ohio and retired as a Captain after another 25 years. My time there was between engine company work, heavy rescue and ladder company work. My true love was always ladder company work. Our average runs per day on a ladder was between 12 and 15 runs per day, compair that with the size of Columbus Ohio and an average size Air Force base the run percentage is close to equal.
      I have all the respect for the guys and gals serving today that are caring on our tradition. Way to go Airmen.
      The equipment of today compaired to when I served is amazing. I’m glad to see the are getting the tools needed to fire fires the way it ought to be done.
      Nice story, thanks for posting it. Stay safe guys.

  4. I agree with Jack Driggers. It would have been nice to read about fellow Airman working shift work. Particularly our intel folks. Some of them work 12+ hour shifts and frequently switch from days to nights a few times a month, for months on end. It’s exhaustive.

  5. I spent many long midnight shifts at Luke AFB. I wonder if the AF Reserve flightline area is still referred to as “Sleepy Hollow”?

    56th SPS (1994-1997)

  6. I agree with Jack Driggers would be nice for people to see the AF doesnt just revolve around the “glamorous picture worthy jobs” What about your Security Forces or Services folks????