Central American Firefighters: Prepared to Confront Regional Threats

Central American firefighters standardize knowledge and strengthen capabilities thanks to exercise CENTAM SMOKE.
Kay Valle/Diálogo | 15 May 2019

Capacity Building

Central American firefighters fight a fire in a helicopter simulator, as part of U.S. Southern Command-sponsored exercise CENTAM SMOKE 2019, conducted in early April. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Eric Summers, Jr.)

Central American firefighters demonstrated their capabilities during a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored exercise carried out through Joint Task Force-Bravo (JTF-Bravo). Firefighters put their skills to the test at Soto Cano Air Base, headquarters of JTF-Bravo in Comayagua, Honduras, on April 8-12, during the exercise Central America Sharing Mutual Operational Knowledge and Experiences (CENTAM SMOKE).

JTF-Bravo’s 612th Air Base Squadron Fire Department led the exercises that exposed participants to temperatures of more than 600 degrees Celsius. A total of 25 firefighters from Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras took part in the training.

CENTAM SMOKE seeks to reinforce regional firefighters’ capabilities through a series of difficult tests that put them through new scenarios. The exercise is also aimed at standardizing firefighting skills to respond jointly to natural disasters.

“We do CENTAM SMOKE to share experiences between firefighters in the firefighting profession. We hone our skills and continue building the bond between us and our partner nations,” U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Troy Romans, 612th Air Base Squadron assistant chief of training, told Diálogo. “Standardizing the practices is important because it helps make a seamless integration. We learn the practices and the different techniques that we both [U.S. and partner nation firefighters] can provide to give a better service to the community.”

Tests and competitions

The training included security measure instructions, proper use of breathing equipment and personal protection, and the use of hoses prior to the start of live fire exercises. Together, firefighters engaged in different fire fighting scenarios, including wild fires, a new activity.

“Last year for CENTAM18 was the first time we ever did the wildland,” said Master Sgt. Romans. “That was from some of the feedback we had gotten from some of the participants and something that we saw as a need because all of them have that threat.” 

The exercise also included a competition aimed at promoting a spirit of camaraderie and cooperation. Participants created different teams and faced tests, such as vehicle extrication and rescue (with a dummy), obstacle course, and sledgehammer competitions, among others.

Participants also learned about the Bambi Bucket system to extinguish fires with helicopters. For his part, Master Sgt. Romans highlighted the importance of one exercise in particular—aircraft fires.

Central American firefighters work to contain a wildland fire, one of the challenges of exercise CENTAM SMOKE 2019. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Eric Summers, Jr.)

“Most of these countries do not have an aircraft fire trainer unit, so most of them have never seen one,” said the officer. “Hopefully they can take back to their home units and spread the information and skills we’ve taught and used.”

Mutual benefits

For Alejandra Antillón, Incident Command System officer at the Guatemalan National Coordination System for Disaster Reduction (CONRED, in Spanish), responsible for firefighter and rescue teams in the country, the exercise was a success. Her participation, she added, was a great personal opportunity as the first woman from CONRED to join the exercise.

“This is a great experience, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity. Now we know how [others] work in the region. It will make work easier when real situations arise,” Antillón told Diálogo. “Of the techniques, with vehicle extrication, I learned some positions different from what we use.”

Oscar Humberto Pérez Gutiérrez, Rescue and Firefighting team supervisor at El Salvador International Airport, took part in the exercise for the second time. For Pérez, who also faced CENTAM SMOKE challenges in 2015, the 2019 edition offered new knowledge.

“There are new techniques every day; we take them to our country and put them into practice,” Pérez told Diálogo. “As for wild fires, we learned to take wind into consideration, to work with the wind in our favor, and encircle the burning area.”

Thankful for a second chance, Pérez agreed with Antillón on the importance of standardizing techniques. “Every country has its own way of working; we use different names for tools, so it’s important to standardize terminology,” he said.

Learning was mutual, said U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Michael Ott, deputy fire chief, 612th Air Base Squadron. “They are showing us some really neat things too, because they are using very rudimentary and hands-on equipment versus our technically advanced hydraulic equipment, and they are showing us some fantastic ways to get into vehicles when we don’t have our high-tech tools.”

The exercise started in 2005 as a quarterly training between JTF-Bravo firefighters and their Honduran counterparts. In 2010, the training extended to the region, with the participation of Guatemalan firefighters. Held biannually since 2014, more than 800 Central American firefighters have benefited from CENTAM SMOKE.

“The greatest benefit for me is the experience of bringing all of these guys together,” Master Sgt. Romans concluded. “Bringing all these different countries together to do this is the greatest benefit, seeing these different cultures and how they react with emergency situations.”

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