Iraqi firefighters at Baghdad airport get training from Guardsmen
BAGHDAD, Iraq — First steps are being taken at Baghdad International Airport so it can regain its place as the country’s commercial aviation hub. Exactly when civilian jets will land, however, is still up in the air.
In preparation for the day when the airport reopens to commercial traffic, two Air National Guard firefighters are retraining 85 of their Iraqi civilian counterparts in 10 days of hands-on training.
The experience of the Iraqi firefighters ranges from one to 26 years, said Staff Sgt. Clem McLaughlin, assigned to the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 111th Fighter Wing.
And although the students served as airport firefighters, they’ve got lot to relearn, McLaughlin said.
“Unfortunately, [there was] no hands-on training,” McLaughlin said. “Every one of these 40 hours is solid hands-on training. Everything we’re doing, we’re either demonstrating it or they’re touching it.
“Their prior experience they had pretty much all got from reading books, not even from a class.”
As Keith Wheatley, the airport’s acting fire chief, explained, “They know the layout, they know where the water sources are, they know the airfields, your runways, your taxiways.”
Some, however, do have previous schooling: They attended a civil aviation school in Lebanon in the 1980s. But none of the firefighters ever received further training, or even put their training into use.
“Some of the comments made to me by some of the Iraqi firefighters are that for 30 years under Saddam, no training and no equipment,” said Master Sgt. John Mallott of the Missouri ANG’s 131st Fighter Wing.
The fourth and final group of Iraqi firefighters started their refresher training this week. A team from South Carolina’s Shaw Air Force Base taught the first class, but Mallott and McLaughlin have taught the final three.
They train outside the airport’s main terminal, using abandoned Iraqi Airways jets as mobile classrooms.
McLaughlin and Mallott work with Raad al-Khalil, who will become airport fire chief when it returns to civilian control, to create the day’s training program.
“We’ll get together, lay out the program for the day and make sure Raad understands it,” McLaughlin said. “All John and I have to do is guide them through it.”
The instructors have a broad level of experience. McLaughlin is a captain with the Philadelphia Fire Department and served as a staff instructor with the Philadelphia Fire Academy.
Mallott has been the fire chief in Kennett, Mo., for 14 years. He also teaches firefighting skills to departments throughout the state for the University of Missouri.
“This is similar to working with a lot of small fire departments [in the United States] that have limited equipment,” Mallott said. “They have a desire and they have the zeal to become a professional firefighter for their community. I see that in the Iraqi firefighters.”
“We started off with an introduction to basic firefighting,” McLaughlin said after their second four-hour training session. “We rolled into crew drills here on the aircraft, where they learn fundamentals of aircraft construction, learn to gain access into aircraft, the various hazard areas of the aircraft.”
Parked around Baghdad’s terminal are about a half-dozen aircraft of the former Iraqi national airline, ranging from small jets to a 747. Wheatley said that the different aircraft types give the students a broad range of training scenarios.
“We’re going to pull the 747 and the IL-76 on the runway,” Wheatley said. “Set them babies up and bingo, we’re ready to go.”
Despite the benefit of real aircraft, the Iraqi firefighters were lacking in some basic firefighting equipment, Wheatley said.
“All the equipment down there was like 1940s vintage stuff,” he said. “Most of it went to the dump; pumps were blown, axles busted off. You name it, it was wrong.”
Wheatley works for Skylink, a company subcontracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development to rebuild Iraq’s airport infrastructure. For the Iraqi firefighters, this means new equipment and renovated facilities, plus a sense of pride.
“We’ve accomplished something,” McLaughlin said. “Personally, it’s seeing them regain their pride as firefighters. I feel good about interacting with the Iraqi firefighters and letting them know that Americans ... are coming here and helping them get on track.
“We’ve got good relations with the Air Force,” al-Khalil said. “Everybody is kind with us and this is good practice. It’s practical.”
The group will graduate Oct. 23.