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Team V unit 'fired up' about AF award

Seth Wells rappels a stretcher with Staff Sgt. Kaohilii Romualdo inside during the Rescue Technician course at Space Launch Complex-4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base May 11. The course helps familiarize the 30th Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter students with advanced rescue techniques. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kristi Emler)

Seth Wells rappels a stretcher with Staff Sgt. Kaohilii Romualdo inside during the Rescue Technician course at Space Launch Complex-4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base May 11, 2007. The course helps familiarize the 30th Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter students with advanced rescue techniques. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kristi Emler)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Marissa Halbeisen, a firefighter with Vandenberg Air Force Base 30th Civil Engineer Squadron, sprays the ground with fire retardant to prevent it from reigniting.  The VAFB firefighters support the local community by helping fight the Santa Barbara wildland fires.  Team V firefighters are the only firefighters in the Air Force trained for wildland fires.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Andrew Lee)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Marissa Halbeisen, a firefighter with Vandenberg Air Force Base 30th Civil Engineer Squadron, sprays the ground with fire retardant to prevent it from reigniting. The VAFB firefighters support the local community by helping fight the Santa Barbara wildland fires. Team V firefighters are the only firefighters in the Air Force trained for wildland fires. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Andrew Lee)

Vandenberg's Fire and Emergency Services flight practice rappeling a stretcher during the Rescue Technician course at Space Launch Complex-4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base May 11.  The course helps familiarize the 30th Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter students with advanced rescue techniques. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kristi Emler)

Vandenberg's Fire and Emergency Services flight practice rappeling a stretcher during the Rescue Technician course at Space Launch Complex-4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base May 11, 2007. The course helps familiarize the 30th Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter students with advanced rescue techniques. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kristi Emler)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The 30th Civil Engineer Squadron fire department was selected as the best in the Air Force, in the large-base category.

This is the third win for the fire department since 2003; each year's winner is not eligible for the honor the following year.

Being selected for this award came on top of a year full of honors: the best civilian manager in the 14th Air Force, Department of Defense Fire Officer of the year, the Department of Defense Fire Fighter of the Year, as well as two Department of Defense Heroism Award winners for a daring cliff-side rescue.

Even with all these accomplishments, there were many challenges. The fire department had 20 retirements in 18 months, constant deployments, a force reduction of 15, not to mention getting the job done with 40 percent of their force being 3-levels and cross-trainees.

"It was a challenging year to be sure, but so is every year," said Fire Chief Mark Farias. "The only way to achieve a level of greatness in this type of environment is to do things that defy convention."

In fact, a sign hanging above a doorway in Fire Station 2 says, "Warning: Innovation in Progress. This is their motto.

"The rules of conformity have been duly noted...and ignored. We took our time to design an organization that doesn't fit in," Chief Farias said. "Some organizations yield to limits ... we push them. It's in our blood, it's in our DNA, and it's in everything we do. The same spirit of independence that drives us today is also the source that blazes new trails ... for all others to follow.

"Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology," he said. "It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage. This is what it's all about in our organization ... teamwork. This advantage has led us to win more MAJCOM, Air Force and DoD level awards in the last 10 years than any department in history."

Trailblazing is the theme here. The fire department has taken the lead on many projects, such as a two-day interactive Kids Camp, where they teach children about fire safety; a firefighter trading card set for kids, which also has fire safety tips on the back; a motorcycle run to raise money to buy care packages for deployed Airmen; and the Fire Fighter Challenge during Fire Prevention Week, in which Team Vandenberg gets a chance to compete in firemen-style training.

The leadership at the fire department here also created the Vandenberg Fire University, an intense and unconventional 12-month firefighter and fire officer leadership development program.

"We not only define leadership; we also operationalize it," Chief Farias said. "We lay out the roadmap by which we model it, teach it, expect it and reward it."

In order to make these innovations work, it takes a close-knit team. That's another focus of the Vandenberg fire department - not just being coworkers, but being a family.

"To win, it takes a family, it takes hard work," said Senior Master Sgt. Clemente Marrero, the 30th CES fire department risk management division chief. "With us ... it's all about people. You train them and take care of them, and they'll take care of the mission. That's something we in the department are big about."

Instilling that family mentality means working together and playing together. Through their 24-hour shifts, the fire fighters not only get the job done, they have dinner together and have other team functions. Also, the fire chief ensures that he spends time with each Airman and civilian so they can get to know each other and better understand the mission: "Serve - Save - Survive"

"The fire chief intimately cares about each fire fighter," Sergeant Marrero said. "That's ingrained in every single chief officer in this department. We all have the same care for the guys. That's the family environment we're trying to instill. In our department, we don't just have an open door policy, we have an open mind policy."

While this "family's" innovation may be their key to success, the job of a fire fighter always comes down to one thing: making a difference on the front lines ... one call at a time.

"That's what we do," Sergeant Marrero said. "But we do it better than everybody else."