The role of the RAF Fire Service (RAFFS) at Camp Bastion, the main UK base in Helmand province, goes far beyond that which is expected in normal UK operations.
The RAFFS forms part of 903 Expeditionary Air Wing which is responsible for managing airfield operations at Camp Bastion.
The main role of the RAFFS at Bastion is to provide fire and rescue services in response to any aircraft incident on the airfield. If an aircraft returns to Camp Bastion with an emergency the RAFFS will rapidly deploy to a pre-planned point on the airfield and wait for the aircraft to land.
As soon as the aircraft lands the crew commander will take control of the situation and will decide what response, if any, is required.
Corporal Pete Lloyd recalled one occasion when they were called to an incident involving a US Marine Corps CH-53 helicopter:
We watched the CH-53 land, and as soon as it touched down the loadmaster stepped off the back ramp, dropped to his knees and kissed the ground,” he said.
From his first day of a four-month deployment the Blue Watch Crew Commander, Sergeant Alex Wiggin, knew this was going to be no ordinary tour. He said:
Having been on duty for just a few hours on our first shift our Immediate Response Team [IRT] got the shout to help assist in the recovery of a Danish vehicle which had suffered an IED [improvised explosive device] strike.
The RAFFS IRT consists of three highly skilled firefighters, carrying specialist rescue equipment, who are ready to board the Medical Emergency Response Team Chinook helicopter within 15 minutes of receiving the call.
In September 2010 Corporal Ricky Carlisle and the IRT were called to a similar incident involving a British armoured vehicle:
We got the shout and even though only three of us would be deploying the whole of Blue Watch worked as a team to get the kit ready,” he explained. “Some people were filling up our water bottles, some were getting the cutting gear together whilst we sorted out our own personal kit.
On the short flight to the scene the RAF Regiment Section Commander briefed them on the situation they were going into:
He told us we might be going in under enemy fire so he and his troops would be getting off first to provide protection. As soon as the area was secure we moved to the incident site,” Cpl Carlisle added.
After assessing and making the scene safe, two US medical evacuation helicopters were called to return the casualties from the incident back to Camp Bastion.
Cpl Carlisle described how they were briefed that the casualties would be going on the first aircraft and he and his team would be going on the second.
Unfortunately, only one helicopter landed before they both departed at high speed for Camp Bastion. Cpl Carlisle said he remembers the Army Sergeant Major coming over to them and saying:
Do you want the bad news or the bad news? You’re staying!
The vehicle was lying in a ditch on its side and would need to be recovered back to a friendly base in the area to stop it falling into insurgent hands. Cpl Carlisle and his team worked side by side with the Army’s Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers to help prepare the vehicle for transit.
Senior Aircraftman Arron Chaplain explained:
The wheels on the vehicle wouldn’t turn so we had to cut the axle. It was an Army vehicle and they knew it inside out so we lent the engineers our cutting gear and helped where we could.
Having only expected to be on the ground for a couple of hours the IRT were airlifted back to Camp Bastion by Merlin helicopter seven hours after first arriving at the scene:
The first thing we did was get some food down us while the rest of Blue Watch prepared our kit for the next shout,” said Senior Aircraftman Richard Stevenson.
A more unusual incident in which the RAFFS was required to assist was when a local Afghan fuel tanker caught fire and exploded some distance from Camp Bastion.
Senior Aircraftman Mark Orr was flown to the scene in order to provide advice to the Army commander on the ground. He took with him a special thermal imaging camera that is used to detect hot-spots where the fire is likely to flare up again.
This kind of expert advice is also offered through the Forward Fire Safety Team who deploy to the forward operating bases and patrol bases in Helmand to provide troops on the ground with guidance and instruction on fire prevention.
The RAFFS also provides domestic fire cover for the entire Camp Bastion site. Housing anything upwards of fifteen thousand personnel and covering an area of 67 square kilometres, this is no mean feat.
To help in this task the RAF work side by side with their colleagues from the United States Marine Corps (USMC) Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Service.
When responding to an incident, a firefighting vehicle from the USMC will deploy in tandem with the RAFFS.
Crew Commander Staff Sergeant Matthew Wilson USMC said:
This is a unique opportunity for us and we really enjoy seeing how other services work.
The RAFFS in Afghanistan performs a highly skilled, varied and vital role in support of operations. Sgt Wiggin explained:
We’re privileged to be here doing this job. Whether we’re on a shout to help carry stretchers off the back of a helicopter or whether we’re out on the ground doing the job, we’re just a small part of the chain.