Cheyenne Mountain firefighters face unique challenges

Firefighters at Cheyenne Mountain AFS rescue a man with a broken hip off the roof of a building. The man broke his hip while working on the roof in winds up to 75 mph. Cheyenne Mountain’s fire department often responds to calls related to the mountain’s erratic weather, from high winds to large snow storms. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Firefighters at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colo., rescue a man with a broken hip off the roof of a building. The man broke his hip while working on the roof in winds up to 75 mph. Cheyenne Mountain’s fire department often responds to calls related to the mountain’s erratic weather, from high winds to large snow storms. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Firefighters at Cheyenne Mountain AFS perform practice rescues on a steep hill. Firefighters on the mountain must stay in top physical condition to complete their everyday tasks, which can range from rappelling down steep ravines during rescues to running to the scene of a fire – all at an altitude of more than 7,000 feet. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Firefighters at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colo., perform practice rescues on a steep hill. Firefighters on the mountain must stay in top physical condition to complete their everyday tasks, which can range from rappelling down steep ravines during rescues to running to the scene of a fire -- all at an altitude of more than 7,000 feet. (U.S. Air Force photo)

PETERSON AFB, Colo. -- When the fire alarm rings at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, the firefighters there - just like any other fire department - spring into action.

There's lots of scrambling to strap on gear, rushing to grab air packs and other materials.

But, instead of hopping on a shiny red fire engine once they're ready, the firefighters with the 721st Mission Support Group at CMAFS simply start running. Inside a five-acre mountain compound, there's little room for luxuries like fire trucks.

"You put your gear on and pack it over to the fire," said Marshall Munger, a firefighter at Cheyenne Mountain for the last five years. "Then you just hope you're not winded by the time you get there."

Racing - literally - to fires is just one of many unique challenges Cheyenne Mountain firefighters face on the job. In charge of helping secure the nation's space intelligence hub, the 22-man, all-civilian department has to be prepared for anything - from electronics bursting into flames to high-altitude rescues - even burnt popcorn.

"We're just like any other fire department; we do all of the same things," said Chris Miller, Cheyenne Mountain's fire chief. "We're just operating in a different environment."

The department's unique coverage area includes all of the areas inside and outside the blast doors at the station, all of NORAD road, portions of Highway 115 and parts of Cheyenne Mountain State Park - all areas that can prove challenging for firefighters.

Inside the compound, firefighters have the most difficulty with smoke. With nowhere for fumes and smoke to go inside the mountain, the fire department has to coordinate with the station's civil engineers to turn on vents near the fire to funnel the smoke out. The process is fairly quick, but the few minutes until the vents kick on can be tough, Mr. Miller said.

With a fire outside, the smoke goes up into the air and blows away," he said. "That doesn't happen here. When we get there, we know it's going to be hot and it's going to be really smoky."

But getting there can be a challenge in itself. Besides running with their gear on, the firefighters must also navigate the labyrinth that makes up the inside of the compound. New recruits can take months to find their way around, Mr. Miller said.

"The biggest misconception is that we're inside and it's not that large," he said. "Really, it's a maze here."

Once firefighters find their way around inside, more challenges await outside the compound. Nestled at just over 7,000 feet, the station is surrounded by steep, mountainous terrain that makes training in rappelling and climbing a necessity for the fire team. The skills come in handy during the winter, when snowstorms can turn NORAD road into a treacherous slip-and-slide for drivers.

"The snow gets pretty heavy up here," Mr. Miller said. "We have a great contractor that clears the road, but sometimes, it's coming down so fast, nothing helps. Drivers will just be going along, hit a patch of ice and they're in a ravine."

Fortunately, however, most of the department's time is spent handling calls that don't require extraordinary rescue techniques. Old electronics can catch fire; visitors from lower states need medical attention for altitude sickness; once, a woman went into labor in the dining facility.

"Some of the most common calls we get are about burnt popcorn," Mr. Miller said. "You know - people putting a bag in for 20 minutes instead of just hitting the 'Popcorn' button."

But whether they're pulling injured drivers out of ravines or just extinguishing a microwave fire, the station's firefighters say there's never a dull day on the job, considering where they work.

"In 23 years as a federal firefighter, I can safely say it's unique," Mr. Munger said. "Once, I got to drive a fire truck from one end of the tunnel to the other. I'm thinking, 'How many people have actually gotten to do that?' It's a neat place to work."