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Face of Defense: Air Force’s Top Firefighter Retires

By John Burt
Air Force Civil Engineer Center

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., Jan. 2, 2013 – The Air Force's top firefighter has stepped down after 46 years of military and civilian service.

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Air Force firefighter Donald Warner pictured outside the fire station at Tan Sun Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam, in 1970. Courtesy photo

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Donald Warner, chief of the Fire Emergency Services Division in the Air Force Civil Engineer Center Readiness Directorate here retired on Dec. 29, 2012, ending a career in firefighting that has spanned six decades.

"When I enlisted in 1965, the Air Force chose the firefighting career field for me," Warner said. "They did a good job because I have loved it. I can't think of anything else I would have rather done."

Over his career, Warner has seen Air Force firefighting evolve and, as the Air Force Fire Chief for the past 11 years, he has helped guide many of those changes.

"Our career field has become more technical and our duty responsibilities have expanded tremendously," he said. "When I came in, we were almost exclusively crash-response firefighters. Now we are an all-hazards response force."

Warner said the principal call received by Air Force firefighters today is for emergency medical services response.

"We provide the first level of care typically on Air Force bases and have a lot of success stories," he said. "Our firefighters save about 30 people per year. I'm very proud of that."

The most apparent changes in Air Force firefighting have been technological advances in vehicles and equipment, Warner said. In the past, the Air Force only used firefighting vehicles specified and built for the military.

"They were very basic," he said. "We now buy commercial, off-the-shelf equipment. This change was a significant departure from our business practices of the past, but it enables us to keep up with technology and allows our firefighters to be more competitive and better prepared for a career after they leave the Air Force."

In overseeing Air Force fire department operations and about 10,000 airmen and civilian firefighters, Warner has faced numerous challenges. Key among these was addressing staffing requirements in the face of budget constraints.

"We had to dramatically change how we operated and were forced to make some tough decisions on the size of our total [firefighting] force," he said.

Warner and his team at AFCEC and major commands found that varying the number of firefighters on duty was the only means of achieving the manpower savings required -- making more firefighters available during higher risk periods and fewer firefighters at other times.

"We incorporated a risk management approach into our business to make certain our fire chiefs had the appropriate number of personnel according to local risk factors," he said.

Warner says one of the biggest advancements in vehicle and equipment modernization is the development of ultra-high pressure firefighting technology.

"With ultra-high pressure, we can put out fires using significantly less ... firefighting agent and sustain our firefighting operations longer," he said. "With conventional vehicles, we have about three minutes of firefighting time. UHP gives us three-and-a-half times that."

When fully fielded and trained, UHP will transform the way Air Force firefighters respond to crashes and will eventually change civil firefighting as well, the Air Force fire chief said.

One achievement that Warner said brought him personal satisfaction was garnering recognition for Department of Defense firefighters who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

"I was the catalyst for getting our military firefighters added to the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Emmitsburg, Md. Their omission had been a serious oversight and I was pleased to get that corrected," he said. "The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation went back and retroactively memorialized all DOD firefighters who had died in the line of duty since 1983. We have 13 on the memorial now, including an airman who was killed in the line of duty last year."

Warner said he retires with mixed emotions and many memories.

"There are things that a firefighter will never forget," he said. "It's a lifetime memory. I will miss the association with other firefighters. We have a good team. I won't miss, however, the heartbreak I feel every time we are unable to save someone. It is very emotional for me and all our firefighters. It's not just a number on a report, it represents a person."

The chief of the AFCEC Readiness Directorate said Warner leaves an indelible legacy.

"Mr. Warner has guided Air Force firefighting through significant changes," said Col. Mike Mendoza. "He has represented not only Air Force firefighters, but military firefighters with integrity, honor and dedication to service. He will be sorely missed."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDonald Warner, the chief of the Fire Emergency Services Division in the Air Force Civil Engineer Center Readiness Directorate, Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., retired Dec. 28, 2012, completing 46 years of military and civilian service as a firefighter. U.S. Air Force photo by Eddie Green  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageIn 1985, Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Donald Warner retired after 20 years of active duty service. Courtesy photo  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageIn 1965, at age 19, Air Force firefighter Donald Warner’s first duty station was Pope Air Force Base, N.C. Courtesy photo  
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