CAMP ZAMA, Japan -- For decades, the sounds of military family life at Camp Zama reverberated within the walls of 1078 MacArthur Drive, but March 26 through 28, firefighters took over the now-uninhabited home and filled it with sounds of hope for earthquake victims.
In this case, that meant the sounds of drills and saws creating holes in concrete walls and ceilings.
U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force firefighters from throughout Japan and Okinawa gathered at Camp Zama for the 33rd annual U.S. Forces Japan Fire Officers Association Training Symposium, which featured a hands-on training scenario where firefighters had to reach earthquake victims inside a collapsed building.
Firefighters spent the first two days creating holes in concrete walls and ceilings and practicing sending firefighters through the holes to reach rescue dummies. The fire chiefs and other administrators, meanwhile, discussed the latest ways to improve fire protection, and on the last day, attended a demonstration of the training.
The demonstration showed how rescuers would first drill a small hole in the floor and place a special video camera through it to check on an earthquake victim; use a device to check the air quality below; cut a larger hole through the floor with saws and drills; send firefighters through the floor; and bring the victim up through the floor and out of the building for medical care. A firefighter videotaped the demonstration inside the building and it played live on a screen outside.
Frank Wombwell, regional fire chief, U.S. Army Garrison Japan Fire and Emergency Services, said the symposium was a great way for firefighters from all four branches of the service to get together and learn from one another.
"The relationship we have with the other branches of the service, it really needs to be there," Wombwell said. "We need to see what's going on with the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Air Force and then in turn, they see what's going on with the Army."
Yuhei Hino, regional training officer, Fire and Emergency Services, U.S. Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan, said firefighters cannot perform their jobs to the best of their abilities if they are not all in sync during an emergency situation.
"So events like today's are a great opportunity for us firefighters to get to know each other and establish relationships with the other sister services," Hino said. "From there, hopefully we'll able to exchange techniques and skills so that each organization will be prepared for any emergency."
Wombwell said this was the first time in 14 years that Camp Zama had hosted the symposium, and that meant many of the installation's firefighters could participate.
One of them was Tetsuya Hamada, fire crew chief for Engine 1, Fire and Emergency Services, USAG Japan, and he said the training inspired him for rescue missions.
"One of the other firefighters told me that our job does not end when we make a hole in the wall," Hamada said. "He said our job ends when we perform all the necessary operations in order to rescue someone in need. That resonated with me."
Most of the firefighters at U.S. military bases in Japan are local nationals, and this was the first year that U.S. service members participated in the training, said Staff Sgt. Rico Blas Castro, assigned to the 374th Civil Engineering Squadron at Yokota Air Base, and one of the three U.S. service members who participated.
Blas Castro served as the training's incident commander and said he learned a lot from the local-national firefighters during the training.
"It was great partnering with them and to learn their rescue skills to build our rescue skills," Blas Castro said. "If a disaster does happen, I have full confidence in all of them and all of us that we'll be able to work together."
Senior Airman James Butler, also assigned to the 374th CES at Yokota, said he learned the fundamentals of cutting through concrete; the ropes and knots necessary for rescues; and how to get people out of harsh conditions.
"I know I can take this knowledge and bring it back with me and teach some of the guys so we can have some of the same wherewithal on how to do stuff and day-to-day operations as far as rescue operations like this," Butler said. "That way we're all on the same page as far as rescue, so it's great."
Col. Phillip Gage, commander of USAG Japan, and USAG Japan Command Sgt. Maj. Billy Norman visited the symposium on its first day and welcomed the nearly 100 participants.
Gage, who noted a building fire took place on Camp Zama in November 2018, thanked the firefighters for their dedication to the mission.
"Because of our fire department and also our local-national fire departments outside the gate--due to their professionalism--they saved the building very quickly and everyone was safe, so your training does pay off," Gage said.