Joe Ruane MSc EngTech FIFireE CFO(D)

john-ruaneLocation: Alconbury Fire Department, Cambridgeshire

Organisation: Defence Fire Risk Management Organisation (DFRMO)

University of Central Lancashire − Fire Safety Studies
University of Leeds − MSc Fire and Explosion Engineering
United States Air Force Air University − Incident Command
The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst − Professionally Qualified Officer
Institution of Fire Engineers − Fellow
Register of Fire Risk Assessors and Auditors − Life Safety Risk Assessor
Institution of Fire Engineers Engineering Registrants Group

“We were about 200-300 metres from the point of impact,” USAF Fire Chief Joe Ruane tells IFP as he recalls a hair-raising incident from his 2007 tour of duty in Basra, Iraq. “It was a multiple rocket attack: we heard rockets screaming overhead and we had hit the floor and could hear the rockets crunching into the ground.” 

Such attacks were common place during that period, Joe recalls, with the DFRMO (DFRMO includes civilian Defence Fire and Rescue Service, contract fire and rescue services, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy military firefighters) often caught in the thick of the action. “That tour of duty in 2007 was unbelievable – the level of action – you’d have to have been there to understand.”

The DFRMO had Immediate Response Teams and FRS cover based across Southern Iraq providing ship firefighting and rescue cover at Umm Qsar dockyard. This was in the middle of what Joe describes as a “very, very busy period” consisting of “somewhere in the region of around 40 attacks a day, from one to 20 mortars and rockets for every attack.”

This was a particularly violent assault which saw Joe’s fire crew right in the firing line. “There were a number of damaged assets and a couple of guys who were seriously injured.” As the smoke and dust plumes rose, Joe had the difficult task of asking his two young firefighters – both on their first tour of duty – if they would respond as the attack continued. “I said to them: ‘I can’t make you go’, but we all knew that there would be casualties and the smoke and dust plume was rising. They both said ‘yes’ straight away.” 

The two young firefighters (David Black and Ben Houlston) received Chief Officer Commendations for their actions. Joe referred to their response as a “highly calculated risk in very hostile conditions, but we needed to act quickly and decisively as we knew there would be casualties.” 

The fire crew completed fire safety inspections at the Contingency Operating Base in Basra in between calls and their ship firefighting duties at Umm Qsar dockyard. Joe took the fire crew to visit some of his old mates from the Second Battalion Duke of Lancaster Regiment. “Sadly, the Regiment lost some great soldiers on that tour.”

A Military Life
Joe left school at 16 to join the Army at the Infantry Junior Leaders Battalion in Shorncliffe, Kent. On completion of his one-year Infantry training, Joe joined his Regiment and served in Northern Ireland, Falklands Islands, South Georgia, Sicily, Kenya, Berlin, Austria and West Germany. On leaving the Army, Joe joined the MoD Fire and Rescue Service and was posted to the United States Air Force at Alconbury, Cambridgeshire. 

Joe worked alongside USAF military firefighters and gained promotion to Sub Officer in five years and qualified to Station Officer the following year, a rapid progression he credits to his US colleagues. “The USAF firefighters and fire officers gave me plenty of opportunity to develop myself. I’d just left the Army, keen as mustard, still in my 20s, and was given a free reign to develop my career.”

Following four years as an instructor at the Defence Fire Training and Development Centre at Manston in Kent, Joe was posted as Fire Station Commander to 2 and 7 Regiments Army Air Corps in Hampshire and Wiltshire respectively, and undertook tours of duty in Bosnia-In- Herzegovina, Kosovo and Iraq.

Following a one-year temporary promotion to Assistant Divisional Officer at the Army’s 4th Division Headquarters in Aldershot, Joe returned to the USAF at Alconbury in 2008 as a Group Manager. Joe had been at Alconbury for only two months before deploying to Afghanistan as the Theatre Fire Officer. “Afghanistan was extremely busy which included a wide range of duties. I worked within a multi-disciplinary team of engineers with responsibilities for fire safety design, fire investigations, inspections and audits across the country.”

Joe recalled a particular serious fire incident which he investigated at a local Afghan-owned fuel depot in Kandahar in which one Afghan employee was killed, 25 fuel tankers and a number of buildings completely destroyed and 500,000 litres of fuel was lost. “A faulty fuel pump ignited the clothing of an employee that was in close proximity during a fuel tanker transfer. The fuel hoses became dislodged which led to a running fuel fire that quickly developed, involving adjacent fuel tankers.”

The Special Relationship
On his return to Alconbury, he had to retrain in the USA Fire Administration system as the USA Fire Service equivalent rank to a UK Group Manager – a Deputy Fire Chief. “There was a very high training demand and I completed a four-year development programme. I spent time with Marble Falls and Austin City fire departments in Texas to get advanced fire officer training on the US side. Then I went to the USAF Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, to receive training in the Air Force and the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, which is the USA Department of Defence Fire Academy. “All of the DFRMO firefighters at Alconbury and Molesworth fire stations are highly trained in UK and USA systems and we implement the US incident command system.” 

The 94 fire department personnel at Alconbury are broken down into US Department of Defence civilians, MoD civil servants and “the other 84 staff is DFRMO. We are currently recruiting Local National Direct Hire (LNDH) staff outside of the MoD. The future workforce will consist of US civilians, MoD civil servants, DFRMO firefighters, plus LNDH firefighters operating at two 24/7 fire stations on eight different shift patterns.

“Our constant is change, and the whole workforce excels in providing innovative solutions to address anything from achieving the most economical means of levels of cover (multiple shift patterns) to reducing our carbon footprint including fire appliance movements to our utility consumption. They are a great, highly motivated and professional workforce.” 

The cross-country staffing makes for an interesting combination: all of the 12 response vehicles and equipment are US-based, whilst the majority of the operational responders are from Britain. Six of the response vehicles, plus the incident command vehicles are staffed 24/7 with a watch on duty at each fire station of 12 staff during the higher risk periods. “Each fire station crews two frontline appliances, plus a rescue vehicle, which is jump crewed with a water carrier. Our incident command model is the USA National Incident Management System.”

Top Class Fire Rescue and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Response Cover
A tour of the fire department proves impressive. The equipment on display and skill-set of the firefighters is exceptional, with operational staff providing a full range of trauma and emergency medical services, as well as technical rescue provision and fully trained hazmat technicians. Indeed the rescue vehicle and EMTs had just returned from an emergency medical incident.  Constant training and regular large-scale exercises, such as the fire department’s last multi- agency major exercise in April, on top of regular call-outs, ensures the operational expertise is as good as anywhere in the country, if not the world. 

The US/UK relationship is pivotal and there is mutual appreciation and respect, verified by Joe’s line manager, Lt Colonel Eric Fajardo, the Base Civil Engineer. Lt Col Fajardo is keen to praise the firefighters and the Fire Department. It is a tried and tested formula that works very well. “The USAF appreciates the full range of services that we deliver. Ninety-three per cent of all staff are US qualified, role specific, so we’ve got employees who have gone through the whole remit of fire and rescue service training in the UK and the US. The relationship is extremely strong. I witness it every day. The USAF supports us and we give outstanding support to the community and the mission.”

Joe ends by stating: “I would have been unable to provide the service without the unwavering support from my wife Lorraine and their three children, Aimee, Elizabeth and Charlotte, who have constantly supported me throughout my career.”