On November 13, 2008, NASA White Sands Test Facility's Emergency Services assisted with extinguishing a large commercial structure fire that had started in the Aldershot Nursery south of Las Cruces. The fire, caused by a welder's spark catching some of the building's insulation on fire, destroyed the nursery's offices and its records in the flames.
White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) is a remote, self-contained site located near the western slope of the San Augustine Mountains and is situated on the very edge of the White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces. The facility tests for rocket engine firings, component compatibility for space flight, and conducts various other tests for NASA, government agencies, and private industry.
As things will happen during intense situations, the Aldershot Nursery fire grew to such magnitude that the one ladder truck on scene simply could not keep up with the blaze. The ladder trucks of the Las Cruces Fire Department were unavailable to respond. Therefore, NASA WSTF received a call for help and then responded with their ladder truck. The response effort took a total of 7 1/2 hours for the ladder truck and personnel fighting the fire. Art Baca and Isaac Maese of the NASA Fire Department answered the call.
Aldershot Nursery is a 127,000 sq. ft. building located just south of the Las Cruces city limits, in the South Valley Volunteer Fire District. The fire started in a corner of the building where the offices are located and continued to burn into the roof. Along with the NASA WSTF Fire Department, eight other departments responded to the Aldershot Nursery fire: South Valley, Mesquite, West Valley, Canutillo, NMSU, Chamberino, City of Las Cruces, and La Union. The problem encountered dousing the fire was the lack of a secure water supply.
"We use our ladder to determine the stability of the roof. We try to determine if the building is safe for the firefighters attacking the fire. We used the ladder truck to access the roof and recon the building for structural damage," said WSTF Deputy Fire Chief Dennis Pacheco.
Because of the need for its resources, NASA WSTF has historically maintained a relationship of mutual aid with emergency services for the City, County, and White Sands Missile Range. The test facility was established by NASA in 1962 and the construction of the site was finished in 1964.
[image-78]"The reasons we have for mutual aid is that it works well in this area. We are a network of entities and we know each other well enough to work on a fire scene together without conflict," said WSTF Fire Chief Thomas Jones. Chief Jones has worked 23 years with the City of Las Cruces and is continuing his career at the test facility.
"We train together in a lot of different classes and make every effort to respond with the same level of training," continued Chief Jones. "For example, if we have an Emergency Medical Technician training class here at the test facility and we have some open seats, we offer those seats to our mutual aid departments."
"It's reciprocal," said Deputy Chief Pacheco. "If they have open seats, they will also call us. We never know when we will need their help."
A benefit of the training for Protective Services includes learning to do a job more efficiently, which may also mean that structures and people have less of a traumatic time during and after a fire.
"We limit damage as best we can," said Deputy Chief Pacheco. "Aldershot Nursery never had to close the business; they were able to stay open, due largely to our training and experience."
Chief Jones and Deputy Chief Pacheco have closely similar career paths. "We are from the same fire academy and are 23-year veterans of the Las Cruces Fire Department, and we have worked at White Sands Test Facility for the past 6 years," said Pacheco, with a grin.
"We have made a lot of acquaintances in this career path," said Chief Jones, "and we actually trust each other with our lives. In this job, we are together 24 hours a day, side by side. The ultimate risk is always there, so we have to get along with each other and learn to trust each other…on and off duty. The Fire Department is called 'The Brotherhood' for a reason. We go to each other's weddings, birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries. We are privileged to have an 'extended family' apart from the families we have at home."
[image-94]"Here at White Sands, where there are dangerous hazards, our coworkers depend upon us to protect them," said Deputy Chief Pacheco. "We also have to depend upon the help of our mutual aid departments in times of need."
A recent morning incident at WSTF, when gas monitors showed active toxic fuel readings, is a case in point. "Firefighters responded to the incident and mitigated the situation. We are entrusted with taking care of lives, property, and our environment. After all was said and done, it was determined that there was not an actual leak, but the monitors used by initial personnel had malfunctioned. As a precaution, the initial responders were directed to the clinic to be checked out. We followed every safety precaution and procedure and treated the incident as if it were an actual leak," said Deputy Chief Pacheco.
"In Emergency Services, being part of such a family requires a lot more than just being a firefighter. Our firefighters are all well aware that their lives depend upon the levels of training, responsibilities, and commitment they possess," said Pacheco.
"We want to let everyone know how much we appreciate the site's support of the firefighters and the work we do," said Chief Jones.
Cheerie R. Patneaude
NASA JSC White Sands Test Facility