The PFAS Project Lab

Studying Social, Scientific, and Political Factors of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances

The Air Force and AFFF Training: A Photo Series

Brad Creacey served as a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force from 1974 to 1985 and then as a civilian airport firefighter from 1986 to 2001. He photographed this striking series at Hahn (1977) and Sembach (1984) Air Bases in Germany. Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) containing PFAS was used in military firefighter training exercises to extinguish fires that were intentionally ignited in pits. Brad came across the PFAS Project website while researching the connection between PFAS exposure and thyroid cancer, and has kindly shared his photos with us to educate others.

This pit was lined with concrete, filled with crushed rock, and had a piping system that would allow Air Force firefighters to pump contaminated JP-4 jet fuel from a fuel truck if needed. On this day, they prepped the pit by spraying water into it so that the fuel would remain on the surface, a usual step for most training fires throughout Creacey’s career. The fuel they burned for this fire came from two bowsers, or trailers, that contained 500 gallons and 250 gallons of fuel, respectively.

The first 18 photos depict a pitfire at Hahn Air Base, where two members of Creacey’s department had made a bet with the fire chief that they could extinguish a pitfure of at least 750 gallons of fuel within 30 seconds using only the roof turret of the P-4. The chief agreed and offered an extra day off, known as a “Kelly day” for the New York fire chief who developed it, if they succeeded.

The suits firefighters wore were called “silvers.” They are made with several different layers of material that include a PFOA water and vapor barrier, much like the Tyvex wrapping around houses that are built today. The outer shell is aluminized nomex, and the hood has a gold foil-covered face shield to effectively reflect the heat. These silvers are known as “proximity suits” in that they are meant to be worn near but not into a fire. 

The final four photos depict a pit fire at Sembach Air Base where none of the firefighters wore self contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA), which filter air but do not contain a supply of oxygen. At the time, the firefighters mistakenly assumed staying upwind of the smoke would sufficiently protect them from the harms of smoke inhalation as they trained. 

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