JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
One of the highest honors a military firefighter can receive is induction into the Military Firefighter Heritage Hall of Fame. Only a few are inducted each year; this year, there are four, and one is JBER Fire Chief David Donan.
Donan has served as JBER’s fire chief since 2008, after he retired from 25 years in the active-duty Air Force and his position as Pacific Air Forces fire chief.
After being nominated for the honor by Fire Chief Kevin Smith of Beale Air Force Base, California, his packet was reviewed and selected.
One of the other honorees, Fire Chief John Thompson of the 86th Civil Engineer Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, was a good friend of Donan’s when they were enlisted.
“The neatest thing about the recognition is going in with John Thompson; we’ve always stayed close,” Donan said. “We were senior airmen and buck sergeants together back in the day, in the mid ‘80s, at Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois. To be nominated and inducted the same year is incredible; we stay in contact almost daily and have for years.
“Back then, we were driving fast and doing our job; as we got older, our challenges changed. I was PACAF fire chief and he was the fire chief at Andersen (Air Force Base, Guam) when the B-2 (Spirit) crashed, but in a way we still think of ourselves as two young kids running rescue.”
Donan had his own memorable challenge with an aircraft accident in July 2010, when a C-17 Globemaster III practicing for the upcoming Arctic Thunder Open House stalled and crashed.
“I was sitting right where I’m sitting now, the walls in the office bounced and I went outside, and there was a smoke column… the accident was a Wednesday evening and the show started Friday. They continued with the air show, and we were still working the accident site for five days.”
Working such a major event wasn’t the only challenge; then-Elmendorf Air Force Base was in the thick of becoming Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and the changes were evident at every level.
“It changed the entire organizational structure, the people I worked for. I started that scene working for the 3rd Wing, and ended working for the 673d Civil Engineer Squadron, 673d Civil Engineer Group, and 673d Air Base Wing. All the people I talking to at the start of the response had changed out by the end, so a lot of things needed re-explaining. A lot of support on-scene changed, too; the Army had been helping, now the Air Force was, and they had totally different responses.”
Donan plans to stay at JBER until he retires, he said, continuing to lead the 131 personnel of the installation’s fire department.
“I believe everyone has something to offer, and not everybody offers the same thing the same way,” he said. “My job is to find where those talents are and how to use them. You have to be fair, but ‘fair’ can also mean treating people differently. Not everyone responds the same way. You have to know what’s best for the organization, and how your people can fit into that.”
Regardless of location, every assignment has its memorable aspects, unique missions, and challenges, Donan said.
Here, the day-to-day job is often about emergency medical calls, he said.
“We just responded to a woman on base with a diabetic emergency; she was in real danger and we got her to the ER and to a higher level of care, it was a very successful outcome. To us, that sort of thing doesn’t seem like a big deal, but to those families, it’s very much a big deal.”
The JBER Fire Department also responds to wildland fires around the area; much of last summer, Donan said, personnel were working up to 150 miles away, assisting communities around Southcentral in fighting fires.
“This week, we started controlled burns for range areas,” he said. “We’ll burn off a couple thousand acres, which keeps the range available so (Army personnel) can train more days through the year. It’s a lot of work and preparation; there’s a lot of planning, documentation, preparation, and smoke permits. It happens in a couple of weeks, but there’s usually six months of planning that goes into it,” he said.
“Fortunately, I work with a lot of smart people who get that done,” he said.
But surely Donan would take some credit for the work that keeps JBER safe?
“I never claimed to be the smartest guy,” he said. “I just know enough to sell their case.”