A brief history: Lajes Fire Department
The Lajes Field fire department at its new facility, 2011.
by Gus Simoes
65th Civil Engineer Squadron deputy fire chief
7/22/2011 - LAJES FIELD, Azores -- Most people have seen the Lajes Fire Department in its updated facility. Despite the new façade, the department has a rich history stemming back to 1945, when the world was faced with a communist threat and the Cold War was in its infancy.
To meet the needs of this growing threat, the young U.S. Air Force positioned aircraft in Western Europe as a deterrent, and the creation of the department was critical to protect aircraft and supporting facilities.
Small airfields in Europe became large air bases, and the flow of aircraft, personnel, and material was continuous across the Atlantic. The importance of Lajes as a mid-Atlantic refueling station proved valuable. This was a great time of expansion for Lajes Field and consequently for the Lajes Fire Department.
On Aug. 11, 1952, the Headquarters Atlantic Division initiated correspondence to Headquarters, Military Air Transport Service requesting the 1605th Air Base Group be permitted to enlarge to Wing status.
The justification was that the group organization was unrealistic and inadequate to effectively accomplish the mission of the Azores Air Transport Station (as Lajes was referred to). Also, the Headquarters Atlantic Division felt the prestige of the command would be greatly enhanced by the establishment of a Wing.
From around 1945 to 1950, the fire/crash station was located directly south of the Portuguese Headquarters facility. There are no records of this facility except in the memories of those who remember it as a very basic wooden construction. Around 1950, the fire/crash station was moved to Building T-712, which had four single bays for crash firefighting vehicles, office spaces and sleeping accommodations for 21 firefighters.
The Lajes Fire Department management, technical services, the first run structural pumper and a rescue vehicle were moved to T-202. This facility had good office space, four bays and a hose drying tower that still exists. T-202 is currently occupied by the Pentagon Federal Credit Union.
At the start of 1952 there were 1,020 U.S military personnel at Lajes Field. Permission was granted and on Feb. 1, 1953, the 1605th Air Base Group was re-designated as the 1605th Air Base Wing. In 1959, U.S military personnel at Lajes Field reached 3,020 U.S. military personnel. This increase in personnel served to support the increasing use of Lajes Field. Lajes had been instrumental in providing support to many exercises and operations in the 1950s and 1960s.
Around 1985 all fire department services were relocated to T-717. Built in 1961 as an aircraft hangar, it had been the home of the Lajes Fire Department until August 2008. Over the years, firefighters worked hard to modify and make the old aircraft hangar as livable as possible, and a tremendous amount of self-help was accomplished to enhance our living conditions.
The sleeping quarters were converted from an open bay sleeping area to individual rooms through the hard work, dedication and talent of many firefighters over the years. As hard as our firefighters worked, they could not overcome the substandard conditions they were faced with. Many aspects of the old station no longer met the new demanding challenges of the Air Force.
With completion of the new fire station, our firefighters are not only more comfortable, but also safer. This new facility was specifically designed to meet all of the safety requirements of the National Fire Protection Association Health and Safety Standards.
Ground was officially broken for this station on Oct. 19, 2006, by Col. Robert Winston, 65th Air Base Wing commander. This new $10.3 million, 25,000 square-foot facility is the largest and most advanced, state-of-the-art fire station in Portugal and one of the best in the United States Air Force.
Currently, Lajes has no aircraft assigned, other than three EH-101 Merlin helicopters, and two CASA C-295 owned by the Portuguese Air Force. However, including the commercial international airport, Lajes Fire Emergency Services protects over 15,000 transient aircraft and over 1,000 facilities worth over $1.7 billion annually.