By Airman 1st Class Jonathan Harding, 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 03, 2018
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- After 35 years of fighting fires as a U.S. Air Force service member, Brian Cullen is now a civilian Airman with the 436th Civil Engineer Squadron at Dover AFB and will continue his government service as the assistant fire chief for an additional three years.
The grizzled firefighter veteran wields a hefty moustache and speaks with a voice that resembles the perfect picture of a firefighter. Cullen wasn’t too keen on an article about his career – in their department, when someone appears in a newspaper they have to bring food in for everyone – but he quickly opened up as he shared his excitement about firefighting.
Cullen started his Air Force journey in 1985. After seven years as an active duty firefighter, he took his talents to the Air Force Reserve where he served an additional 26 years at Dover AFB.
He recently retired after serving three years as the Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force functional manager for Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command.
“There were roughly 880 reserve firefighters [in the AFRC Prime BEEF],” Cullen said. “I was responsible for organizing, training, equipping and deploying all of them.”
While he was at Headquarters AFRC, he was still assigned to Dover AFB, where his position was vacant.
“I was lucky enough to fill the [major command] function role, but this job still had to be done here,” Cullen said. “These people [Tech. Sgt. O’Connor, Staff Sgts. Marcus Glass and Tyrell Smith, and John Melvin, all 436th CES firefighters] here went over and above their pay grade and over and above their comfort levels to keep this thing going. It was nice to come back and see that things were clicking along.”
Teamwork is an essential part of the job. If someone is not in their position, people have to step in and make up for the missing spot, Cullen said. It’s the nature of the beast in the fire service.
Team Dover firefighters are responsible with safeguarding the personnel and assets on the installation, providing community support when called upon and educating the community about good fire prevention practices. They keep themselves busy on and off base.
“They’re working 72-hour weeks and then they’re volunteering to take the safety trailer to public events downtown,” Cullen said. “We couldn’t do it without the guys on shift … it’s a very collective effort getting this done.”
Not yet ready to step away from the team, Cullen decided to continue his military service as a civilian and intends to spend another three years at Dover AFB, serving as the 436th CES assistant fire chief. After devoting 38 years to the craft, he still loves what he does.
“The adrenaline rush is cool,” said Cullen. “I think the best part of the job is not so much about the fire alarm stuff, but when someone actually calls in a problem. Normally, when you call 911, you’re having the worst day of your life. It’s cool to go out and help somebody on the worst day of their life.”
In the more than 20 years he spent working at Dover AFB, one call stands out to him.
“I think of the dog,” Cullen said. “It was over in housing, before it was rebuilt. It was ruined contents of a living room fire. We went in, put a knock on the fire. They were saying that their dog was still in there. Normally when the smoke is that low, Fido isn’t going to make it. So we went back in to make another round, and sure enough, when we opened the bathroom door, Fido was in there. I picked him up, brought him out to the family and they were all together.”
Not all calls end well. Sometimes, firefighters can’t save everyone, so they learn to cherish the victories, no matter how small.
“That’s what makes it worthwhile, when there’s a smile on someone’s face,” Cullen continued. “There isn’t always going to be a smile.”
Firefighting is extremely physical work, so keeping up with physical fitness is a large part of Cullen’s life and job. In his free time, he trains for Tough Mudder races. He has completed 10 races so far and is working toward his 11th.
Cullen said the four domains of Comprehensive Airman Fitness – mental, physical, spiritual and social – and younger firefighters keep him motivated to stay in shape. He insists on taking care of all four, because out-of-shape firefighters could put themselves or others at risk. Staying fit means staying safe.
The notion of safety has changed tremendously over the years, but the job overall has remained the same, Cullen said.
“Back in the day, the old guys had the dirtiest gear,” Cullen said. “You could look at the gear and see who has the dirtiest to see who the most experienced people were. Today, it’s the people with the cleanest gear that have the most experience. The job hasn’t changed at all though, it’s still wet stuff on red stuff, but now we know more about the health hazards.”
Researchers have found that fires create thousands of harmful chemicals. Dirty gear has the potential to transfer those chemicals to the firefighter, leading to an increased risk of cancer and numerous other health issues. Seasoned firefighters know the importance of staying healthy.
Mandatory retirement age for an Air Force firefighter is 57 years old. At 54, Cullen’s time as an Air Force firefighter is nearing its end. When he can no longer serve on base, he said he plans to continue in the local community.
“As long as I felt I could physically perform the job, I would stay until the day I die.”