They've Got Our Backs: Chittenden County Depends on First Responders From the Vermont Air National Guard | Paid Post | City | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
Members of the fire department for the 158th Fighter Wing of Vermont Air National Guard participating in an annual live fire training in New Hampshire - COURTESY OF VTANG
  • Courtesy Of VTANG
  • Members of the fire department for the 158th Fighter Wing of Vermont Air National Guard participating in an annual live fire training in New Hampshire

The Burlington International Airport is home to one of the best-equipped fire departments in the state — the one attached to the 158th Fighter Wing of the Vermont Air National Guard.

Its fire station across the runway from the airport terminal, at the edge of the tarmac, includes a fleet of several firefighting and emergency support vehicles; the newest of its four fire trucks costs roughly a million dollars. The members of its 27-person staff undergo regular, rigorous firefighting and emergency medical training.

And they're busy. Fire Chief Brannon Soter estimates that his department responds to 750 to 850 calls a year. A year-to-date report from the National Fire Incident Reporting System shows that the department is the 18th busiest Air Force fire station in the country.

The report also revealed something most Vermonters might not realize: 76 percent of the calls the department has answered so far this year have been in response to off-base emergencies in the community or issues with civilian aircraft. That includes responding to incidents at the airport. Its members were on the scene in July, when a lightning strike triggered fire alarms at BTV and forced an evacuation. When a small Cessna caught fire on the runway in March of 2021, they raced to the scene and avoided a serious fire.

The unit is also the primary agency responsible for 911 calls from nearby South Burlington neighborhoods, and it provides backup for first responders throughout Chittenden County, from Winooski to Williston to Shelburne.

"We don't mind the work," Soter says. "That's what we're here for."

Members of the fire department for the 158th Fighter Wing of Vermont Air National Guard participating in an annual live fire training in New Hampshire - COURTESY OF VTANG
  • Courtesy Of VTANG
  • Members of the fire department for the 158th Fighter Wing of Vermont Air National Guard participating in an annual live fire training in New Hampshire

Soter became chief in the fall of 2020, but he's been with the department for 21 years, since he joined the Guard in August of 2001. The most challenging rescue he's seen during that time had nothing to do with the airport. In 2014, during a severe storm, a tractor trailer on Interstate 89 went over the bridge above the Winooski River. The water was high — Soter remembers it as one of the worst floods he's ever seen.

The driver had fallen off an embankment and was trapped below. "All you could see is his shoe," Soter recalls.

"We ended up saving the guy," he says. "It could have been way worse."

Soter grew up in Vermont, and firefighting is a family tradition. His dad was the deputy fire chief in Ferrisburgh; his uncle is the fire chief in Vergennes.

Soter's not the only one in the department with local connections. He points out that more than half of the staff also serve on volunteer fire and rescue squads in the communities where they live. Those towns also benefit from the top-notch training his fire department provides. "We produce certified, trained and competent firefighters who go out into the community," he says. "It's a pretty good system."

None of that is cheap. Soter notes that it costs between $5 million and $6 million a year to run his department; payroll alone consumes about $3.5 million. That money comes from the federal government. The department provides fire and safety protection for all airport facilities, commercial and private aircraft — as well as the surrounding communities — at no charge to the airport, and without drawing on Vermont property taxes. It's one of the economic benefits of having an Air Guard base at the Burlington airport.

Soter is eager for Vermonters to learn more about his unit. "A lot of people don't know about who we are and what we do, or what we're able to do," he says. That's one reason he encourages community members to attend the open house on the base on Sunday, September 11, to see behind the scenes of the operation.

"It just benefits everybody around," he says.

Vermont Air National Guard Hosts an Open House on 9/11

Members of the fire department for the 158th Fighter Wing of Vermont Air National Guard participating in an annual live fire training in New Hampshire - COURTESY OF VTANG
  • Courtesy Of VTANG
  • Members of the fire department for the 158th Fighter Wing of Vermont Air National Guard participating in an annual live fire training in New Hampshire

On Sunday, September 11, the Vermont Air National Guard base will open its doors for a free open house. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the public is welcome to tour the base and meet some of the people who work there.

Attendees can see performances by army bands and the Norwich Silent Drill Team, as well as a fire department "jaws of life" extraction and working dog demos — or try one of seven flight simulators. Military aircraft and equipment will be on display. There will also be an education and job fair featuring local and regional schools and employers.

There is limited parking on the base; a shuttle will be available from Essex High School. The open house will take place rain or shine and will include food vendors, covered eating and rest areas, and a kids' zone with activities for children. Find more information at vtng22.com.

This article was commissioned and paid for by Pomerleau Real Estate.

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