Navy firefighter earns top award
By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
Fighting fire is precarious business, but imagine being on call 20 hours a day for 159 consecutive days.
Now consider doing that on a moving air strip, miles at sea off the coast of Pakistan, with eyes constantly fixed on the runway, making sure hundreds of war planes take off and land without trouble.
Don't worry, that job is already taken -- by Petty Officer 1st Class Steven C. Mills, one of the Navy's best firefighters.
Mills, 30, a longtime Clearwater resident, was recently awarded the James D. Maloney award for service as the Sea Based Firefighter of the Year. He has served for 10 years, most recently as one of 27 naval firefighters aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
"I'm there when the first plane takes off and when the last plane comes back," said Mills during a phone interview from the aircraft carrier, now stationed off the coast of Norfolk, Va. "If they get a break, then I'll take a break."
In March, he returned from Operation Enduring Freedom, part of the country's war on terrorism. He had been stationed off the coast of Pakistan since September.
Sometimes he had to be on the flight deck at 5 a.m. Other times, when the planes flew overnight missions, he took his post at 8 p.m. Each shift lasted 18 to 20 hours.
All the time, he watched for unusual activity. The ship averaged 110 flights per day, each one subject to a crash, a fire or a blown tire. When that happens, he and his colleagues snap into action.
"We had one major incident, and everything else was normal stuff we see on any cruise," Mills said. He said he could not elaborate on the incident.
In his limited free time, he sent e-mail to his wife and two children, who have relocated to Virginia to be closer to Mills. "Most of the spare time was sleeping and getting ready for the next day," Mills said.
Public service comes naturally for Mills, whose father, William Farias, is a Clearwater police officer who is on active duty with the Coast Guard, serving in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay.
Lt.j.g. Charlie E. Ardinger said that Mills has one of the most demanding jobs in the Navy and that when it comes to an emergency on the flight deck, he sees no one better than Mills to lead response.
Mills says he's just one of the crew.
The Navy and Marine Fire Protection Association will present him with the award in August at a formal ceremony in San Diego.
"They call it an individual award; but for me, it was a big team award," he said.
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