Honor The Fallen

By Travis Dotson

How exactly do we Honor the Fallen?

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It’s a tough question because it has a thousand right answers. One of the most important ways to honor is to learn. We are always in danger of squandering the bitter opportunity that tragedy affords us.

This video is a glimpse of what so many of us struggled with in the aftermath of the Yarnell Hill Fire. This is just a few fire folks walking the ground in January 2014 and grappling with how to advance our culture in the aftermath of devastation.

Take a look.

Making sense of bad outcomes is difficult, often impossible. But nobody wants the pain to be without benefit. Suffering without growth is tragic.

Let’s choose growth. One way to grow is to challenge long held beliefs. The window for genuine inquiry opens wide after disorienting circumstances – when we are shaken we struggle to re-balance. For many the re-balance means doubling down on long held beliefs, for others it requires a heart wrenching letting go of previous convictions.

What are some of your long held beliefs?

Are you willing to question them?

Are you willing to consider a new perspective?

And after all that, are you willing to actually alter your actions?

Growth is difficult.

Honor the Fallen

 

 

Old Boss Says…

The following letter is directly from the Redondo Escaped Prescribed Fire FLA

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TO: Current and Future Burn Bosses

FROM: An Old Type 1 Burn Boss

As an Old Type 1 Burn Boss, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a ton of great people and do what I believe is a lot of awesome work within our fire adapted ecosystems. This was my first time serving on Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) team. If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to participate on an FLA team. Please don’t wait as long as I did to get involved. Never stop learning, never stop communicating, and always strive to BE A STUDENT OF FIRE.

As a Prescribed Fire Burn Boss you operate in a very complex and ever changing environment. You spend months preparing for an event, and all along you need to be gathering situational awareness:

• Who will be on that hill at a specific time?

• Did I order enough blue houses?

• Will the food be on time?

• What piece of equipment will break down?

Oh, and don’t forget your day-to-day job requires a facility check next week and a hundred other things.

As a current burn boss, spend as much time as possible with future burn bosses. Teach new burn bosses to document everything, even if they think it is trivial. Why? Because to truly move forward with a learning culture, you have to be able to tell your story, and trust me, notes are golden.

As an Old Type 1, I want to share my experiences with you. Some learning was easy, some came the hard way. I’m sharing with you today with the hopes that you may learn from my scars.

• COMMUNICATION – COMMUNICATION – COMMUNICATION. Up, down, sideways. Never stop.

• Utilize the District as an ID Team to ensure your complexity analysis and burn plan is robust.

• Build an organization around yourself for support.

  •  This could be as simple as utilizing the type 3 militia.
  • Find the person that can locate anything, anywhere, and get them to assist with logistics.
  • Make sure you have plenty of drivers.

• Use an Incident Action Plan (IAP) and take the time to update all the blocks. The IAP will become your most critical piece of documentation.

• Invite overhead in at least two shifts prior to ignition. This will ensure everyone is familiar with the plan you’ve been working on for the past six months.

  •  Challenge these overhead resources to read the plan, to find what is missing, to poke holes in it – so that your plan becomes their plan, and is better for it.
  • Make time for a small command meeting before your first briefing. This will allow you to gauge the employees you have on hand and provide a chance to identify any resources/needs that are lacking.
  • CHECK RED CARDS.

• Partner with your dispatcher – they are extremely important to your success. Use ROSS to track assignment and qualifications of your people.

• Be in constant communication with your Agency Administrator (AA).

  • During the writing of the burn plan and complexity analysis, have meaningful dialogue with your AA. They are sharing the risk with you. If you can’t have a meaningful conversation or you don’t feel comfortable they are sharing the risk, STOP–THINK-TALK-THEN SIGN. Remember this is not about just checking a box.
  • If possible, have the AA on site for the entire event, or at a minimum during the critical shifts.
  • The AA is your partner during the burn; if you are not getting what you need, ASK – make some noise – get what you need.

• During the technical review process, ask for honest feedback and don’t take comments personally. Honest feedback helps you learn and makes for a better plan.

• Smoke is so very important, don’t just look at what the smoke is doing around the fire – look to where it will be that afternoon and where it will settle during the night.

  • Look at the area you could affect and double it.
  • Get the word out early and often.
  • Make sure you know who your smoke sensitive individuals are.

• Create a partnership with your district and/or forest PIO. Use the winter to provide information to the public and tell the good story about prescribed fire. Perhaps go with your AA and do some media interviews.

• Always look at ordering a FEMO for your prescribed fire events. This person is your weather and fire behavior documentation leader.

• Look at bolstering your fuels program. A strong fuels specialist will take your planning to a new level.

• REMEMBER:

  • BEING FLEXIBLE IS WAY TOO RIGID
  • YOU CAN ONLY BURN AS FAST AS YOU CAN HOLD
  • EVERYONE IS WILLING TO HELP, YOU JUST NEED TO ASK!

Thank you for all your hard work and never forget it is an honor to be a Burn Boss!

– Old Type 1 Burn Boss


Read the full report: Redondo Escaped Prescribed Fire FLA

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Chances Are…

Burning anytime soon?

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As you get the fuel mixed and the torches set…

Check this out:

 

Chances are…

You will get the job done.

You will be “successful”.

You will feel pressure to burn.

Unforeseen delays will put you behind the power curve.

You will not follow every aspect of your plan.

Problems will come from areas you least expect.

An emergency will highlight previously unknown communication issues.

Small problems will snowball.

The predicted weather will change and become unfavorable.

You will underestimate fire behavior.

You will not have to use your contingency plan…

If you do you will discover it’s inadequate.

If you read an escape RX review you’ll say “what were they thinking?”

As you burn this season, chances are you will be “successful.”

Are you good or lucky?


 

What do you think?

Gloveless Idiots

By Travis Dotson

Some people don’t like the picture at the top of this page. Here is part of an email we received:

“The current Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website home screen pictures three wildland firefighters working in the black with handtools. From my perspective they appear to be less than 10 feet apart and two of them aren’t wearing gloves. Have NWCG standards on Line Construction and PPE changed?  I always speak up on these type issues since this is a pending Condition Yellow 9 Line IWI.”

Here’s another one:

“Just sharing that the header picture strikes me wrong, unless you are trying to show a lesson to be learned….no gloves and using hand tools seems out of place, given that we teach people to use gloves and keep their sleeves rolled down — am I missing something?”

So let’s talk about the picture, or rather the practice the picture captures — wildland firefighters working without gloves on. First of all, let’s do some acceptance around the topic:

  1. It happens. This picture depicts reality. This is how work gets done, whether we want it to be done that way or not.
  2. This is a divisive topic.

Number 1 is self-explanatory. Number 2 seems silly, but it’s true — we like to “Us and Them” the crap out of this hot potato. There is a bright line between the Glove Nazis and the Gloveless Idiots.

Glove Nazi’s have super clean Nomex, no tolerance for nuance, and certainly wouldn’t know which end of what tool is best used to fry grub worms (or why you would fry grub worms).

Gloveless Idiots are a bunch of babbling backwoods booger eaters who have no sense of cause and effect.

Well, we won’t get far if we believe either of those extremes will we? (But I bet you bought one of them anyway.)

OK kiddos, let’s sooth our hurt feelings and come back to the table for a little slice of compromise pie.

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Gloves protect our hands. Gloves make some tasks more difficult.

Individuals make personal decisions about risk all day everyday. (Insert your favorite daily risk decision example here. Most people use driving, so don’t use that one.)

When and where to put on gloves is the ultimate “efficiency / thoroughness trade off” dilemma. It’s a pretty tough nut to crack.

What if…

  • Every time you saw a photo of firefighters working without gloves on you thought: “Wow, those folks must have a very compelling reason not to wear gloves…I wonder what it is?”

What if…

  • Every time someone asked why you aren’t wearing gloves you thought: “Wow – this person really cares about my safety, that is so kind.”

More acceptance. Fewer assumptions.

What if.

 

Crash and Burn

The following is an excerpt from the Sheep Creek Burnover Report


The Sheep Creek Fire occurred on August 18, 2018. A helicopter crash in a remote area near Battle Mountain, Nevada ignited a wildfire, resulting in a burnover of a Type 4 engine on a Search and Rescue mission responding to the helicopter crash.

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The helicopter was on a reconnaissance mission conducting a chukar survey. With a pilot and two biologists on board, the helicopter crashed in a draw, igniting the wildfire and injuring two of the passengers. They self-extricated from the helicopter and climbed up on a rock outcropping to take refuge from the rapidly spreading fire.

Firefighting and rescue resources were dispatched from Lander County Dispatch, including Battle Mountain Volunteer Fire Depart, local EMS services and a medical helicopter.

Meanwhile, Elko Interagency Dispatch Center was coordinating with Central Nevada Interagency Dispatch Center on a response to the rapidly spreading wildfire.

Two firefighters responding to the helicopter crash in a Type-4 engine were burned over soon after the occupants of the crashed helicopter were evacuated.

The Facilitated Learning Analysis Team worked to make sense of the event focusing on command, communication and accountability; qualifications, equipment and training standards; communication between dispatch centers; and key decision points along the way. Through facilitated dialogue with those involved, the Team shared lessons learned and recommendations.


Read the full report:

https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/sheep-creek-fire-entrapment-2018

Are Your “Slides” Blinding You?

By Persephone Whelan


So there I was, snuggled on the couch in the early morning hours with my 3-year-old, sipping coffee, idly flipping through Facebook when a Hotchkiss Fire District video of the Horse Park Fire came under my thumb. I thought, “Wow. That’s some interesting fire behavior. Wonder what the story is there.” Then I was interrupted with a request for more Paw Patrol videos or something.

Later on that day, a buddy called me up. “Did you see that video from the Horse Park Fire?! What were they thinking?”

STOP RIGHT THERE!

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Do I have your attention? Maybe half of it while you sip coffee, eat a sandwich, ride down the road? I’ll take what I can get. I want to stir the pot and see what comes up.

Have you ever been watching a video or reading about a near miss or something particularly hairy on a fire and heard someone say: “If they just stuck to the basics they would have been fine.” Or “What part of ‘base all actions on current and expected fire behavior’ did they not understand?” Or “How could they not see that coming?” Have you ever had these thoughts or conversations?

Let’s talk about THIS.

But before I launch into a series of questions and ideas to “stir the pot” I need you to take a moment and suspend your personal beliefs. Ready? Here we go.

Setting Us Up for Failure

Why do we keep getting surprised? What do we expect arriving on scene of an incident?

I would like to propose that this is where we have culturally strapped on the blinders. Your “slides,” your past experiences on fires, may be blinding you to what is right in front of you—and the possible future.

Perhaps we need to let go of the Recognition Primed Decision Making model. YIKES! What did she just say? I’m proposing this model, this mode of thinking, is setting us up for failure. Time to leave the 80s in the 80s and challenge our ways of thinking today.

No one starts their shift with the intention of only having half their situational awareness. Everyone starts their day, their strategy, or their tactics thinking that they have complete SA. They make decisions based upon that information they feel they are getting or matching-up to previous situations they have encountered. Sure, this practice might initially seem to work—right up until that moment everything goes to hell and they are running, thinking: “Wow! How did I lose my SA?”

Do you think the individuals in the Horse Park Fire video or FLA started their day thinking: “Hey I want to see how close I can get to being burned-over without actually getting hurt.”  Or: “I’m going to totally ignore the Fire Orders and Watch Out Situations when I go scout this fire because they don’t really work for me.”

You do not lose your SA. I once heard someone say, losing your SA is only possible if you are unconscious. You are only a human capable of processing X amount of data. It’s HOW you process that data that matters the most.

Mindfulness

Allow me to drop a hefty word on you: Mindfulness. If you are starting to picture hippy music, incense, meditation, etc., please pause. I am talking about mindfulness in a science/nerd type of way, not in a “gentle or nurturing” Buddhist approach. I’m talking about HRO mindfulness. Navy SEALs have mindfulness training. You picking up what I’m throwing down?

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Why does all this matter?

Judgements happen when you compare what you are seeing to a model, experience or “slide” in your mind. Once you make a judgement, your perspective is tailored to that moment. How closely does this scenario match others I’ve encountered? What tactics work best?

This leads you down a path where you may not be “seeing” what is going on around you because you already have a perspective selected which tailors the inputs to your mind. Everything else just washes away. You have now lost your SA.

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How is This Moment Different?

Here is where I ask you to make one subtle, yet very important shift.

Instead of asking yourself: “How does this scenario, this IA, this Division, etc. match others I have encountered before?” Ask yourself: “How is this moment different?” Instead of asking: “What worked before?” Ask: “What options do I have?”

Be creative. Be curious. Tune into your senses. Use the environment and the tools you have to engage—constantly reassessing what is different. And what needs tweaking.

On the other hand, asking yourself “What is working?” is confirmation bias and a dark path to travel. That kind of thinking reaffirms what you already “think you know” and leads to mindlessness and not mindfulness.

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Stop Trying to Make a Square Peg Fit a Round Hole

I do agree with those people who comment “Why were they surprised?” But I have a different perspective. Is it not common to joke “What is normal?” I haven’t heard many firefighters arguing that conditions or fires are the same as they were 20 years ago. If our fires aren’t normal, why are we using “normal” tactics?

“We’ve always done X” is a weak argument. I think this is how people get surprised. Stop trying to make a square peg fit a round hole. Stop forcing tactics that used to work on our current situations. We are a professional, adaptable group that performs at a high level in chaos.

Seek opportunities to allow your brains to operate at that high level without putting blinders on the inputs. Talk among yourselves, ask questions and listen to each other. Most of all <gasp> be safe out there!

Want to Know More?

Want to try to understand where these crazy ideas came from? Check out these sources:

  • Conklin, Todd. “What is all this talk about Mindfulness – Ellen Langer is someone you should know.” Pre Accident Investigation Podcast 151. December 9, 2017. https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-52idj-7d8e50
  • TedX Talks – “How to tame your wandering mind” by Amishi jha.
  • Fraher, Amy, Branicki, Layla and Grint, Keith. (2016) Mindfulness in action: discovering how Navy SEALs build capacity for mindfulness in high-reliability organizations. Academy of Management Discoveries.
  • Dotson, Travis. Ground Truths “Experience Builds Bias.” Two More Chains. Summer 2017. Vol. 7 Issue 2. Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.

 

Insights from a Dispatcher: The Incident that Changed Me

[This is the fourth of four Blog Posts written by Dispatchers that focus on Dispatching that we are featuring this week (beginning Aug. 27, 2018).]

By Dolores Garcia

We prepare, we brief, have our 10’s and 18’s, our “9-Lines,” our emergency response guides on our desks as either part of a larger binder or pinned to the wall behind us, perfectly tabbed out. We are just as invested in the outcomes as anyone physically on the fireline. It is not uncommon for Dispatch Centers to have a few medevacs each summer, either from fires we are working or for the public while recreating on public lands. For most of those, we are ready and prepared. The mental and emotional toll is variable from person to person. But we often have our ways internally within the Dispatch Center to work through them or we “tough it out” [maybe]. The experiences then become slides we use for the next one and examples we use when training the rookies. We build “thicker skin” and move forward [maybe].

Trauma becomes relative to your experiences, preparing you each time for the next one, building confidence that you can manage and handle each one that comes at you. Even as an insider in Dispatch, are we truly seeing the emotional toll it takes to build these slides, these slides that give us the ability to support the resources on the ground through challenging situations? The confidence to have command presence over the radio when guiding the firefighter on the ground through the size-up/9-Line to get the information you need for the responding medical crew. The details. Those minutes when lives are on the line as decisions are made, as resources are ordered to respond.

The adrenaline hooks us, then the season lets us go. Left to our own devices. While more and more line personnel receive training on “taking care of our own” Dispatchers only make up a small percentage of these types of training, usually when there is room. Is this why the turnover in Dispatch can be high? [Rhetorical question.] That has been my experience coming up through years of both field fire operations and later into Initial Attack and Aviation Dispatch. You think you are good, until you have that one.

Dispatch Dolores Garcia

Dolores Garcia

My Background

Some background on me may help to establish some of my relationships and my perspective on the incident that changed me. In the summer of 2009 I was detailed in as the Assistant Center Manager – Operations for the Arizona Interagency Dispatch Center (they would later transition to a state only center).

I became very familiar with the districts and management for both Arizona State Forestry as well as the Bureau of Land Management (my agency) and the other federal operators managed by the center at that time. Later in 2009, I became part of the militia dispatching system. No longer based and working primarily in Dispatch, I was now a part of the management of my agency’s fire program at the state level as the Fire Mitigation and Education Specialist/Program Manager for BLM Arizona. I maintained my Dispatch qualifications by working very regularly with our managing Dispatch Center(s).

As an agency, we transitioned from one center (Arizona Dispatch) to another (Phoenix Dispatch) in 2013. At the time, my direct supervisor was the State Fire Management Officer. I worked closely in my “day-job” with our state partners as well as my agency fire managers and personnel at each district.

I bring this up to establish the background of the relationship I had with both local, state and district fire management and two local Dispatch Centers. As militia and a local, I would cover in Dispatch consistently at one center or the other often in Initial Attack and very often in Aircraft. Also, because of my Aircraft specialty, I would cover as Public Information Officer (PIO) at the airtanker base and the mob center when the local media wanted to get close-up and in depth.

I share all this because it is one of many ways many Dispatchers in similar situations may fall through the cracks. The various transitions, in duties, duty-stations, temporary or otherwise, the transient and transitional nature of being flexible and adaptable in this “culture” are just part of why we get overlooked.

The One

Scheduled to work at the Aircraft desk at Phoenix Dispatch Saturday morning, June 29, 2013, I was briefed of the current fire situation Friday night and was aware of the lightning fire just outside Yarnell (as well as several others within the Dispatch Zone at the time). This one had an agency nexus so I also had a piqued awareness.

They begin sorting out the situation a little better by daylight. The local Helicopter Manager calling in to say they were going to recon the area. Making all the proper notations in logs as some of this was already not feeling right. Questions over management and who would be ordering resources, including aircraft, went back and forth most of the morning as they initially called for Unified Command. The main question, “Which agency and which Dispatch would take the lead,” ate through much of the morning and into a more active burning period, as other rotors begin to turn and resources needed to be ordered. Many details I will always remember, conversations with Duty Officers, Dispatch Center and Agency Managers are burned into my brain.

By the next day, June 30th, some transitions were already in play, including Incident Management Teams and my attention on the aircraft being run out of the Dispatch Center. The weather had us on edge from the previous day. Already several storms were moving in, affecting aircraft use across several areas. The DC-10 was being flown out of the Dispatch Center in which I was working and it had been busy.

The National Weather Service had called us personally to warn us of the potential for strong out-flow winds from passing storms. I listened as the Initial Attack Dispatchers at their stations relayed the new weather warning to the field. We also listened to BLM frequencies and I could hear that Prescott Dispatch had received a similar warning and were relaying it to their IC and resources on the Dean Peak Fire near Kingman. Out loud I said, “I hope Arizona Dispatch has got the same alert and is doing the same for Yarnell.” We could hear the process of the IC on Dean Peak move resources off the line. Everyone was responding once they were in safe locations. We watched the radar, saw the winds, grounded aircraft because of winds, got them flying again; the orders came in, all for Yarnell. The rest is history.

In the coming days, I would get assigned to work as a PIO on Yarnell Hill, tied to the Arizona State Forestry Public Affairs/Information Officer and work out of the Arizona Dispatch Center. I watched while the Prescott Dispatch got Dispatcher relief coordinated through the Southwest Coordination Center, allowing the primary Dispatchers in that center some days off following the incident, the Granite Mountain Hotshot tragedy. The same was either not offered to Arizona Dispatch, or when it was, it was “too little too late”, yet they were the primary Dispatch Center dispatching the fire.

Many of the Dispatchers were detailed from other areas/states. They remained in their seats through it all, for days, in various stages of shock, or denial, or numb–running on adrenaline with the occasional bout of tears. We all just wanted to get it done for THEM, Granite Mountain.

A “Peer Support” team showed up, stood at the head of the Dispatch Center, gave a short speech and said they would be available in the building next door, for however many hours. I don’t recall anyone actually taking advantage of it, or any management encouragement to go. Today even my memory of that moment rings with a touch of the same grit, gall and bitterness that ran through many who just wanted to get through and get this fire out for THEM.

On a trip to Prescott days before the memorial, I encountered my direct supervisor. He had advised that they had a group peer-support session and AAR for those who were on Initial Attack. He mentioned they were working as a management team to get those resources some time off. I asked if he had remembered Dispatch. They had not. With tears in my eyes, I registered my concerns to my supervisor. To this day I don’t know that it affected anything. None of my agency Dispatch counterparts nor I got any days off.

For the memorial service, the local Dispatchers and center management attended from Arizona Dispatch. The detailers volunteered to stay behind, as there were limited tickets to attend to continue management of a few other fires that were ongoing. These were the same detailers who sat in those chairs on THAT day, who could have used a memorial service to heal. And yet I saw firefighters from around the country being offered tickets to attend.

Those staying behind needed a local resource who was familiar with the area as well as the Dispatch Center to help guide the detailers in case of a new start or resource questions, so I too stayed behind. We watched the televised memorial from the Dispatch Center, as many did—but none so directly affected as this one.

To this day I have not dispatched. My quals have since lapsed and tears flow every time I think of that lightning strike on the hill on June 28. The Dispatchers that worked with me in the Phoenix Dispatch Center for Initial Attack and Aircraft, the managers who were made aware of my concerns on those fateful days, and my time with the Arizona Dispatch Center in the days following, are all a part of that period of time burned into my memories.

I continue to process to this day. Part of my processing also included “giving back” to the NIMO Team and some of the resources who helped with the 2013 Granite Mountain Memorial, when I traveled to Wenatchee, Washington to assist as a PIO for the Twisp Fire Memorial in 2015.

My goal since that day has been to advocate for taking better care of our own. Not just saying it and throwing an EAP pamphlet on my desk. (Which I have had to use personally as a place to start, not knowing where to turn for more professional help.) And to remind our Agency Administrators and our Fire Managers about other supporting personnel, like Dispatchers and PIOs or PAOs and how they are affected in times of crisis.

Many of us are still processing. To recognize the inherent nature of the business and the stresses and strains it places on all of us, we need to do better. We need to provide ways to cope and recognize the need for help for ourselves or others and instill the habit of reaching in and reaching out.

We need to retrain a culture that wants to help (rescuers), to recognize the need and help those within heal from trauma.

Nobody Gets Hurt on My Watch. I Naively Lived By that Motto.

[This is the third of four Blog Posts written by Dispatchers that focus on Dispatching that we are featuring this week (beginning Aug. 27, 2018).]

By Renae Crippen, Center Manager, Blue Mountain Interagency Fire Center

It was late July. I was sitting in a hot Communications trailer in the middle of a field watching a huge column increase in size. I was in my element: talking on the radio, documenting radio traffic, sharing information, getting people lined-out, making plans for the next day. I was the Fireline Dispatcher—literally.

This fire was explosive. There was a big black boiling column we could see from our field. We were within one mile from where the fire had started. It was burning away from us. In a short period of time, this fire had consumed hundreds of acres of light fuels and timber. Firefighters were coming in and out of the trailer checking-in, touching base. They were excited to be there fighting this dragon.

So was I.

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Renae Crippen and Chris Wagner, Initial Attack Dispatcher, in their Blue Mountain Interagency Fire Center.

I had so many moving pieces, so much to keep track of. I felt so much responsibility—get their paperwork in order, get them to the right place, and keep everyone safe. Nobody gets hurt on my watch. I naively lived by that motto.

Until that day.

In the early morning hours I received a call from a worried mother and later a brother of family members who were logging up by the fire. They had run up to move some logging equipment out of the area. They hadn’t made it back home yet.

I reassured both of them that there had been no reports of anything out of the ordinary. I told them I would call if I heard anything. In the back of my mind, I was thinking that they were just fine and that they were probably just busy like everyone else and hadn’t found the time to get ahold of anyone. I wasn’t concerned—bad things just don’t happen here.

Followed My Heart

The world that I had naively created for myself came crushing down at daybreak when I received a report on the radio that two bodies had been found next to burned logging equipment. The next call I was making was not to the families to reassure them that their loved ones were fine, but to the sheriff’s office to report that we had fatalities on the fire. The sheriff’s office would make that initial notification call to the family.

Over the next couple days, I spent a lot of time talking with the mom of one of the loggers who had been killed. I became her contact. At first I didn’t know what to say or do. I had never even thought about what I would do in this situation, let alone had any training. I just followed my heart and spoke to her with kindness and honesty.

Now I was That Spouse Fearing the Worst

A few years later, my husband joined a hotshot crew. He was thrilled and proud to be a hotshot. That first hotshot season, he was on one of the crews that were in Colorado on July 6, 1994 when 14 firefighters were burned over and lost their lives on the South Canyon Fire. Information was very limited and spotty that night. The only news at first was that there were fatalities on an Oregon hotshot crew.

Now I was that spouse who was fearing the worst. I waited by the phone all night with the TV on—hoping for any kind of news. At 2 a.m. my husband was finally able to get to a pay phone to let me know he was OK. A huge wave of relief pulsed over me and immediate sadness for the families of the fallen firefighters, followed by sincere guilt that I was so relieved to find out it wasn’t my husband.

I thought back to that hot July day and to the families of those loggers when I was a Dispatcher on the other side of those phone calls.

Dispatch Misconceptions

When I started as a ground-pounder, then an Engine Captain, and later as a member of a helitack crew, I remember I never understood why Dispatch was so slow. Why did it take so long to respond to me? Heck, all they do is answer the radio and phones and do a little paperwork. But when I made the transition from firefighter to Dispatcher, my eyes opened very quickly!

Dispatching is a service-orientated position by nature. Many who perform in these positions are committed to the safety of those they serve. You can walk into any Dispatch Center in the nation and find Dispatchers who have spent many years on the fireline. They are now dedicated to serving firefighters and aviators through dispatching.

In our office, we don’t go home until we know that every firefighter and resource in our unit is accounted for at the end of the day.

Like I had early in my career, there can often be the general misconception that Dispatchers just talk on the radio and answer the phones—a receptionist with a radio. Maybe there was a time when that was the case. But today—with the complexity of fires, technology and multijurisdictional footprints, and the growing wildland-urban interface—Dispatchers do so much more.

One Dispatcher can be managing multiple incidents on multiple jurisdictions over literally millions of acres. We have literally hundreds of resources and thousands of firefighters at our disposal. We can have a fire start in the morning and by the end of shift have hundreds of people mobilized, have them fed, have set up their command posts, have their fuel trucks available . . . this important list goes on and on. In a matter of hours, we have created small cities.

To do so requires a highly specialized skillset and the ability to function in a fast-paced dynamic world.

Controlled Chaos is the Norm

To serve the firefighters and provide for their safety, Dispatchers and their leadership dedicate themselves to building professional Dispatch organizations. Just as certain specialized skills are required for fighting fire, the same is true for Dispatchers. Gone are the days of pencil and paper. Our Dispatchers sit at consoles with 50-channel radio systems on one monitor, a computer-aided Dispatch system on another, and a third to monitor aircraft and weather radar.

While firefighters are focused on the job at hand, Dispatchers are interpreting weather, coordinating airspace, mobilizing resources and communicating essential information to leadership. People who are highly skilled in this area excel in the ability to filter information for relevancy and intent. Often times, they are able to decipher what’s not being said in words over the radio. For instance, a Dispatcher might perceive an IC’s change in tone, or read between the lines of what’s not written down.

Those who show aptitude as a Dispatcher are intelligent, well spoken, and gifted in the ability to multi-task. Controlled chaos is the norm. Unfortunately, this population of professionals are not always regarded for their abilities in planning, operations, and fire line leadership—despite their vast range of experiences given the sheer number and variety of incidents they encounter.

Dispatch sees, hears and documents every situation that occurs on a fire. And Dispatch is at every fire.

The increased complexities of the fire environment have likewise increased the pressure on Dispatchers to be more conscientious, engaged and professional. Today, their margin for error is much smaller.

We Do What We Can to Be Prepared

As I learned in that meadow many years ago—and many, many times since—no matter how good I am or how good my staff is, people are going to get hurt or even killed on the fireline. Just as we as Dispatchers go to every fire, we also participate in every emergency. We do what we can to be prepared.

We train and practice in scenarios for managing the “incident within the incident”, collecting information and mobilizing aid. We have emergency contact plans. We train and practice what to do if there is an injury or, even worse, a fatality. We train and practice how to get a medevac. We train and practice who to call, who to notify, how to notify, how to mobilize help for the families.

But sometimes it’s not enough.

We Hear It All

While firefighters are dealing with the emergency in person, we are dealing with it over the phone and over the radio. We hear it all. We are the ones who bring in the EMS services, medevac ships, and the transports for body retrieval.

We hold our breath waiting to hear the outcome. We feel guilt and blame ourselves when we can’t make things happen fast enough. We are the fixers. It’s truly devastating for us when we can’t fix it all. We lie awake at night going over and over again thinking about what we could have done differently and what did we miss.

Dispatchers may not have visible scars but we often have broken hearts that are not recognized. I have been at too many memorial services in my life. I can’t hear bagpipes without tearing up.

My heart drops every time I hear about a fatality or serious injury. My thoughts go immediately to the families, the spouses, and the kids. When I send resources to fires, I don’t see a resource order or a green truck. I see the firefighters and their families.

All too often we, as Dispatchers, are forgotten when support is brought in to help those who have experienced trauma on the fireline. All too often the responsibility we feel as Dispatchers to ensure everyone gets home—and what it does to us when someone doesn’t make it home to their loved ones— is overlooked.

Dispatch will always be there for the firefighters.

Please remember us.

Are Dispatchers Exposed to Trauma?

[This is the second of four Blog Posts written by Dispatchers that focus on Dispatching that we are featuring this week (beginning Aug. 27, 2018).]

By Tracey Kern, Center Manager, Fort Collins Interagency Dispatch Center

When I first started in Dispatch in July 2003, my answer to “Are dispatchers exposed to Trauma?” would have been: “No.”

After all, I thought, we are on the radio. How much trauma can we really encounter? Fast forward 15 years later. Today, my answer is a definite YES!

There’s no question that Dispatch is the most important piece of the plan that everyone always forgets.

Dispatch Tracey Kern - Copy

Tracey Kern

‘I Need Four Ambulances and a Coroner!’

On October 26th, 2006, the day started as any other day.

I came in and heard there was a fire that had started in our neighboring Dispatch Zone that was Mutual Aid for us. Because it originated on their ground they were the ordering point. I picked my assigned frequencies for the day. I was going to give my friend the Primary Forest Service Frequency assignment. I would be her back-up because even though it wasn’t our fire, she would still be busy with it.

At 7:57 a.m., the Forest Service radio went off: “San Bernardino Emergency Traffic.” My friend answered: “San Bernardino, Go Ahead.” “Engine 57 has been burned over. I need four ambulances and a coroner!”

As a Dispatcher hearing this call, my heart stopped. I couldn’t breathe. I started questioning: Is that what I really just heard? Then, as the field’s lifeline, in the next moment I quickly snapped out of it, realizing those field units are depending on me to get them the help they need.

So my friend and I got Medical en route and started making the notifications. As the news spread, the entire Forest was given Admin Leave—except for Dispatch. We had an Accident Investigation Team coming in to support. And we also now had other agencies to Dispatch for. So we went along with business as usual.

That is When I Blew-Up

A week later, an Accident Investigation Team member came into our Dispatch Center and said: “We are bringing Engine 57 off the line today.” My friend and fellow Dispatcher said: “OK.” This Accident Investigation Team member looked at her and said: “I know you don’t understand in your pea brain the magnitude of this, but it is a big deal.”

I watched and waited for my supervisors to step in, only to see them do nothing. That is when I blew-up at this man. “Of course we know the significance of this action,” I told him. “We were here when the first call came in. We have done the moments of silence in memory of all the Engine Crew members and we are still here doing our jobs. So don’t tell me that I don’t know the significance and magnitude of this tragedy.”

Thankfully, another supervisor heard this entire commotion and stood up for us and banned that guy from the Dispatch floor. At that point, the Agency finally decided to offer Dispatch CISM help if we wanted it. But, for me, it was too late. I had been coping with this incident my own way. I didn’t need their pity help.

Grow as a Person and Leader

Every year during that week from October 26th to October 31st—when the last Engine 57 crew member passed away—it is hard for me. I don’t have to read the book, read reports or listen to recordings of the incident. This incident is forever recorded in my head. It is triggered in October and in different situations.

I have tried to use this tragic event to help me grow as a person and as a leader.

More Resources to Quickly Provide Help

In 2016 on my Forest a firefighter was burned on a prescribed fire. My Dispatchers did an excellent job. And I was pleased to see that—immediately—CISM was offered to anyone who wanted this input.

Today, thanks to the CISM groups and the “You Will Not Stand Alone” class, there are more resources to quickly provide the help that anyone needs. Every year I play the radio traffic recordings from that firefighter burn incident to my seasonal Dispatchers. I want them to hear and experience the voices during a stressful situation.

I tell these Dispatchers that it is OK if a call comes in and you can’t handle it and need to pass it on to a supervisor. And I ensure them that it’s OK if after this you need to talk to someone.

All We Ask of You

Last year I watched the movie “Sully”. At the end Sully tells the FAA that during their investigation they forgot the human factor, the 5-6 seconds that you are human, before you snap out of it and start doing what you need to do. I tell my Dispatchers it is OK to be “Human”.

As much growing as the fire agencies have done, Dispatch still seems to be the last factor anyone ever thinks about when it comes to RX Burns, Severity, Funding, Staffing, AAR, Team Closeouts, etc.

A lot of plans couldn’t be accomplished without the support of Dispatch. And yet, in my experience and the experience of other Dispatchers who I talk to, Dispatch is always the last to get notified about significant activities and events. This includes: RX burn plans and the need for extended Dispatch hours; bringing in additional severity resources to our Zone (and not thinking about this impact to Dispatch); IMT closeouts; and incident AARs.

We are always here at the end of the radio—sometimes not taking lunches or breaks just to make sure you have that lifeline available when you need it. All we ask is that you remember us and invite us to the communications table from the very beginning.