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.

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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.

A Dispatcher’s Perspective on: Trust, Relationships, and Communication

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

By Cathy Micek-Hutton, Center Manager, Cody Interagency Dispatch Center

The philosophy I convey to my Dispatch staff is that part of our mission is to help others succeed. Now, how do we do that?

While many people in the wildland fire service hold the same qualifications, some are still more confident, knowledgeable, competent, etc. than others simply due to their education, experience and character. As a result, even though they may have the same qualifications, there are a whole range of skill levels that Dispatchers must communicate and interact with.

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Cathy in her Dispatch Center.

We recognize this reality in Dispatch. And we therefore have a lot of opportunities to help people succeed by making suggestions, providing options, “leading” them down a path of things to consider and steering them in the right direction. This process can involve other Dispatchers from another office, Duty Officers, Incident Commanders, etc. We don’t make the decisions for them, but we help them recognize that a decision needs to be made. We can also provide them with the possible results of certain decisions.

75 Years of Combined Operational Experience

Before you balk at the idea of Dispatch providing suggestions/advice to Operations, consider this. My staff of seven (including me) has 75 years of combined operational experience in Engines, Hotshots, and Helitack.

All of my staff (not me, I’m too old!) have maintained operational qualifications to remain better connected with the field. With that being said, experience levels may differ in Dispatch as well. Sometimes opportunities are lost to help people succeed, due to the inexperience of some Dispatchers simply not knowing. Then again, another opportunity arises to educate, mentor, and lead that Dispatcher so next time they at least recognize someone could use a little “extra” help. In turn, in the future, they ask some questions that get us all down the right path.

This is probably the most exciting and fun part of this job, especially when you see the light bulb come on and watch people grow and learn. These opportunities are at all levels, sometimes even the most experienced folks need a little help. The things we learn from new, young, fresh eyes looking at things from a different perspective can be invaluable. We need to seriously consider their input and give credit where credit is due, fostering the “out of the box” thinking that will help us all grow and be successful in what we do.

Take a Turn in Dispatch

I encourage everyone in fire to take a turn in Dispatch. Operational personnel who spend time in Dispatch when it is busy have a new appreciation for what it takes to be a Dispatcher. This experience makes them better firefighters and better Incident Commanders. It also gives them the perspective and experience they might need if they move on to a Fire Management Officer position responsible for overseeing a Dispatch Center.

Currently, Dispatch positions are difficult to fill. Transitioning from Operations to Dispatch can benefit the greater good as well as the employee. The ladder in Dispatch is a short climb to GS-11. People who have come into Dispatch have expressed their satisfaction with the flexibility in schedules, sleeping in their own bed at night, overtime opportunities, and knowing that they make a difference.

Communication—Including Feedback from Dispatchers

I also want to touch on communication, a critical aspect of all our jobs in the fire service. While technology has certainly influenced how we communicate, it should not be a substitute for face-to-face interaction.

Meeting “the voice” on the other side of the radio/phone is valuable and I feel builds trust, strengthens relationships, and puts people at ease when they are confronted with a stressful situation in the field.

Regardless of what the situation is, Dispatchers are trained to remain the calm voice on the radio and set the tone for the situation even though in the background it is organized chaos in the Dispatch Office—phones ringing, radios chattering with multiple fire activity occurring, and Dispatchers communicating with each other. Through all this, the Dispatcher is in their “zone” responding to the needs of the field, coordinating responses, keeping supervisors and peers briefed.

As we discuss communication we can’t forget an integral piece of it: Feedback. All too often Dispatch is left out of After Action Reviews on individual fires, end of fire season closeouts, lessons learned, and IMT closeouts. They usually have a piece of the puzzle that is missing. Furthermore, often times input from Dispatch can clear-up how and why things happened.

Dispatch is Often Overlooked

Dispatch is also often overlooked at preseason/postseason meetings. Training scenarios done in the field are valuable to Dispatch too. Therefore, Dispatch should be included in the mock fire or mock emergency as you are training your crews.

Please, don’t ever forget your Dispatchers when something bad happens on an incident. They are also in the middle of the event. Dispatchers may need support just like any other firefighter.

We are part of the “fire family.” And like a family, we all need to stick together.


The following is an excerpt from the Kelly Creek Project Hit by Log FLA

Kelly Creek

On June 3, 2018, the crew arrived at the Kelly Creek unit midday. They had established good communication with dispatch. The crew held a briefing, discussed their plan for the remainder of the day, and began work. They identified two helispots at Kelly Creek – one on top (H-1) and one at the base of the slope (H-2). The crew flagged and improved the route to H-2 in preparation for the felling operations that would begin the next day. Some saw work was necessary to accomplish this task.

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Map with key points

At 0730 on June 4, 2018, the crew checked in with dispatch and completed their morning briefing before breaking out into their saw teams. The five saw teams consisted of 10 Faller 2s (FAL2), and each sawyer rotated every 45 minutes, or each tank of fuel. The five saw teams lined up from east to west (team 1 on the east end and team 5 on the west end). They began working downslope; horizontally aligned and working in vertical lanes. The prescription for the unit called for all trees smaller than 12” diameter at breast height (dbh) to be felled.

Tree density on the slope varied. Saw teams 1, 4, and 5 had more trees meeting prescription in their lane, which created a difference in the amount of time it took for the saw teams to advance downslope. Both project lead and crew reported that there was not an emphasis on production or pace; this was an opportunity for the crew to continue saw training in the field. Taking time to learn and improve technique was emphasized, while also correcting any identified deficiencies. Saw teams took the time to stop, discuss technique and ask questions of each other. The crew believed this was an important part of their training.

Saw teams 2 and 3 progressed much faster down the slope. This created line of sight and communication issues (slope went from 30 degrees near the top to 45+ degrees at mid-slope).


Saw team 4 felled a tree on the upper slope. This left a tall stump on the slope that needed to be low stumped. The low stumped section was green and heavy; making it difficult to manage on the moderate to steep slope. Once the low stumped section was released from the stump, it got away from Team 4 and began rolling down-slope. The team began shouting “Roller!” repeatedly while running down the slope. It looked as if the log would stop in the trees below. As the sawyer on Team 4 ran far enough downslope to see the creek at the bottom of the slope, it was apparent that the log was still traveling down slope catapulting end over end at a high rate of speed toward the creek below. Saw team 2’s swamper heard something, looked up, saw the log, and screamed “Roller!” to team 2’s sawyer. Sawyer 2 released the trigger of the chainsaw, looked up, and received a direct hit from the stump.


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Stump that struck Sawyer 2

The log made impact with the chainsaw, which was held in front of the Sawyer 2’s waist. Both the chainsaw and log were driven into the sawyer’s body. Sawyer 2 was driven violently backwards into the ground. Sawyer 2’s saw team partner witnessed the strike and immediately went to assess Sawyer 2’s condition.

Patient Care

Four of the crew’s five emergency medical technicians (EMTs) responded immediately to Sawyer 2’s location and began providing care and holding c-spine. (Sawyer 2 is the senior EMT on the crew and fifth EMT.) Sawyer 2 was unconscious, bleeding from the head, and breathing laboriously. Within minutes, Sawyer 2 regained consciousness, appeared alert, and began breathing normally. Another crew member also arrived on scene with the trauma kit (from the top of slope), while another crewmember arrived with the Traverse Rescue Stretcher (TRS), which had been staged near H-2 on a flagged path. The crew’s four EMTs performed assessments, controlled bleeding, and packaged Sawyer 2 for transport.

Sawyer 2 was stabilized, bandaged, and loaded onto the TRS in less than 15 minutes from time of impact. Sawyer 2 was transported from the bottom of the slope to the vehicle on top of the hill in 11 minutes.

Radio communication was seamless. The crew notified the superintendent immediately via radio and continuously provided updates until Sawyer 2 was at the superintendent’s vehicle. The superintendent was on the phone with dispatch initially, who was also able to listen to radio communications. Dispatch notified local emergency medical services (EMS) for a medical response to the area. The Forest Service law enforcement officer (LEO) heard the call to dispatch on the radio, and headed towards the area. The FS LEO had good communication with the ambulance, and provided updates to EMS as they were responding. The FS LEO led the ambulance into the area, which expedited their response.

Patient Transport

Due to the remote location of the project site, poor road conditions, and urgency in getting Sawyer 2 to definitive care, the crew superintendent and one EMT planned to drive “until (we) meet the ambulance.” A second truck with the remaining EMTs from the crew followed the crew superintendent’s truck in the event that Sawyer 2’s condition changed, or something happened to one of the vehicles while en-route. While en-route, the lead EMT continued to monitor Sawyer 2’s condition and record vital signs. Excellent radio communication was maintained between the superintendent, dispatch, and the FS LEO, who updated EMS.

At about 1045, Sawyer 2 was transferred to the ambulance and transported the remaining distance to the hospital. The lead EMT stayed with the Sawyer 2, while the two crew trucks followed the ambulance to the hospital. After imaging and a thorough examination at the hospital, Sawyer 2 was treated for injuries and released.


Is your crew prepared?

Suicide: Behavioral Health Advisory

The following is an advisory circulating in the wildland fire community.

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Behavioral Health Advisory


Subject: Caring for our own: Suicide Prevention and Behavioral Health

Distribution: Fire & Aviation personnel, Nationwide

Discussion: Suicide rates are increasing in this country, and while we do not have specific numbers, tragically, suicide affects our employees. Suicide does not discriminate on the basis of gender, age, background or profession.

Help‐seeking is often perceived as “weakness” to be avoided at all costs. This stigma, by its very nature, promotes silence and discourages asking for help when it is needed. Reducing stigma—making it OK to not be OK, and OK to seek help—is the first step. By openly addressing the topic of mental health among our employees, we can embrace the notion that this issue is no different than any other injury or disease.

Our workplace is a critical partner in preventing suicide. We have an opportunity to give people a sense of purpose, hope and community, all of which are psychological buffers to distress. Take the time to connect with each other. Each of us has the ability to make a positive difference in someone’s life. One life lost is too many.

Risk Factors

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Heavy alcohol or drug use
  • Witnessing traumatic event (s)
  • Major physical illness or injury
  • Loss of a close relationship
  • Isolation or lack of social support (e.g. off‐season, retirement)
  • Knowing others who have died by suicide

Warning Signs

  • Sudden withdrawal from social contact
  • Persistent feeling of hopelessness
  • Increasingly reckless behavior
  • Mood swings/ Change in behavior
  • Having a suicide plan (me, place, method)

There is hope. It is important to talk about suicide. Help is available.

Get Help Now

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.


Veterans Crisis Line: Confidential support available 24/7/365 for veterans and their families and friends, regardless of enrollment in VA health care.

800‐273‐8255 and Press 1. Text message to 838255 (online chat available)

American Addiction Centers Firefighter & First Responders: Peer support for behavioral health and substance abuse.

888‐731‐FIRE (3473)‐first‐responders/

Treatment Placement Specialists: Individualized behavioral health assistance program (BHAP) with intake specialists trained to work with first responders.

877‐540‐3935 (Or see the map on the website for the TPS in your area.)

What You Can Do

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF AND OTHERS. Monitor and manage mental health, just as you would physical health. Do not be afraid to ask for help and seek medical treatment. Thoughts of suicide can occur in anyone. It is not their fault, but rather a need to treat a mental health issue.

TALK OPENLY AND ACTIVELY LISTEN. Peer support goes a long way to protecting mental health. Open communication is especially important for the survivors after a firefighter suicide occurs. Listen actively, let someone who is seeking your help talk at their own pace and ask them open‐ended questions.

SHOW COMPASSION: Psychological risk is an undeniable part of the job. Be patient and supportive; do not judge or stigmatize individuals experiencing a mental health challenge.

BE DIRECT. If someone seems at risk or shows warning signs, ask “Are you thinking of suicide?” and “Do you have a plan?” Recognizing a potential suicide is critical to preventing it.

BE PROACTIVE: If someone you know has a suicide plan, connect them with a higher level of care as soon as possible. If it is safe for someone to stay with them, do not leave them alone. Call 9‐1‐1 immediately.

To download a printable version of this advisory please click here:

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To download a printable version of this advisory please click here: