DAY IN THE LIFE OF FIREFIGHTERS ON THE PIKE AND SAN ISABEL NATIONAL FOREST, CIMARRON AND COMMANCHE NATIONAL GRASSLAND (PSICC), AND THE RIO GRANDE NATIONAL FOREST
As the sun pierces the horizon the Pueblo Interagency Dispatch Center’s board lights up with in-service calls from fire personnel located throughout an area roughly the size of the state of Montana, extending south from I-70 to the New Mexico border, west from the Continental Divide mountain range (San Luis Valley), east to the State of Missouri incorporating all of Kansas.
Before 1995 the dispatch office only functioned for the U.S. Forest Service. Since then, it has added dispatch responsibilities for the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, National Grasslands, Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control and the Kansas Forest Service. The Pueblo Interagency Dispatch Center provides emergency dispatch services to these agencies over a total of 136 counties. They also assist county dispatch offices by coordinating fire suppression resources.
The Pueblo dispatch office is typically staffed with eight employees. During the hot months of summer, the office may bring in an additional 18 dispatchers to assist for the fire season. They coordinate the placement and availability of several thousand fire suppression resources such as overhead, fire engines, hand crews, dozers, helicopters and air tankers.
Wildfire incidents are managed on a state-of-the art computer program called WildCAD, or computer aided dispatch. While a dispatcher is taking a fire report, they determine the location to pull up fire response information. The amount of resources dispatched to a wildfire uses a matrix that considers fuel type, difficulty of access, topography, typical weather conditions, elevation and fire history to come up with a pre-determined response level. Response levels change as conditions change. During the peak of fire season, when the risk rapid fire spread is highest, a larger number of overhead and fire suppression resources will be dispatched. The WildCAD system quickly determines the appropriate list of initial attack resources to dispatch to the new incident.
Because the WildCAD system coordinates so many resources, they can easily determine which station to dispatch from. Typically the closest resource is sent to a new incident. However, if they are committed to another incident, the WildCAD system will determine who the next closes resources are to fill the new initial attack response.
Every morning, the Pueblo Interagency Dispatch Center provides dispatchers with a daily briefing. This briefing is focused on the day’s weather forecast which includes “Red Flag Warnings”, “Severe Weather Warnings” and the potential effects the weather can have on a new wildfire start, these weather warnings are broadcast over the radio by the Pueblo Interagency Dispatch Center dispatchers to firefighting personnel. It also includes a safety topic and a review of the national situation report put out by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, ID documenting existing fire activity.
As wildfires burn across their area of dispatch, the office also coordinates other activities that assist fire management officers in the field. Recon flights are arranged to fly over the area to detect new fires or map existing fires. Resource orders are placed to bring in additional fire fighters from out of the area. Specialized fire prevention teams can be brought in to provide the public with information that can prevent additional human caused fire starts. Incident management teams can be ordered and assigned to expanding wildfires.
From high tech to low tech, the Pueblo Interagency Dispatch Center utilizes various ways to detect wildfire starts. From their office, a dispatcher can use highly sensitive computer detection systems that can locate lightning strikes. The U.S. Forest Service employs a person to staff the Devil’s Head lookout tower. That person’s main function is to locate and report any smoke detected in their visible area. During times of high fire danger, the agencies may use aircraft to detect new fires. The public reports many as well, providing current information on the fire location, the fuel type it’s burning in, how fast it’s burning and how to get to it. Many people however, are reluctant to report wildfires because they don’t know who to call. The answer is simple, call 9-1-1. By calling 9-1-1, you will get to a dispatcher who knows what information is needed and can relay that information to the right personnel.
Regardless of the agency, dispatchers all across the country work diligently to ensure the public is protected and served in a timely manner appropriate to the emergency. Next time you see the fire engines driving down the street running with red lights and siren, know that it began with a call to the dispatch office.