Wildfires that raged out of control for weeks and scorched much of Southern California presented the sternest test yet for the state's public-safety communications systems. Though these systems generally performed well despite the unprecedented traffic generated, the disaster exposed interoperability flaws that likely will need to be corrected more through operational changes rather than technology advances.

Efficient radio communications enabled hundreds of local, state and federal agencies to coordinate the efforts necessary to bring the largest fires in California history under control. Firefighters simultaneously battled seven major fires that ravaged 694,000 acres in Southern California in October and November (see graphic, page 34). So much radio traffic was generated that authorities were forced to borrow additional spectrum and radios from various federal agencies. Additionally, mobile units donated by the National Interagency Fire Center and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) were positioned to replace the relatively few transmitters and repeaters that stopped working after being torched.

These efforts largely kept the state's VHF communications network intact and permitted much of the interoperability envisioned by the many mutual-aid agreements between the disparate agencies. While the communications realized during the fires met with varying reviews in terms of timing, signal quality and user-friendliness, the ultimate measuring stick indicates they largely were successful.

“There were no direct losses of life or property reported as a direct result of communication losses or delays,” said Chris Hinshaw, assistant communications manager for the San Diego County Sheriff Department's wireless division. “The system worked. That's not to say that it was perfect or that it can't be improved, but it worked.”

Getting better with practice

Perhaps the biggest reason the systems worked is that California gets plenty of opportunities to test them in real-life circumstances and learn from those experiences, said Glen Nash, senior telecommunications engineer for the California Department of General Services. Nash also is former president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International.

“Quite frankly, California burns itself down once per year — it's a natural occurrence, although these fires were arson,” Nash said. “There's a long history of fires, and we've been doing this a long time, so we have a pretty good system. There's still room for improvement, and we'd like to improve it, but it's pretty good.”

It wasn't always that way. The aftermath of the Laguna wildfires in 1970 made it clear that better communication was needed to battle large blazes effectively, according to Bill Plough, CDF division chief.

“Things didn't work well then, because we couldn't talk to each other. On the way to fight a fire, you had engines going past fire stations with engines that weren't being dispatched,” Plough said. “Nobody from one department could talk to someone from another department over the radio systems. You had to flag them down and talk face-to-face. And when you're talking about fires of this magnitude, that [lack of coordination] is unsafe.”

Recognizing the problem, a group of Southern California communities established a mutual-aid agreement that created a VHF communication system in the 151-169 MHz frequencies. More than a decade later, this proved to be the foundation of the statewide Firescope program designed to allow various agencies to communicate with each other while coordinating the resources necessary to battle large fires.

Getting funds for the physical communications infrastructure was no simple task, but it was a cakewalk compared to getting various firefighting agencies to drop “turf” issues and work together, Plough said. The ensuing debates were quite heated but eventually were resolved as participants bought into a basic philosophy.

“If my house is burning up, I don't care what color the fire engine is, I just want someone to put water on it,” Plough said.

The mobile radio communications planning executed through Firescope has greatly enhanced fire protection throughout the state, said Tim McClelland, assistant chief for the CDF's Southern Region operational command center

“Emergencies, in and of themselves, are controlled chaos; without Firescope, it would be … straight chaos,” McClelland said. “Fighting fires requires a lot of coordination. Without Firescope, it would be hard to put down a drop of water.”

The Perfect (Fire) Storm

Even with Firescope, the most recent rash of large blazes proved challenging. Dry weather and winds of 40 to 75 miles per hour caused the fires to spread very quickly (see map, pages 32-33). While increasing the workload for firefighters, these conditions also posed problems for those trying to establish communications strategies at the sites, said Mike Wingate, regional incident communications coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service's fire and aviation management staff.

“The fire growth was so extreme that we couldn't get a [communications] plan implemented, because the fire would spread to the area where you wanted to put a repeater,” Wingate said. “The fire would outrun you before you could get it set up. We literally had people in vehicles who couldn't outdrive the fire in some spots. Mother Nature just whipped us all.”

Fighting seven major fires is a difficult task in any scenario, but the order of the blazes made the work even more daunting. The largest fire, known as the Cedar Fire, was among the last to ignite — after much of the firefighting personnel had been deployed elsewhere to battle other blazes in the area (see graphic, page 34).

“There were so many fires at once that there were a lot of people in charge of communication that don't know that much about communications,” said Chet Ashbaugh, telecommunications technician in the telecommunications division of the State of California's Department of General Services.

Establishing separate communications systems for each fire meant borrowing frequencies from other government entities so there were enough channels for each firefighting unit. However, many of the frequencies were incompatible with the radios found in emergency vehicles, so weaker handheld VHF radios had to be utilized.

Meanwhile, the timing couldn't have been much worse from a big-picture perspective. Due to California's well-chronicled economic downturn, fire departments throughout the region were not able to add as much personnel as desired in recent years, which limited the manpower available for this event. Worse yet, many experienced communications unit leaders recently retired or are preparing to do so, and the budget woes have limited the training of potential replacements, said John Hudson, assistant chief for the California Office of Emergency Services (OES) telecommunications unit.

“We have trained people, in that they've taken the [unit leader] course,” Hudson said. “But a lot of them have not had the experience necessary to be proficient.”

800 MHz vs. VHF

One challenge to the interoperability envisioned under the Firescope program is the proliferation of trunked 800 MHz systems in local police and fire departments. Particularly effective in urban settings, the 800 MHz signal penetrates buildings and the trunking systems allow more efficient use of spectrum frequencies with less effort from the user.

But as effective as they are for day-to-day operations within a given jurisdiction, 800 MHz systems are not as useful in a wildland fire scenario. Signals are not as strong as those in a lower-band frequency, and California's mountainous terrain can play havoc with the 800 MHz systems' line-of-sight limitations.

For this and a variety of other reasons, all of the state and federal agencies engaged in disaster relief in California use VHF or UHF as the primary means of radio communications when responding to large events. “I'm not saying someone won't come up with a technology that's better, but for a statewide organization, VHF works best,” McClelland said. “It's simple, effective and redundant.”

However, VHF's simplicity is a double-edged sword. While it allows all public entities to access the system, it is such a common technology that there are interference issues, Hinshaw said. A treaty governs the use of the 800 MHz frequencies along the U.S.-Mexico border, but no such agreement exists for the VHF band, which often leads to some interesting twists.

“You can be dispatching fire engines fine on a frequency one day, and then — suddenly — you hear the dispatcher for a Tijuana cab company,” Hinshaw said.

Some VHF proponents argue that Mexican interference is not as problematic as local entities claim. Regardless, the 800 MHz systems aren't going anywhere and local public-safety officers will continue to rely on them in their daily operations. That creates a problem: the more they use the 800 MHz systems on a daily basis, the more their level of proficiency with VHF radios tends to decline.

That problem quickly can create a full-fledged crisis in a pressure situation. For example, fire trapped San Diego police officers in a section of Simi Valley after they were sent to evacuate a region where the 800 MHz radio signal could not be heard, Hudson said. Eventually, they climbed a mountain and were able to call for air support — something they could have done much earlier if they used the VHF radio in their vehicle.

“User knowledge is an issue,” Hudson said. “In a crisis, [use of the VHF radio] has to be second nature. You have to know your equipment. All the technology in the world isn't going to help if people aren't trained to use it.”

In San Diego County — the lone affected county without a fire department — the stubborn exclusive use of the 800 MHz regional communications system made it difficult for some agencies to interoperate well with the myriad community firefighting personnel serving the county. According to Ashbaugh, he was told to leave when he went to San Diego County to establish a VHF communications plan, because the governing bodies wanted to use the 800 MHz system within the regional communications system coverage area.

“I don't want to say it's a power game, but it is,” said Jeff Pemberton, CDF communications manager for Riverside County. “They have their 800 MHz system and don't want to give it up. That's what they use every day. They feel like going to VHF is taking a step back; [800 MHz] is their security blanket.”

The next steps

The other major issue regarding the regional communications system in San Diego County concerned the difficulties faced by first responders during the first hours after the Cedar Fire started. During that time, the 800 MHz system was overwhelmed, causing many press-to-talk users — as many as 16,000 requests by some accounts — to encounter blocked signals when seeking a communication channel.

Hinshaw noted that the regional communication system never stopped functioning but said the network was designed only to handle the maximum “credible” capacity plus 10 percent.

“Instead, (at the beginning of the fires), we saw a 600 percent increase in push-to-talk requests,” he said. “How do you build a network to handle something like that? It's not going to happen.” With this in mind, Hinshaw suggested that policies be developed to limit radio communications to essential personnel in the first hours after an event begins.

VHF systems face similar concerns, but human instinct often will trump even the best-written policy, Hudson said.

“You have to be diligent about traffic, but sometimes there's only so much you can do,” he said. “When your adrenaline's pumping and flames are about 200 feet high — like some were in these fires — people tend to be gabby at that point.”

From an interoperability standpoint, the technological Holy Grail is mass-produced software-defined radios that would quickly shift from 800 MHz to VHF systems, depending on the availability of the system. The military uses this technology, but the equipment is too bulky and expensive for public-safety agencies today.

However, these agencies will be the target market when software-defined radios can be mass-produced at a reasonable cost within the next decade, according to Don Root, deputy chief of the telecommunications branch of the governor's Office of Emergency Services.

“I see technology solving a lot of these problems,” Root said. “Communications with first responders will be a lot better in coming years.”

Until then, interoperability between 800 MHz and VHF systems largely will depend upon ingenuity. In some cases, the solution may be high-tech crosslinks such as the upgrades scheduled to be purchased with money provided by the U.S. Department of Justice. In other cases, it may be something as simple as “human repeaters.” This primitive approach requires public-safety officials to stand together and relay messages between each other from one type of network to another.

But the best answer is even simpler, said Mike Burton, communications and technology division chief for the Riverside County Fire Department.

“Interoperability works only when like equipment is on a like system; you can't black box it,” he said. “All fire systems have to have VHF radio as at least a backup.”

Despite the desire for improvement, communications were maintained well enough for firefighters to control all seven fires, thanks in large measure to resourcefulness that went above and beyond the call of duty (see sidebar, page 30).

“You have to temper any negative critique of [communications], because we were dealing with historical-proportion fires,” said Dorian Cooley, a CDF batallion chief. “Up and down the state, I think we did a pretty good job.”

Primo effort

Most notable rescue tales during the wildfires involved removing people from the imminent danger posed by the flames. But some of these success stories would have ended tragically without the single-minded dedication of communications personnel such as Mario “Primo” Basabe, who kept radio systems operational during critical junctures.

Basabe, a technologist for the San Diego County Sheriff Department's wireless division, was dispatched on Oct. 29 to resuscitate a 800 MHz base station that had lost power on Cuyamaca North Peak, a 6000-foot mountain located in the center of the county, which was ravaged by the Cedar Fire two days before.

In fact, the mountain was still smoldering, which is why Basabe and co-worker Joe Prescott were sent to the site with straightforward orders, according to supervisor Leonard Angel: back up each other and don't take any chances.

With the primary highway to the site blocked to traffic by fire and fallen trees, the two technicians were forced to take an alternate route on Sunrise Highway, Basabe said. At the bottom of the mountain, Basabe encountered fire personnel battling a fire along the side of the road. Assured that there was no fire beyond that point, Basabe drove on the other side of the two-lane road away from the blaze. The decision proved to be critical — when Prescott reached the same point 15 minutes later, he could not proceed, because the fire had engulfed the road.

Predictably, the road up the mountain was littered with debris in an ash-covered scene that Basabe described as “surreal.”

“It was a very unnatural feeling, looking at that mountain that is normally covered with beautiful vegetation and beautiful homes,” he said. “Now, it's a moonscape.”

Most of the fallen tree limbs and power poles were easy for Basabe to maneuver around in the county-owned Yukon he was driving. But less than halfway up the mountain, he encountered a fallen utility pole crossbeam support in the middle of the road with power lines still attached.

There was not enough room to pass on the right side. Moving the crossbeam was the most desirable option, and the power lines appeared dead. But Basabe was concerned automatic backup systems could activate at any moment and return potentially deadly electricity to the lines, so he dismissed this option for safety reasons. Instead Basabe chose to proceed to the left of the crossbeam, with the power wires scraping the top of the truck, which he reasoned was grounded by rubber tires.

Shortly after turning on the road to begin the final ascent up the mountain, Basabe encountered another crossbeam with power lines draping the ground. This time, Basabe didn't believe he could drive the vehicle past the barrier and decided to walk the rest of the way up the peak.

“He probably should have moved the transformer and driven up the mountain, but he insisted on walking,” Angel said.

But this was no ordinary walk in the park for the 60-year-old technician, who said his most valuable piece of equipment on the journey proved to be a dust mask that kept him from inhaling the fire residue in the air.

“It was hard to breathe — there was a lot of ash and smoke,” Basabe said. “If I hadn't had the dust mask, I think I would have been in trouble by the time I reached the top of the mountain. I took it off for a little while at the top of the mountain, but I quickly put it back on after a couple of breaths.”

Upon reaching the top of the mountain, Basabe saw the problem: the backup power generator had shut down automatically when fire entered the building through a vent and caused enough overheating to distort the plastic encasing the monitors and gauges. After manually restarting the generator to restore power to the base station and helping a private telecom carrier assess its equipment damage at a nearby site, Basabe descended from the peak to find that workers already had cleared the roads of the crossbeams that had troubled him before.

During this time, the sight of a lone deer mouse and an injured bird seeking food in the suddenly barren environment saddened Basabe. They proved to be the only animals he would see during the day.

“We lost almost 80 percent of our wildlife — it was an environmental disaster,” he said. “But it could have been worse — there were not a lot of lives lost, given the situation.”

Without efforts such as the one turned in by Basabe and others like him, the problems that plagued San Diego County's regional communications system during the crisis almost certainly would have been far worse. Although Basabe's trek was the most adventuresome, his co-workers and others were kept busy throughout the disaster, driven by the critical need to restart generators and redirect antennas to optimize coverage.

Nicknamed “MacGyver” and “Felix the Cat” by his kids for his love of tinkering with everything from locks to carburetors, Basabe said the resourcefulness he showed during his journey reflects an attitude that is pervasive throughout his office.

“It wasn't that big of a deal,” he said. “One of the guys I talked to said he wouldn't have done it, but I think most of the people here would have done it.”
- Donny Jackson

HELL ON EARTH

Oct. 21: Grand Prix Fire begins in San Bernadino County
Oct. 23: Piru Fire begins in Ventura County
Oct. 25: Simi Fire begins in Ventura County
Oct. 25: Cedar Fire begins in San Diego County
Oct. 25: Old Fire begins in San Bernadino County
Oct. 26: Otay/Mine Fire begins in San Diego County
Oct. 26: Paradise Fire begins in San Diego County

Grand Prix Fire

  • 54,605 acres burned
  • 3 structures destroyed
  • 7 structures damaged
  • No fatalities

Piru Fire

  • 63,991 acres burned
  • 8 structures destroyed
  • 0 structures damaged
  • No fatalities

Simi Fire

  • 108,204 acres burned
  • 300 structures destroyed
  • 11 structures damaged
  • No fatalities

Cedar Fire

  • 273,246 acres burned
  • 300 structures destroyed
  • 11 structures damaged
  • 14 fatalities

Old Fire

  • 91,281 acres burned
  • 1003 structures destroyed
  • 7 structures damaged
  • 6 fatalities

Otay/Mine Fire

  • 46,000 acres burned
  • 6 structures destroyed
  • 11 structures damaged
  • No fatalities

Paradise Fire

  • 56,700 acres burned
  • 415 structures destroyed
  • 15 structures damaged
  • 2 fatalities