Residents of communities just a few minutes’ drive from Denver could see the fire’s glow. The flames, which flourished under low humidity and drought conditions, would engulf 30,000 acres within 24 hours, destroying numerous structures and threatening hundreds of homes.
Hayman’s rampage would continue for three weeks and, before it could be contained, the fire would turn 137,000 acres — roughly 155 times the size of New York City’s Central Park — to ash. It would force thousands to flee. It would taunt fire crews and volunteers with a challenge few had ever experienced. And it would prove the value of a viable communications backbone.
U.S. Forest Service worker Terry L. Barton, accused of having started the fire, reported it on June 8 at 4 p.m. The Pueblo Interagency Dispatch Center (PIDC) dispatched initial attack forces shortly thereafter. As the blaze burgeoned beyond its realm of control, the PIDC called in an overhead team from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, to set up an incident command post.
When communications commenced on the fire’s suppression efforts, a sequence of starter kits was ordered from the NIFC. A starter kit consists of UHF radios, VHF radios, a UHF repeater system, a VHF repeater system and link systems. Link systems are separate UHF systems that can be tied into the command VHF repeaters, allowing communications units to link multiple VHF systems together over long distances.
“The NIFC kits are very dynamic,” said Communications Leader Jim Boulter, who traveled from Oregon to work with Hayman’s sixth communications team. “They are designed to be implemented very rapidly in a demanding environment so that you can basically go from a stadium or a football field to a town of as many as 2,000 people in just a few days. Then you grow your system as you go to make sure it supports your needs, as a fire or incident would begin to travel outwards.”
Communications units work on UHF, VHF and AM aircraft, as well as on cell phones and satellite phones that can be used depending on locations and conditions. VHF is the primary frequency used for command frequencies and repeaters. UHF is the primary frequency used in the fire camps for security and connectivity between different sections such as facilities planning, situations and public affairs.
Cell phones are used mainly for logistics and supply. Because the Hayman Fire was not remote, a lot could be done over telephone lines and cell phones. However, cell phones are not used for tactical purposes.
“We may give a firefighter a UHF radio to connect with entities on the fire,” said Stephen Jenkins, the chief of the NIFC’s National Interagency Incident Communications Division, “but when he needs to call Goodyear for more tires, he can use a cell phone.”
Fire commanders divided the Hayman Fire into 18 divisions. The south command, responsible for 13 divisions from Lake George to the Cheesman Reservoir, attacked the entire fire for the first three days; a second command was then established on the north end, which would be responsible for five divisions in Jefferson and Douglas Counties.
More than 21 agencies cooperated on the fire at one time; at its peak, Hayman had as many as 2,564 firefighters working to control it — a demanding environment for any communications network.
With so many agencies working together on any incident, standardization is paramount in leading successful communications. The wildland suppression group requires that radios be front-programmable or clonable so that units can actually change and alter frequencies as they need to based on geographic regions, Boulter said.
Most frequencies are partially licensed by the government for fire suppression and partially licensed by the government for other functions such as power administration and military. As fire kits are built up out of Boise, temporary authorization is required for the use of different frequencies.
If a kit must be custom built to reduce cross-talk and interference from adjoining forests, a frequency coordinator in the geographic area must work with Boise to coordinate such an effort.
Communications under fire
Interference issues are common when crews are working in remote areas that include deep valleys and forests. Boulter’s team encountered only minor, temporary problems generated by weather conditions and altitude due to a finite number of frequencies.
These issues are addressed by the frequency coordinator on site, who actively provides communications crews with guidelines for equipment placement. To resolve this issue, communications workers would daisy-chain a UHF remote to a UHF repeater with an omni antenna. This would hit multiple UHF receivers that would cross-link to VHF command radios and then broadcast to the line.
To address the issues of multi-agency interoperability, equipment was distributed to state and federal agencies out of the NIFC cache. The programmability of the NIFC radios allows communications between local sheriff and law-enforcement groups, local community groups and even private mining groups.
Though communications apparently were well-supported and effective at the Hayman Fire, technology advancements can offer fighters of future blazes even better communications capabilities.
The NIFC is moving into the world of Project 25, Jenkins said, where only one vendor has met the contract and several are in the wings. However, from a national fire standpoint, he said, it might be a minimum of three years before the agency goes digital. The main concern is working with state and local cooperators. Issues such as cost, interoperability and backward-compatibility come into play. “It’s OK for digital to talk to analog and for analog to talk to digital by throwing a switch on the digital unit,” Jenkins said. “I want to see a smart radio that says ‘I was called by this, and I respond that way.’”
Boulter agrees that P25 compliance will take time, but he believes that, because most government staffers are getting older, the challenge will not be the technology itself as much as finding people who can use and repair the equipment.
“What we’d really like to see in the long run are data communications across the lines where you could actually receive a compressed map or something like that in a division during a fire run,” he said.
After more than three weeks of non-stop efforts by fire crews and volunteers, the Hayman Fire was reported 100% contained on July 1. Without successful communications, the blaze could have thrived for much longer.
“Being able to communicate can make the difference between successfully moving crews or suppression activity and saving lives and preventing injuries,” Boulter said. “The communications as it was set up here at Hayman was done really well by the fire teams. Radio systems have made it so that not only can we function to effectively help prevent and suppress wildland fire, but they’ve also allowed us to be a little more accommodating to the personal needs of the people at the incident.”
Alderton is associate editor. Her email address is [email protected].
Amateur radio volunteers were also valuable contributors to communications at the Hayman Fire. Visit www.mrtmag.com to find out how their efforts helped in suppressing Colorado’s largest wildfire.