In-house expertise best to dispatch wildland firefighters
The South Central Idaho Interagency Dispatch Center uses dispatchers with firefighting experience to send out fire resources to Bureau of Land Management incidents. When an incident occurs in the area’s high-desert grassland, mountainous regions and rural communities, such in-the-field knowledge improves responses time because dispatchers are trained in firefighting tactics, NIMS protocols and terrain, said Richard Wilson, the agency’s lead dispatcher.
“We cover a remote, diverse terrain that ranges from about 3,000 to 10,000 feet in elevation,” Wilson noted.
Wilson said only dispatchers addressing BLM calls must be firefighters. He explained it is a BLM-specific requirement for those deploying fire resources for the agency’s 5.1 million federal acres. However, the center’s $600,000 annual operating budget is only partly funded by BLM’s $3.5 million annual operating budget. In fact, it also serves other agencies and has mutual-aid agreements that support 2 million U.S. Forest Service acres, 3.6 million acres of private land and 500,000 acres of U.S. Park Service land, as well as Fish and Wildlife, water, residential and rural fire areas.
Firefighters who have driven the terrain and run calls are best to dispatch resources on BLM lands, said Chris Simonson, BLM’s Twin Falls District fire management officer. He said dispatchers deploying fire resources can provide advice based on real-life experience and often know the conditions field-officers face at a scene.
“When you are sitting at the desk and the computer screen, you are trying to understand what the folks on the ground are going through,” Simonson said. “If you’ve been there, you tend to just understand that better.”
Wilson explained that although those in the center serving BLM must have firefighter experience, the center uses a combination of personnel to serve other state and locals agencies. In fact, the dispatch center deploys 35 engines companies annually, as well as two helicopters and two, single-engine air tankers, he said.
Through mutual-aid agreements, the center can call resources from 30 mostly volunteer fire departments. All resources are considered during pre-fire season, where pre-planning sessions are held that determine fire conditions — like fuel level — and decide priority fire danger zones and the resources dedicated to each area, Wilson said.
To deploy fire resources, dispatchers must learn Wildcad, a computer-aided dispatch system developed by local information-systems provider Bighorn. It is funded through the BLM agreement and was custom-made for the wildland firefighting community so users can dictate how it is designed, upgraded and deployed, Wilson said. Other communications transmit via narrowband using Motorola radios. However, upgrading to voice over IP — where voice data travels over broadband to next-generation 911 — is not a priority.
“There are infrastructure issues to address and much of the mountain-top equipment is outdated,” he said. “So, it’s going to cost a lot of money.”
Simonson said most agencies are being affected by the current climate. The federal side hasn’t been hit, but he expects to see up to 20% in budget reductions early next year.
“We are not going to be able to staff and fund as many resources and hope the community understands,” he said.