James Thalman

James Thalman

Story Vault

By James Thalman

A communications center is handling emergency service calls regarding wildfires that are averaging 10 to 12 new outbreaks a day. From the list below, please select the term that best describes the level of activity within the main call center:

  1. Unthinkable

  2. Unbearable

  3. Unheard of

  4. Piece of cake

  5. All of the above

The best calltakers, who no doubt recognize that this is the oldest trick question in the dispatching protocol book, also no doubt correlate this question with many 9-1-1 calls they’ve taken: Like the list, they are missing the salient response/option/detail. The best of the best calltakers will have already taken the most appropriate action and quickly gone ahead and written in “f.” and next to it, “That depends.”

“That depends” is, of course, both the accurate descriptor under normal public safety emergency response service circumstances. When conditions, however, are anything but normal—let’s say the annual wildfire season has just passed its second autumnal equinox and the entire state is in the middle of the worst drought on record—“d.” is clearly the correct choice.

“We haven’t had a whole lot to chuckle about down here, so thanks for that,” said Shawn Barnes, chief coordinator of emergency medical and fire dispatching services in Austin, Texas.

“When you’re working twice as hard twice as long to knock down the most-destructive fires in the driest dry spell in state history, you do what you always do—all that you can,” Barnes said.

“We like to think that with even all the acres and property burned, things could have been worse without a lot of people doing a lot of things right,” he continued. “That the weather outside and the pace of work inside is cooled down to 10 or so new fires a day, that might not be a piece of cake, but it’s certainly like getting a breath of fresh air after the summer we’ve had.”

Austin, which one command center supervisor called “the top of the matchstick” that set the summer of 2011 on fire, tops the list of agency communication disaster coordination plans nationwide and communications center supervisors from sea to shining sea are already incorporating lessons learned in the big state.

A majority of the plans include a reassessment of “interface” zones—the area of terrain where urban and heavy residential/commercial structures end and the forested or grassland landscape begins. For example, Texas is re-evaluating its interface zones in response to predominantly urban dwellers moving to Wildland Urban Interface areas and bringing with them increased fire risks.

The interface zones, however, are a middle ground that has become a kind of no man’s land for emergency response jurisdictions. Bridging the gap are technological advances in communications centers allowing responders, regardless of agency and preferred radio signal, to instantaneously communicate through one switchboard, said Brian Dale, Salt Lake City Fire Department deputy chief and Accreditation Board chair for the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch.

The normal approach in residential or business fires is to have the blaze knocked down within 30 minutes, Dale said. “Wildfires are long-term engagements to contain and control a fire," he said. "Many times, communications centers will have set up tents and kitchens before they even start fighting a fire.”

Dale and other firefighting and fire science researchers said “home building in the sticks” or “where the buffalo roam” share the same range as wildfires.

The Texas Forest Service directs its public awareness campaign at developers and potential residents of interface zones that they arewell beyond the reach of fire hoses and the most powerful water cannons. The campaign is strongly encouraging fences with sprinklers or exteriors plumb with a water source.

According to resident information/education packets distributed in Texas, “the further human habitat encroaches into the natural habitat, the more destructive wildfires will be.”