A 3-Step Approach for Tackling WUI Fires

From unseasonable tornado activity and killer cyclones to blizzards and drought-induced megafires, public safety agencies across the world have become accustomed to expecting the unexpected.

For Florida’s structural and wildland firefighters alike, the “normal” fire incident just doesn’t exist anymore, especially when it comes to wildfire prevention, ignition sources, response tactics and containment. Gone are the days of single-engine, single-agency and single-territory responses. Instead, aggressive, multi-agency operations and cooperation that crosses jurisdictional boundaries reign supreme when preventing and dousing wildfires.

Marion County Fire Rescue (MCFR), a structural fire department located in Ocala, Fla., is no stranger to WUI fire and the challenges it brings. MCFR is the second largest fire rescue department north of Orlando, operating a $49.8-million annual budget and employing 371 full-time firefighters and 117 volunteer firefighters. Full-time firefighters are dual-certified as paramedics or emergency medical technicians (EMTs); many have additional training in hazardous materials and technical rescue. Housed in 27 fire stations countywide, MCFR firefighters responded to 32,869 emergencies last year alone. Note: Effective Oct. 1, MCFR will add ambulance transport and 238 employees to its roster.

MCFR knows firsthand the benefits of working with other departments and agencies, having tested its multi-agency practices for more than a decade. When not responding to emergencies, MCFR firefighters train for worst-case scenarios and routinely participate in joint training drills with agencies such as the Florida Division of Forestry (DOF) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The result: Wildland/urban interface (WUI) fires and wildfires in the area typically remain small and contained, reducing the devastating impact they can have on the community.

To successfully combat WUI fires and wildfires, MCFR follows a basic, three-step collaborative approach that can work in any community in the United States–if egos and turfs are checked at the door.

Step 1: Form Partnerships

Just before the unprecedented 1998 wildfire season in Florida–which, by June 16 of that year, had burned more than 50,000 acres and destroyed nearly 100 homes and several other structures and cars–MCFR formed the Marion County Multi-Agency Wildland Task Force, which now comprises city, county, state and federal firefighting agencies, including MCFR, the Florida DOF, the USFS Dunnellon Fire Rescue, Ocala Fire Rescue, Marion County Emergency Management, the St. John’s River Water Management District, the Florida Greenways and Trails and Marion County Parks and Recreation, among others.

The task force started with a simple phone call. When M. Stuart McElhaney became MCFR’s fire chief in 1994, one of the first people he contacted was Gary Beauchamp of the Florida DOF, who already had a solid working relationship with Marc Clere of the USFS. Following that first phone call, McElhaney, Beauchamp and Clere started communicating on a regular basis, improving their working relationships and sharing ideas, which resulted in improved tactics within all three agencies. Since then, the task force has met on a routine basis to discuss wildfire conditions, call load, manpower capabilities, wildfire tactics and public education campaigns.

As a result, MCFR has developed a better understanding of what each agency brings to the table–and what they don’t. For example, local forestry agencies have larger firefighting equipment at their disposal, such as helicopters, fixed-wing spotter planes, airtankers with fire retardant systems and tractor plows. MCFR has also learned that its 800-mHz radio communication system is not compatible with forestry agencies’ VHF systems, so MCFR shares its radios, enabling forestry crews to communicate with the department at will and to immediately respond to any fire incident.

Likewise, forestry firefighters know MCFR’s brush trucks are equipped with foam systems. They also know that all MCFR firefighters are fully trained to command and work wildfires on a hand crew, as the department owns shovels, combi tools, Council rakes, fire flaps and Pulaski axes. MCFR provides these tools, which are itemized in its operating supplies or capital expenditures accounts, to each employee, as it participates in the bid process for tools and equipment on an annual basis.

Over the years, MCFR and its cooperating agencies have learned to train together, identify problems, contemplate solutions and bicker about which solution is best. Ultimately, the group is able to reach solutions and make cohesive decisions, even on the more controversial community issues. For example, agricultural, construction and land-clearing firms rely on outdoor burning for their livelihoods in Marion County; residents are also legally allowed to burn, if they meet county backyard burning guidelines. So when wildfire conditions dictate the need for a countywide burn ban, the community’s response isn’t always positive. Therefore, the task force carefully considers all the factors, politics and repercussions, and when it decides to announce a burn ban, each participating agency fully supports the decision. Remember: If you decide to form a committee or task force with other agencies in your area, all participants must be in agreement with all decisions. A united front gives volume to any group’s voice.

And if you think your efforts to cooperate with other agencies goes unnoticed, think again. Not only will your community reap the benefits of your partnership, but you may also receive commendations from other agencies. For example, the National Association of State Foresters, the USFS and the Advertising Council bestowed a “Smokey Bear” award on the Marion County Multi-Agency Wildland Task Force for its successful collaboration over the years.

Tip: If you’re unsure about whether your community’s agencies are properly working together to mitigate the hazards of WUI fires and wildfires, ask yourself two simple questions: Does your department regularly communicate with your local public safety agencies? If so, do you know their response capabilities, and do they know yours?

Step 2: Evaluate Your Needs

When performing both structural and wildland fire operations, it’s crucial to know your training, equipment and apparatus resources and needs. Having this information readily available will enable your department to know which resources they routinely have on hand, as well as those they’ll need to request from other agencies.

Training
More than 250,000 citizens call Marion County home. Spanning 1,652 square miles (which is larger than Rhode Island), the area’s rolling hills, horse farms, rural neighborhoods and vast Ocala National Forest are adjacent to many rapidly urbanizing communities.

Due to the county’s varied landscape, as well as its many no-name sugar-sand roads, dense brush and narrow driveways, accessing the seat of a wildfire can prove challenging. In these cases, off-road, offensive wildland firefighting is needed, but often dangerous, especially if firefighters don’t have the proper equipment and training. To mitigate risk, MCFR requires all of its firefighters to complete entry-level training, including the basic wildland courses, S-130, “Firefighter Training” and S-190, “Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior,” which teaches firefighters to properly size up wildfires. The S-215 class, “Fire Operations in the Wildland/Urban Interface,” is also beneficial, especially if you serve a diverse community. Although this is a significant and costly commitment for any structural department, the 75 hours of training greatly benefits and safeguards both citizens and firefighters.

These classes, as well as several others, are funded through the MCFR’s itemized training and education annual budget, as well unique partnerships such as the one it has developed with Marion County Community Technical and Adult Education (CTAE), which provides funding for adjunct instructors and classroom materials. Tip: Departments with limited funds looking for WUI/wildland fire training opportunities or classes should consider forming partnerships with local colleges, which often offer fire training in a classroom setting. They might also consider partnering with other departments/agencies in the area to perform joint training drills; grants will often pay for these drills, as well as training conferences.

The Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association (FFCA), through the use of Florida’s State Emergency Response Plan (SERP), also requires any responder in the state, who’s regularly deployed to wildfire-ravaged communities, to complete S-130 and S-190. The FFCA may also require the S-215 and S-330, “Strike Team/Task Force Leader,” depending on the deployment order.

The FFCA training matrix has stopped short of mandating “red card” certification, but many structural firefighters in the state already adhere to this national deployment standard. However, in the near future (possibly as soon as January 2009), the Florida State Fire Marshal’s Office is expected add these wildland classes to the National Fire Protection Association Firefighter I and Firefighter II certification programs.

PPE
Training is meaningless, however, if department leaders don’t issue proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to their personnel. Although structural bunker gear is useful for most static wildfire deployments, it’s not designed for extended deployments, mobility or comfort.

Because MCFR routinely works within a WUI environment, its firefighters receive both Nomex jumpsuits designed for the wildland environment and structural bunker gear. The Nomex jumpsuits are lightweight and easily donned over station uniforms. If a WUI or wildfire mission suddenly shifts, firefighters can quickly put their bunker gear over their wildland jumpsuits.

Some MCFR firefighters choose to wear their bunker gear even when responding to a wildfire because some of the area’s fuels, such as cogon grass, gallberry brush and palmettos, burn hot and emit intense radiant heat. Note: MCFR does not recommend wearing both the jumpsuit and bunker gear for extended periods of time, such as during extended mop-up and overhaul operations, because doing so can cause internal heat injury. (For more on proper WUI PPE and its relation to heat injury, read “A Multi-Layered Issue,” July issue, p. 85.)

Apparatus
MCFR is fortunate enough to have a wide variety of apparatus–more than 180–at its disposal, ranging from brush trucks and tenders to fire engines and command vehicles. Its standard wildland vehicle, a four-wheel-drive, 1-ton “workhorse,” can hold a 250—500-gallon water supply. Other features include a stand-alone, gas-powered, 18-horsepower “pony pump,” which can hold Class A foam and feed multiple hoselines, including booster reels, 1″ forestry hose and standard 1 ¾” attack lines.

MCFR tenders, which can hold 2,500—5,000 gallons of water, provide additional water resources and perform shuttling and drafting capabilities. All structural engines remain on the hardtop to protect houses and provide water to the tenders or command platform.

Many MCFR wildland trucks are built or refurbished in the department’s fire shop. As is widely known, new apparatus cost thousands of dollars, but MCFR employs emergency vehicle technicians who can build trucks for $20,000. These in-house initiatives have saved MCFR and its taxpayers millions of dollars over the years.

Step 3: Review Your Tactics

Although wildfires are typically larger and more intense in May and June, Florida experiences a yearlong wildfire season that ranges from lightning-ignited wildfires in the summer to grass fires following hard freezes in the winter. Arson is also an issue every year.

When conditions are normal, MCFR typically dispatches one fire engine and one brush truck to wildfires; forestry units wait to respond until after receiving information obtained through scene size-up. In contrast, when conditions are ripe, MCFR will “dual dispatch” and send two engines, two brush trucks and one captain. Often, MCFR will also send tenders; forestry firefighters will automatically respond even before hearing the scene size-up. The concept: Commit a tremendous number of resources on the wildfire while it’s small so it never gets the chance to grow out of control.

Although some structural departments park their engines on the pavement near threatened houses and hook up to neighborhood hydrants, this “wait-it-out” tactic puts these units between the unburned fuel and the fire–a dangerous approach. Firefighters may not know how to mitigate the risk or identify safety zones and escape routes.

MCFR, along with many other structural departments, takes a more aggressive approach. While MCFR engines are positioned at the most vulnerable structures, fire crews offensively attack the fire as long as it’s accessible. Frequently, MCFR crews contain the fire before forestry units arrive or need to unload their tractor plows. If crews can’t access or contain the fire, forestry crews are always ready to plow lines and activate air operations.

Many agencies will simply contain a wildfire within its firelines and only periodically send crews to check on it. When firefighters rely on this tactic, they often find that the fire has not only jumped the lines but also spread into unburned territory.

MCFR spends hours, and sometimes several days or weeks, mopping up a fire once contained. On a small fire, crews will overhaul it with water and hand tools; on larger fires, crews may initially mop up the circumference (20 feet deep on the first pass and 50 feet or more on the second). This does not always equate to complete extinguishment, but it keeps the fire contained within the perimeter.

Important: The single most important factor in keeping small fires small: performing thorough mop-up and overhaul operations. Incidentally, these are also the least popular aspects of the job because they’re labor intensive and expensive. But stopping WUI fires and wildfires is easier than dealing with escaped fires, displaced families, destroyed homes, public outcry and, even worse, wildfire fatalities.

Conclusion

Every year, while many counties in Florida and across the country are issuing mandatory evacuations, closing down major highways and even losing homes and businesses due to wildfires, Marion County has remained relatively free of major fires thanks to the MCFR’s proven three-step approach.

Remember: Forming partnerships with wildfire agencies in your area can only increase the level of safety you provide your community. Knowing your department’s needs will help you customize and/or order the right amount of training, PPE and apparatus. And reviewing your firefighting tactics, making changes as needed, will help you stay one step ahead of any fire that comes your way.

 

Show Me the Money

Grants currently offered through the USFA & other federal agencies

  • Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFGP)
  • Reimbursement for Firefighting on Federal Property
  • State Fire Training Systems Grants
  • National Fire Academy Training Assistance
  • Guide to Federal Resources
  • Funding Alternatives

For more information, visit the USFA Web site at www.usfa.dhs.gov/fireservice/grants.

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