Developing a Wildland Fire Communications Plan

When a fire department gets the alert that a wildland fire has been spotted, everyone in the department automatically puts their portion of the department’s response plan into action. It is second nature. It has to be.

Coping with a wildland fire, or a fire that encroaches on the urban interface, requires that a department respond fast and decisively. Lives and property lie in the balance. Predetermined response plans that incorporate mutual-aid resources are often key in achieving quick containment, but even with much preplanning, departments face many challenges.

One critical piece of the puzzle: Building a communications plan that addressess technological issues as well as cultural issues to ensure that responding departments are able to work together effectively to achieve containment.

Common Wildland/WUI Fire Challenges

Wildland and wildland/urban interface (WUI) fires can be big. In fact, they can be huge. The Yellowstone fire in 1988 impacted some 793,880 acres. Convert that into square miles, and the area is about the size of the cities of Los Angeles, New York and Chicago combined.

In addition, wildland and WUI fires present a lot of variables. There’s the fuel the fire is burning-the types of trees and vegetation involved. There’s the weather that can change swiftly. A wind shift can not only require altering the response plan, but also put at risk the first responders who are already deployed. There’s the topography that often includes deep canyons and mountain peaks that complicate firefighter movement. And, there is the encroachment of people who are building homes next to or within wildlands. This puts added pressure for quick and decisive department response.

The end result: Wildfires can quickly require resources well beyond those available locally.

Starting from Behind

Mutual-aid agreements are vital. But, as with structural mutual-aid agreements, these agreements come with issues of their own. Responding departments may rarely work together except in wildfire or other disaster situations.

“There may be cultural differences and few commonalities among some responding departments,” says Erik Litzenberg, fire chief of the Santa Fe (N.M.) Fire Department. “They simply may do their business differently.”

Additionally, it is possible that responding departments may use their own terminologies to describe the situations their firefighters face, the manner in which orders are given and the context in which they are heard and understood by their personnel.

From the technical side, responding departments likely will bring their own radio communications equipment. They have systems that work best for them. But, that equipment may not operate on bands and frequencies or have the features and capabilities of systems used by other departments working the same wildfire.

“All of these realities mean that when a department and its mutual-aid partners respond to a wildfire, everyone is starting behind,” Chief Litzenberg adds. “Planning is the only way to narrow that gap. It must be bridged to ensure lives are not put at significant risk.”

For Chief Litzenberg, a successful communications plan requires that both sides of the communications equation be in balance-the cultural, ensuring that all first responders at the scene understand each other, and the technical, ensuring that the radio systems, protocols and procedures are in place to tie all of the firefighting resources together. These resources include personnel, planes, helicopters and earth-moving equipment. They also include other disciplines, such as law enforcement, that may be involved to coordinate evacuations from populated areas.

Technology Is Key

As departments plan how they will respond to wildfires, one factor they are paying considerable attention to is radio communications.

“We have found that communications technology is a powerful way to help us bridge the gap we have among responding departments,” Chief Litzenberg says.

Beyond that, radio communications often is the only way to coordinate recovery services-public safety and others-when landlines and cellular towers have been destroyed in a fire. Since 9/11 in particular, communications manufacturers like Motorola Solutions and fire departments have been working hand-in-hand to harness rapidly emerging technologies for wildfire and other extreme firefighting applications.

Some of those advancements include:

  • The development of Project 25 standards-based mission critical networks. Communications equipment built to the P25 standard provide integrated voice and data network communications across any agency using a P25 network.
  • Applications that can act as a “bridge” to connect radios from different departments when those departments aren’t using interoperable technology. This allows users to communicate with their own radios in the field and connect to each other’s remote command and control and dispatch facilities.
  • Video and audio recording capabilities that allow for better incident command and after-action reviews.
  • Mobile communications systems that allow departments to quickly set up radio frequency sites in remote areas or when primary infrastructure is damaged.

“That work has really put fire service communications on the right path for the future,” says P. Michael Freeman, former fire chief of Los Angeles County, a position he held for 22 years. “Some of the ergonomic enhancements for handheld radios alone have been significant breakthroughs,” he says.

These enhancements include larger knobs on portable radios that are easier for first responders to use with gloved hands, larger screens that are easier to see, and ruggedized housings that protect against dust and water.

Future Needs

All of this collaborative work has generated invaluable data that is driving the development of the rugged radio systems first responders want now as well as in the future for wildfire situations. Some of the more important needs they have pinpointed include:

  • Interoperability. Today, departments choose systems to meet their individual needs, not the needs of potential mutual-aid partners. They do this partly because there is no common communications platform that would ensure interoperability with other departments responding to a wildfire. Many believe that technological standards such as P25, and the emerging FirstNet broadband public safety network, may eventually provide one. Yet, the short-term question is, what can departments do now with the systems they have to increase their ability to communicate with others working the same wildfire?
  • Technological awareness. Fire chiefs and department personnel often feel the systems they have available are slightly “behind the technological curve.” Much of that can be attributed to the lengthy planning, budgeting, purchasing and deployment process with which most departments have to contend. To ensure that the systems they buy in the future meet their needs then and have the flexibility to accommodate emerging features and capabilities, their technological perspective must be “slightly ahead of the curve.” Working closely with peers in industry work groups and with communications manufacturers to match needs with technologies has been valuable to many in developing this perspective. “I believe there is a lot of communications technology available today that could be applied more universally to wildfires and other extreme firefighting situations,” Chief Freeman says. “That includes everything from programmable radios to batteries that hold charges longer and re-charge faster, and systems that provide voice and data.” In California, Chief Freeman adds, “we have desired to experiment with drones for wildfire reconnaissance, mapping and use as airborne repeaters. “
  • Ease of use. Simplicity can’t be sacrificed for technical sophistication. First responders need communications hardware that is easy and intuitive to use. There is no time to figure out how a radio “really” works with a wildfire raging. Using a communications system must be as natural and easy as any other gear.

Wildfire Ready

Fire chiefs who face the threat of wildfires agree that there are three fundamental steps any department should take right now to be “wildfire ready.”

1. Think beyond the “day-to-day.” Developing a comprehensive and effective communications plan requires stepping back and taking a broader, long-range view of the challenges a wildfire presents in your area.
2. Identify who will be coming to help you and who might ask you to help them. This is the only way that a department can begin to identify the procedures, command and organizational issues, and communications challenges-both technological and cultural-that must be resolved to ensure the most effective response in a wildfire crisis.
3. Plan, plan and plan. Practice, practice and practice. Some may argue that “practice doesn’t make perfect,” but practice makes it possible for departments to get close.

The radio systems available to firefighters responding to wildfires today are better than they have ever been. With continually developing technology, they will only improve. But, what really matters is what these sophisticated tools enable firefighters to do-contain wildfires faster, protect lives and property better, and keep themselves safer in the process. missing image file

Sidebar: Planning Is the Priority
As wildland fires become more common and threaten more and more areas, planning for response has become a top priority for departments across the country, not just out West.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, wildfires burned more than 5 million acres in 2008. In 2012, that number exceeded 9 million. The costs of fighting these fires in 2012 totaled more than $1.9 billion.

“Twenty-five years ago, large wildfires seemed rare along the Colorado Front Range,” says Chief Tom DeMint of the Poudre Fire Authority in Ft. Collins, Colo. “Today, there seem to be more fires, they are more severe, they burn faster and they have a larger impact on the community. In the last year-and-a-half, we have had three fires that burned more than 100,000 acres. One of those fires occurred in March 2013, normally the region’s wettest month, and it burned 1,500 acres in a single afternoon.”

Wildland fires can impact the community in ways well beyond the fire itself. “We have industries that depend on water quality, including beer and high-tech electronics,” Chief DeMint says. “Although we had an impact to our water quality, the City of Fort Collins Water Utility continued to provide high-quality water to the communities we serve. Consequently, businesses here were not impacted because they could retrieve water from a different source. But, we are spending millions to vegetate the area.”

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