When the 2003 Cedar Fire ripped through San Diego County, it forever altered the wildland/urban interface (WUI) playing field. Not only did flames consume 280,000 acres (more than 100,000 in the first 24 hours), they also destroyed 2,800 homes and killed 15 people. The mutual aid system at the time was pushed beyond its limit. The severity of the disaster demanded pulling out all the stops.
Military Involvement in the Cedar Fire
While integration of the military into firefighting operations had been limited prior to 2003, CAL FIRE has successfully worked with the California National Guard (CNG) since the mid-1970s. The CNG program uses military helicopter managers (MHEMs) to keep crews safe and effective in the air.
During fire season, the CNG uses radios that are fully compatible with fire service radios. For decades now, the CNG has readily cooperated during incidents, and its relationship with CAL FIRE has served as a model for other military agencies to follow.
During the Cedar Fire, the U.S. Navy offered its H-3 helicopters to help quench the firestorm. Though an obvious potential asset, the Navy helos had no standardized firefighting training, and their radio connectivity was limited. So to avoid major communications and operations challenges, the Navy ships were integrated only in remote areas of the fire. This action ultimately laid the groundwork for future cooperation with the military and mission expansion.
Following the 2003 siege, firefighting agencies in Southern California tried to decide how best to integrate the military into the firefight. It seemed on paper to be a natural fit, but firefighting is, of course, not the military’s primary job, so joint efforts remained limited to the one Navy squadron that had helped during the Cedar Fire.
Renamed Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 85 (HSC-85) and armed with new H-60s, the North Island-based sailors had the helpful distinction of being a reserve unit. This made them a readily available resource, with limited deployments and consistent personnel.
To streamline the alert and activation of aircraft in the San Diego area, CAL FIRE, in partnership with the Navy, formalized a letter of agreement. Using the existing agreement between fire agencies and the CNG as a template, protocols established included an initial availability inquiry and a detailed alert and activation process, which included both aircraft and fire agency staffing.
The 2007 Firestorm
In the days prior to the 2007 outbreak in Southern California, predictive weather services led CAL FIRE to call on the Navy Reserves. HSC-85 declared it would be ready with one or two of its bucketed Seahawks.
Initially, the largest fire was the Harris Fire. Having already alerted the Navy Reserves, fire agencies made the official call to the Navy Region Southwest for activation. HSC-85 responded a second time with two H-60s. On board those helicopters were not only standard aircrews, but CAL FIRE MHEMs. Their primary responsibilities include monitoring fire behavior and tactics, as well as safety in the fire traffic area (FTA), and performing proper communications. By virtue of the existing agreement and associated training, the two H-60s were immediately ordered to respond to the Rancho Bernardo area for fire suppression.
Due to catastrophic fire conditions, the Navy called on another eight helicopters to assist in the fight. At this point, the Marines offered a fleet of their own, a mix of CH-53E Super Stallions and CH-46E Sea Knights based out of nearby Miramar and Camp Pendleton.
Southern California was 2 days into the siege when these assets were acquired, which presented a series of hurdles to overcome (and little time to do so):
- Fire agencies had nowhere near enough MHEMs to staff all the aircraft;
- There had been no training or prior coordination to integrate the Marines; and
- Marine radios were unable to pick up critical fire frequencies.
To compensate for the lack of MHEMs, helicopters were allowed to travel in pairs, with the lead aircraft carrying the experienced fire captain. The military typically flies its helicopters in sets of two to four, with the lead making radio calls and tactical decisions for the flight. This enabled CAL FIRE to deliver twice the amount of water with half the agency staffing. Given the extenuating circumstances, this proved sufficient for Navy air crews that regularly fought fire on their own installations and had been cooperating with CAL FIRE for the previous 4 years.
Many of the Marine Corps air crews, however, had never even carried a fire bucket. To ensure safety, each Marine helicopter tagged along with a CNG ship of a similar size; CH-46s followed behind CH-60s and CH-53s followed behind CH-47s. This allowed the aircraft to use appropriately-sized dip sites and compensated for the lack of MHEMs. More importantly, it provided radio connectivity via the CNG’s radio compatibility.
Although there are many similarities between military air ops and firefighting air ops, there are also many differences, as illustrated during the 2007 firestorm. Specifically, the military and fire agencies differ in pilot technique, airspace management, incident-related hazards and fire jargon. Regular joint training is therefore essential, particularly for active-duty service members.
Due to their deployment cycle, new Marine air crews are available to Southern California every 6 months. Whenever a squadron rotates back to the United States, CAL FIRE provides it with classroom and flight training. The culmination of the training cycle is an annual 3-day exercise designed to incorporate all the elements of an activation. Day one involves a test of the pre-alert notifications through the activation of aircraft and personnel, reaffirming that all contacts are correct and everyone understands their role.
Day two involves an educational overview of the command center used during activations of Marine Corps and Navy Reserve assets.
On day three, CAL FIRE and the military perform a simulated emergency that requires the use of all prior training. Calls are made regarding a simulated emergency from the CAL FIRE Emergency Command Center to both the Navy and Marine Corps. Aircraft are manned, buckets are hooked, and preflight checks are completed. When the order is given, the helicopters respond to Camp Pendleton, and air drops are made and critiqued by fire personnel on the ground.
Once the day-long scenario is complete, air crewmembers and staff perform an after-action review.
DSCA & IR
Training does no good if military forces don’t first have clearance to engage in fire emergencies. Military forces cannot legally become involved in large-scale emergencies within the nation’s borders without being explicitly requested by the state and approved for use by the federal government. Although this long-established law has maintained a civilian government, it has also hampered efforts to engage some very capable assets when they’re needed most.
The current system by which any agency can order federal military assets is known as Defense Support to Civilian Authorities (DSCA). If a fire emergency occurs, the agency in need must submit a request to DSCA, which is routed through the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) to the military’s Northern Command (NORTHCOM). NORTHCOM must get the approval of the Secretary of Defense before it assigns forces to the incident. (Note: CNG helicopters are not subject to this process.)
Just a few years ago, this process took up to 72 hours to complete. The military has since improved response times through the DSCA process by giving NORTHCOM the authority to commit a predetermined amount of resources to any event, which should meet the needs of most civilian authorities.
The NORTHCOM authority works well if the incident is planned (special events, law enforcement) or after emergencies involving recovery efforts (floods, tornadoes). But WUI and wildland fires require additional assistance during the first few hours, when the request to NORTHCOM is still working its way through the system.
There is one alternative to the DSCA process that allows local commanders to provide more timely assistance. The Immediate Response (IR) provision, which CAL FIRE used during the 2007 firestorm, allows agencies to establish local agreements with their military neighbors in advance of an emergency. A request under this provision usually comes in the form of a written plan between fire agencies and local military resources.
So when do you use DSCA and when do you use IR? The process may be complex, but the answer is rather simple. If the need is immediate and local, use your local agreement. If the event isn’t located in the immediate vicinity of the military base, begin the DSCA process. The local commander doesn’t have the authority to deploy their forces any great distance, and NORTHCOM’s response will take some time.
Putting the Plan into Action
So what do you do when you’re inundated with additional aircraft that exceed your available staffing, overwhelm your logistical capabilities and are ill-equipped for communications needs?
CAL FIRE positions an MHEM on board every military helicopter, not only for the reasons mentioned earlier, but because military air crews often request them. The MHEM also acts as the direct liaison between the military and Air Operations Branch Director (AOBD) on the incident.
For aircraft without MHEMs or compatible radios, CAL FIRE has adapted the traditional Helicopter Coordinator (HELCO) position into a dedicated Military Helicopter Coordinator (MILCO). This person typically boards a light civilian helicopter and leads 2—4 water-dropping military ships through the FTA. The MILCO is often the only communications link between their ship and the military aircraft. The MILCO also provides tactical insight, recommends dip sites and maintains a safe distance from civilian aircraft.
Inevitably, there will be large-scale incidents when there aren’t enough MHEMs or MILCOs to go around. When this happens, officials must create alternative aircraft configurations while maintaining flexibility and a constant eye on safety.
One configuration that was used successfully during the 2007 firestorm involved pairing helicopters without compatible radios to those with them. The lead helicopters have MHEMs on board and make all the calls for the flight. The aircraft tagging along can talk directly to the lead aircraft.
If there’s no way to ensure either safe separation or sufficient communications, the only option is to ground the aircraft.
What the Future Holds
Military communication systems are designed to be self-sufficient and therefore don’t integrate into civilian emergency support. However, the military is investigating the possibility of installing permanent compatible radios into their helicopters. Most likely, this will take years to achieve. In the interim, the NIFC has offered the use of a “plug-and-play” system that would enable one person per helicopter to use their handheld radio as part of the aircraft’s intercom system. This could be tested during the 2009 fire season.
As fire agencies evolve into all-risk mission profiles, they must continue to expand their search for resources, especially during these challenging fiscal times.
The military has numerous capabilities that can assist far beyond water-dropping helicopters. In California, they’ve provided aerial image-sensing and mapping, retardant dropping, bulldozing and equipment rinsing, to name a few.
If you’re near a military facility, inquire about mutual-aid possibilities. Develop clear guidelines for activation and utilization. Schedule training scenarios that progress from table-top exercises to full-scale field exercises.
Finally, maintain regular contact with military officials because personnel rotate often; names and faces will change, but the concerted effort should remain the same.
Remember: The military provides assistance during massive emergencies, not minor incidents, and it’s a lot to ask of anyone to be immediately proficient at a task when conditions are harshest. When incorporating military resources into your plan of attack, don’t exceed their capabilities, and you’ll be rewarded with a safe and effective contribution.
DSCA/IR Lessons Learned
CAL FIRE has learned a couple valuable lessons about using the DSCA/IR processes. First, if you request federal military helicopters, consider requesting that they be self-sufficient. The Navy and Marine detachments that provided assistance in 2007 were highly motivated, but their logistical footprint was overwhelming to agency personnel tasked with housing, moving and feeding them.
Second, if using forces in an IR capacity, submit a parallel request for the same forces via DSCA. This is largely an internal military issue of funding, but may save you from having an unexpected interruption of services. During IR, the local commands pay for the support. When DSCA approval comes through, FEMA picks up the costs for the military support.