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From the Archives: The Iron 44 Incident - Handling the Incident within an Incident

Author: Chris Baker, COML, Roseville (CA) Fire Dept

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2014-08-05
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Originally published in our Jan/Feb 2009 issue.

The following article details a communications unit response the largest aerial firefighting loss of life in the United States.  The incident occurred six years ago today, during efforts to fight the Buckhorn Fire on the Iron Alps Complex in a wilderness area of one of the most deadly U.S. forest for fire fighters – the Shasta Trinity Forest near Junction City, California. 

Nightfire burns on the Iron Complex in northern California, October 2008.  The firefight was winding down when a tragic crash of a firefighter helicopter cost the lives of ten firefighters, and challenged resources already overextended on the fireline - and the Incident Communications.  Photo: Mike Johnson/USFS/from


The Iron Alps Complex firefight began on June 21, 2008, and continued over one month before it incurred the tragic death of U.S. Park Service Firefighter Andrew Palmer, killed by a falling tree on July 25th.  The previous incident management team (IMT) had since been demobilized, and the Norcal 2 IMT took the incident. 

On Tuesday, August 5th 2008, I was attending the planning session for the next operational period as one of two communications unit leaders (COML) assigned to the incident through the state fire and rescue mutual aid plan.  Although it’s sometimes annoying to others and not always encouraged, I was part of a small group that monitored the radio on “low” during the meetings.  Shortly after the meeting commenced, the command channel crackled the unmistakable words which we firefighters fear: “Aircraft accident with a fire – send help!”  The call was placed as a Sikorsky S-61 USFS contract firefighting helicopter crashed down a hillside and succumbed to flames in what became known as the Iron 44 incident ? so named after the location of Helispot H44.  The helo had just lifted off to transport the first load of two hand-crews off the mountain back to Willow Creek heli-base, due to an impending dry lightning storm when it crashed.  Of the 13 men aboard, only three firefighters and one pilot survived – all with major injuries or burns.


The View from the Incident Communications Unit

Critical to the success of safety on this or any incident is an effective communications unit to include an adequate staff of well-trained personnel and complement of equipment.  The modus operandi following Palmer’s death was there would be above all, no further loss of life.  In that philosophy, the IMT placed a priority on ordering what may have been a “fat” complement of staffing for the communications unit.  This sound decision led to a staff of two incident communications managers (INCM), six radio operators (RADO), one technician, and two communications unit leaders available to manage communications during the H44 incident.

The Aviation dispatch trailer at Willow Creek helibase, supporting the Iron Complex.  The Sikorsky helo had lifted off to transport crews back to this base when it crashed. Photo via Chris Baker

Upon receipt of the distress call, the COMLs and medical unit leader (MEDL) proceeded to the incident communications center (ICC) to manage their respective functions.  The ICC was broken into functional blocks: a primary radio operator and scribe assigned to the command net handling the emergency, a secondary radio operator and scribe assigned to the logistics net coordinating command and MCI resources, one radio operator each assigned to the incoming and outgoing phone lines, an INCM supervising the primary radio operations, a runner, and the technician assisting with additional monitoring.  One COML coordinated the ICC activities, and the other coordinated with command staff outside the ICC.

All unnecessary command personnel remained outside the ICC, and all non-essential conversations were limited in the ICC to avoid stress or confusion which gave an atmosphere of calm professionalism prevailing throughout the incident. 

The RADOs primary duty on this type of incident is to receive, document, and relay messages.  Upon receipt of the distress call, the standard actions detailed in the medical plan (ICS 206) were put into play: clear the command channel for the emergency, gather critical information, notify appropriate command staff, and request appropriate additional resources. 

Certain challenges unique to this incident were dealt with accordingly.  Such issues dealt with acquiring accurate victim counts, scene command accountability, locations, and immediate resource needs.  The nature of a remote location accessible only by long hikes or aircraft, degrading weather and daylight, numerous resources in the air, and great distances to local hospitals and even longer to trauma and burn centers places a greater challenge to the dispatcher even given the immensity posed by that of an aircraft mass casualty incident alone.  With these challenges, the RADOs of the Iron 44 incident were able to coordinate the response of six aircraft and ground resources which aided in the rescue and transport of the four survivors the trauma center in Redding, CA.



The operations section chief, safety officer, and IC were notified quickly after the initial call, and the medical and communications unit leaders responded to the ICC directly after the call.  Once initial reports and a location were obtained, medical helicopters and ambulances were requested through the 9-1-1 system.  Lacking a clear initial victim count, more details regarding the maximum number seats aboard the aircraft were researched and additional resources were requested.  A special National Guard rescue helicopter, kept on standby in Redding with a hoist and long-range capabilities, was also dispatched due to terrain aspects (from the Palmer incident, it was learned that due to the extreme terrain a hoist could significantly reduce extrication time on steep terrain.  Not many EMS helicopters are equipped with hoists).


Command, Coordination, and Communications

The Iron 44 incident was a complex incident that eventually culminated in the determination of nine deaths.  Issues of terrain causing lack of access, no commercial wireless service, and managing multiple sources of information and ordering points provided challenges beyond what’s normally expected in a wildland fire incident.  However, the ICS structure, adherence to the medical plan, and appropriate staffing levels allowed the communications unit to function and expedite effective solutions.  In post-incident debriefings it was overwhelmingly proclaimed that communications did not fail in this incident.

Members of the Iron Complex communications unit set up a portable repeater in the Big Bar area after it was burned over. Photo via Chris Baker

The majority of RADOs had come to the unit with an operational background of firefighting, both structural and wildland.  The operational background of these personnel was a key component to success.  For example, additional flexibility was given to delegate some coordination duties of the MEDL in the communications unit to myself, also a paramedic, so she could initial an MCI (multiple casualty incident) treatment area if incoming patients were flown to the ICP.

Personnel consisted of both federal government (primarily USFS) and local government background and of both full-time and seasonal employment.  Several RADOs performed as both dispatchers and firefighters at their home units.  One INCM was a fire engineer from a Southern CA local agency, and the other a retired state police officer with current fire and communications experience.  The primary radio operator, who was not relieved of his duties from the time the emergency was declared until well after the initial incident was under control several hours later for continuity, was a seasonal USFS employee and on his first communications unit deployment.  He performed flawlessly throughout the incident. 


Lessons Learned

Here are some key lessons and recommendations for effective communications unit operation learned from the Iron 44 incident:

1. The most critical component of any communications unit is an adequate number of adequately qualified staff.  One or two persons in the ICC would not have been able to handle this type of incident.  Order adequate communications unit personnel for your incident, and have a plan to recall off-duty members quickly should an incident-within-an-incident occur.

2. The communications unit must possess and be familiar with critical documents.  Secure the appropriate plans and documentation, such as the incident action plan (IAP) including the medical and communications plans, as well as accurate incident maps with locations of helispots and drop points, local agency contact procedures, communications plans, etc.  Update them every time new documentation is available.  Ensure all personnel are trained on utilizing this information by orienting each new member upon assignment to the unit, and conduct occasional exercises to reinforce the training.

3. Unlike a PSAP, ICC phone lines and functionality are normally limited and simplistic.  PBX systems, caller ID, and the ability to transfer to appropriate extensions or voice-mail do not normally exist.  Divide telephone duty into incoming and outgoing call takers, with one line always dedicated to incoming calls supporting the emergency.

A glowing firescape from the Iron Complex is viewed from Incident Base Camp last October in northern California.  Photo via Chris Baker.


4. Maintain a sterile ICC atmosphere during the emergency.  If working in a linear space, divide the phone functions into that portion of the room further away from command channel operations to reduce noise.

5. Unlike PSAPs, ICCs typically lack voice logging and CAD systems, but accurate documentation is as critical for incident communications.  Dedicate a scribe to each radio operator position.  There are simplistic software applications and Microsoft Word macros that allow seamless translation into the appropriate ICS forms with time stamping.

6. Incident emergencies do not respect the sanctity of planning meetings, briefings, etc.  When critical command staff is participating in meetings where radios must be silence, earphones should be used to monitor traffic.  In the absence of monitoring during these meetings, a suitable delegate who can act on one’s behalf must be appointed for the duration of the meeting who will monitor the radio.

7. Incident communications personnel must be even more flexible than PSAP telecommunicators already are.  We live in the incident’s environment, sometimes for weeks on end, and may be tasked to any number of assignments.  Be flexible and don’t be afraid to branch out and learn new things.  Experienced personnel must always develop new trainees.  Don’t hoard the knowledge and the power – we must allow those trainees to perform critical functions while supervised so they can be ready for the challenges.  When duty calls – it’s all hands on!

Above right: This photo of the helicopter crash site was taken by the first arriving air unit that came onto the scene after the incident. Photo: Michael Reid/Zion Helitack Supervisor

8. Be ready for what follows an incident like this.  If you are not familiar with the concepts of critical incident stress management and related issues, you need to be – particularly if you are a unit leader or manager level.  I was lucky enough to get constant advice from the HR specialist assigned to the incident in order to provide the appropriate direction and support for my unit personnel.  Many sources of how-to literature are readily available on line or through your agency.  Make sure to print these out and keep them in your response kit before this type of incident occurs.

9. Realize while there may be others at the incident assigned support critical stress management, it’s ultimately your responsibility if you are the unit leader.  While IMT members may experience a timely demobilization after such an incident, expect individual resources such as RADOs to continue on their normal one or two week incident assignment unless they request early demobilization.  If you are a unit leader on an incident like this, make sure you are the last out of the door – just like at a fire or crime scene.  Ensure all affected personnel leave the incident having any reasonable needs addressed while still working on the incident.  For this reason, I was requested and agreed to a two week extension on this incident.  I found that to be a critical component as time wore on and we attended to both the incident and supported the accident investigation, victim removal, and memorial services.


In conclusion, there is no way to fully prepare for the major incident-within-an-incident.  I hope to never encounter a similar incident again in my career, but I know I will be more prepared if there is a next time.  The only thing we can control is the aspect of adequate preparation through training, equipage, and staffing.  If you address these items in advance, you will be engineered for success. 


About the author (2009): Chris Baker is a fire captain and paramedic with the Roseville (CA) Fire Department assigned to engine company operations.  He performs special assignments in public safety communications and is active in the Northern CA Chapter of APCO, FIRESCOPE communication specialists group, CA Fire Chiefs’ Communications section, and has been assigned to a federal interagency incident management team.  Chris is currently an instructor delivering the NIMS Type 3 Communications Unit Leader course in the Department of Homeland Security OEC program.

This article is dedicated to the memory of the 10 men who paid the ultimate price fighting the Iron Alps Complex fires in 2008 ? Andrew Palmer, Matt Hammer, Shawn Blazer, Scott Charlson, Edrik Gomez, Bryan Rich, Roark Schwanenberg, David Steele, Jim Ramage, and Steven Renno.  We brought you off the mountain, and will always carry your memory.

A Memorial Video has been posted to youtube in honor of the Iron 44 Fallen Firefighters.  Click here to watch it at




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