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The Poomacha Fire

Author: Don Stabler

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

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Communications Management at the Fire Command Post

By Don Stabler

Originally published in Jan/Feb 2008 issue.

What’s left of a neighborhood reduced to ash and carcasses of metal by the Poomacha Fire.  Communications needs and topography challenged field comm managers and incident dispatchers, who responded from all over California to support the up to 3,000 firefighters assigned to this fire. RON EGGERSThe Poomacha Fire started in the early hours of October 23 as a residential structure fire that spread to the wildland. Around noon that day, I received a call from CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Alan Knapp from the Lake-Napa-Sonoma Unit; the Communications Unit Leader (COML) on California Incident Management Team 4, which had been pre-staged in Southern California awaiting assignment and were now heading to San Diego County to support command of the Poomacha fire. He had no communications support and was looking for personnel. I told him I was available and started packing. I hit the road and notified my fire chief. I had met Alan a few years ago when I was the COML on CAL FIRE Incident Management Team 2. Alan had since stopped by the Cordelia Fire District Administrative Offices, where I am now working, a couple of times and we had become reacquainted. I had told him I was still certified and qualified, and if he needed anything, to call. That’s exactly what he did.

I arrived at the Poomacha Base Camp about 2 AM on Wednesday morning and immediately found Alan. CAL FIRE’s Mobile Communication Center MCC24 had arrived earlier from Redding, but none of his requested personnel or other equipment, including radios, had shown up. As the morning continued to go by, much to our dismay, no other communications personnel showed up at the incident base.

Because we still had outstanding orders for four Incident Dispatchers and two RADO (mnemonic for Radio Operators), and because of the vast number and size of the fires in Southern California, updates on pending orders were pretty much nonexistent. As the day wore on and no word of “fill information” came in on our personnel orders, Alan and I decided to use named requests; this meant sending out emails to a few different groups and seeing who was available and had agency approval, and then officially requesting that those qualified individuals to respond to our incident. Within an hour, I had heard back from three people who could respond immediately: an incident dispatcher for the City of Napa Fire Department, Susan Dizmang; a City of Mountain View dispatcher, Jaymie Caioli; and an incident dispatcher from San Jose Fire – who just happened to be my wife, Lisa. I initiated the paperwork on the first two, and I had Alan hand carry the paperwork on Lisa to our Incident Commander to make sure that everyone was aware that a husband and wife were committed to the same communications unit as named requests.

As the dispatchers started to report in many hours or a day later, our communications unit began to take shape, and we took responsibility for the incident from the Forest Service dispatchers. I am sure the Cleveland National Forest was happy to hear that, but because of the amount of frequencies in use on surrounding incidents, we kept our Command Net on their dispatch frequency, which did have a preexisting repeater that worked well, until our fire more than doubled in size.

I encountered a situation that was tenuous to say the least. A couple of people in the comm unit who were ordered from out of state had problems with work schedules and performance and were released from the incident. This left us short; but in view of incident and firefighter safety, I felt this was the correct move. At that time a named request was issued for Michael Dickerson from Ventura County Fire. After many hours and a couple of attempts to get him ordered through the system, Michael reported for duty. This was a godsend, to say the least. Michael had spent many years with the fire department located right next door to base camp. While I knew that this was a win-win for everyone, I did not realize how soon it was going to pay off.

A few hours after his arrival and at shift change, we received a garbled radio message that sounded something like, “Emergency Traffic … (location) … altercation … golf.” We figured out that we had a fight involving a hand crew (“Golf” is the mutual aid designation for a Type 1 hand crew). Because he was familiar with the area, Michael was able to pinpoint the location on the map and direct local law enforcement to the site and handle the dispute. Having great dispatchers at the consoles paid off and our named requests had earned their weight in gold.

A lone helicopter carries a bucket of water to drop onto Poomacha flames near the Palomar Observatory in northern San Diego County. LISA STABLERThe radio techs assigned to CAL FIRE Communications Unit worked very well with the dispatchers. In first five or six mornings, we had to reprogram every portable radio as the communications plan and assignments kept changing. Lisa had her own programming cube (like a thumb drive that can download the frequency program into the Bendix King radios), so she assisted in this while Sue Dizmang issued radios to the crews who needed them – by the dozens for the first few days. Jaymie provided traffic control for the crews waiting to for radios; that kept the confusion and time lost to a minimum. The techs took turns taking the dispatchers out on to the line to see the devastation when they needed to go out to set up or check a remote repeater site. Lesson learned by all? California oranges are flammable.

As the fire moved, we found a dead area not covered by repeaters that was sensitive during the day time, so we deployed one of the RADOs, Raul Garcia from the Tahoe National Forest, into the field as our “human relay.” Raul was set up remotely on top of Mount Palomar between the Palomar Observatory and a fire lookout tower, where he provided an essential verbal communications link, the old-fashioned way, for at least five days. He was never lonely – he’d be visited on occasion by crews and chiefs stopping by, who provided some attention to him, and he also was visited by a number of displaced wildlife. He had breakfast in camp, grabbed a lunch as he headed up the mountain, and came back in the evening to have dinner.

As the Poomacha fire started to wind down and some resources were deployed to new and more active fires, we received word that a Forest Service Type 2 Team would transition in. At that time, I started to demobilize some of the communications personnel, and shortly found myself released from the incident.

As I drove home, I thought about the communications personnel who were assigned to this incident. They went beyond dispatchers – we had a few radio technicians from the Department of General Services and support personnel in the way of private vendors. There was also the support of the frequency coordinators, Hampton Stewart in particular. It seemed that at every turn of events, I knew someone somewhere to give me good advice: Chris Hinshaw and Don Root at the San Diego County EOC and, on adjacent fires, Geoff Pemberton, Kody Kerwin, Rick Smith, and a few others.

The incident dispatchers who responded once again proved and validated the training they received in the California Fire Chiefs Association Incident Dispatcher Program. This program has been endorsed by the FIRESCOPE Communications Specialists Group, the Operations Section Group, and also the Board of Directors of the California Fire Chiefs Association. As a trainer of over 600 incident dispatchers over the past dozen or so years, to be at an incident and see a few of my students in action was heartwarming. As I explained to a training chief a few years ago, when they train firefighters, they see the results of their efforts almost immediately. For me, I have only had this pleasurable experience a few times; but I learned early on that I did not need to spend much time looking over shoulders. A good team goes a long way.

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Incident Dispatcher Perspective: Poomacha Fire Callout

By Jaymie Caoili, Dispatcher, City of Mountain View (CA)

On October 25, 2007, 10:23 AM, I was notified by Mountain View Fire Communications that I was approved to respond to the Poomacha fire in Southern California to fill a position in the incident’s communications unit. Within the hour, I was on my way to Valley Center. This would be my first deployment as an incident dispatcher on a mutual aid wildfire assignment.

At approximately 8:45 PM, I arrived at the command post. I checked in with Don Stabler, who was serving as deputy COML, and met the communications team already in place (which included incident dispatchers, radio operators, and radio technicians). I completed my check-in process and received my first shift assignment to begin the following day at 6 AM.

At the start of the shift, I was assigned to assist the radio techs with reprogramming the incident radios as the crews (firefighters/leaders) arrived. I was able assist and learn the programming process and technical needs of an incident of this nature. I also met personnel who were assigned as unit leaders, frontline firefighters, and crewmen from several different agencies. For my first time at an incident outside my city, as well as my first wildland experience, I found that working with so many different agencies was very beneficial to me. While the basics of dispatching were the same, everyone’s personal experiences are what made up a great and successful communications team.

This was day six of the fire, and the incident still had crews coming in and being dispatched to the fire lines. The fire had grown very quickly the in the initial stages due to tough terrain and high winds. The command staff thought this would be a fairly short incident; however, it turned out to be a more difficult one to contain than anticipated. The northeast end of the fire was the most challenging to tackle as many of the suggested attack methods were attempted and brought to a halt due to winds. Most difficult was the terrain – crews were unable to get into many parts of this area.

While working the fire incident, we were also responding units to incidents within the area that were not directly related to the fire. Not being from the area made it a little difficult; but since there was such diversity in the comm unit staffing, there were two dispatchers who had grown up in the area who could help guide us. One incident comes to mind that shows how well the unit worked together: An inmate hand crew in the field called over the air to report a physical fight between two crew members. While very experienced dispatchers were present at the time of this call, most were primarily fire or EMS dispatchers; having someone present who worked police at their home agency helped reinforce the response and aid in resolving the incident.

By the end of the incident, the fire had burned approximately 49,410 acres. It also destroyed 138 homes and 78 outbuildings/commercial properties. In total, there were 379 firefighters assigned to the incident, of which 15 were injured. The cost to fight the fire has been estimated approximately $21 million. After investigations, it has been determined that the incident started with a structure fire on the La Jolla Indian Reservation.

I was lucky to have had the opportunity to be a part of this incident and have gained tremendous experience that will benefit my career as a dispatcher and an incident dispatcher. I worked with amazing individuals and saw the day-to-day workings of a wildland incident. I look forward to being a part of future incidents. But most of all, I was able to be a part of helping the residents of southern California during the wildfires.

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Communications on Location: The Poomacha Fire

By Lisa Stabler, Senior Dispatcher, San Jose Fire Department

On October 25, I was deployed as an Incident Dispatcher to the Poomacha fire in San Diego County. At 10:45 AM, I was on the road. I decided to travel in my uniform as I thought it would help me get past any road blocks that were in place. As I got closer to the San Bernardino area, if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought it was late evening as the sky appeared to be dusky; but it was only 4 PM. As I got off I-15, I encountered a few roadblocks, and the uniform did help. It was such an eerie feeling to see the fire on the mountainside, to be the only car on the road and driving toward the fire.

I arrived at Base Camp at approximately 7:30 PM. After checking in, I reported to the communications unit where I was immediately put to work. I was assigned to day shift, and for the first four days I worked 15-hour shifts. Radio communications were a daily challenge. Each morning, we received a new Incident Action Plan, which provided the radio channels for the operational period along with a packet of updated maps for each branch. This meant all the radios had to be reprogrammed daily.

For sleeping accommodations, we were sent to a casino inside the evacuation area. The rooms were comfortable, but the smoke was everywhere; it hung in the air, so the hotel set up blowers in the hallways. Besides fire personnel, evacuees were also staying at the hotel. This caused a few interesting situations, such as the kids playing fetch with the family dog in the hallway of the hotel, and the hotel using the in-house PA system twice a day to announce the arrival of the meals. The latter made it hard for the folks assigned to the night shift to get a good day’s rest.

As we all settled into our routines, the schedule settled into 12-hour shifts. As I had lived in the area previously, and as we tired of bag lunches, I started going into town to share my favorite local cuisines with my coworkers. The comm techs offered to take us out onto the fire ground as they attempted to fix radio issues. I learned a lot about fire behavior from one of these field trips. At that time, the majority of fire equipment assigned to the incident were bulldozers, air operations, and a few Type 3 wildland engine strike teams. Since this was a unified command and the fire was deemed to be 70% contained, there was talk of releasing the communications personnel, since the federal team was coming in to take over on November 4. I was released on the 2nd, followed a few days later by our Communications Unit MCC 24. A couple of incident dispatchers were left for another week to monitor the radios; then the Forest Service assumed control over the incident and handled their own communications.

Responsibilities

Shortly after my arrival, I assisted other communications personnel through the check-in process and acted as a runner when needed.

Our main duties were monitoring the radio, which consisted of mostly taking supply requests, relaying messages from various units and personnel, dispatching reports of flare-ups, and the documenting all of this on the radio log. Having excellent documenting skills is always an asset: on this fire, there was an investigation regarding a radio transmission I received; our documentation was precise as to who said/requested what, and what subsequently occurred. The federal officials who came in to review it later were impressed by the quality of our documentation.

The radios in the CAL FIRE Mobile Comm Unit were quite different from what I was used to in our dispatch center. The radio consoles are old radios that had programmable tones. Radio reception and repeaters are important at a campaign fire. Since we don’t have built-in repeaters we are forced to set up mobile repeaters in appropriate locations, which was a big issue for our fire. We didn’t have a support channel to coordinate our logistics; we had only the three channels being used for the branches and divisions. Due to the mountainous terrain, radio communications were really bad. The air attack spotter plane and the local area dispatch center became my relay partners. We eventually put a human repeater (our runner Raul) at the top of Palomar Mountain. This worked extremely well.

When we had to dispatch and assist someone, instead of having a run card showing a response order like we do in our normal dispatch center, we had to make a decision based on the map at the given time and decide which division or branch it would be. Sometimes we had to call a unit two or three times before they would hear us, just due to the kind of work they were doing. Initially this was a stressor, but it eventually became routine.

On field assignment, we need to expect to work long hours and to be able to think on our feet. The CAL FIRE team assigned to this incident was relatively newly formed and still working out how to work together as a team. I spent time with the COML Chief Knopp from the CAL FIRE’s Lake/Napa unit and educated him about the abilities of dispatchers and the differences between radio operators and incident dispatchers, who are more rounded communications specialists fluent in documentation and resource accountability as well as communications. I believe he saw how professional dispatchers (versus someone who has taken a radio class and been signed off but doesn’t do that job on a daily basis) can help make his job easier.

Don Stabler has been in the public safety arena since 1970. In 2006, he “retired” from Contra Costa County Fire in California as a senior dispatcher, and he went back to the same agency the next day as the OES Region 2 Transition project coordinator. He now is the communications officer for the Cordelia Fire District in Solano County. He has served in all positions on the California Fire Chiefs Comm. Section Executive Board, he currently sits on FIRESCOPE Communications Specialists Group, and he continues to train dispatchers. He and his wife, San Jose Fire senior dispatcher Lisa Stabler, make their home in Manteca (CA).

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