The Changing Role and Needs of Local, Rural, and Volunteer Fire Departments in the Wildland-Urban Interface
Issue One – Wildland Fire Training
Case Study: California
The state of California, with its large population, extensive areas of Wildland-Urban Interface, volatile fuels, and historic high fire occurrence, has long recognized the need for a process to quickly and efficiently mobilize all available wildland fire personnel and equipment (federal, state, and local).
To achieve this, the Office of Emergency Services has established minimum training and qualification standards for personnel who manage or respond to incidents using the Incident Command System. The State Board of Fire Services developed these standards with the help of a task force that was focused on developing a certification system for all risk incident management positions (including wildland fire) within the Incident Command System.
The result of this effort was the California Incident Command Certification System (CICCS). It includes the following components:
California has now adopted a statewide Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which recognizes the equivalency of CICCS and NWCG 310-1 qualifications, and accepts either for response within the state. This greatly facilitates the rapid, efficient mobilization of personnel and equipment from all agencies and organizations within the State of California.
Issue Two – Efficient Interagency Response
Case Study A: Community Defense from Wildland-Urban Interface Fires in Montana
The Sourdough and Rae fire departments in Gallatin County, Montana have developed an innovative community protection plan that includes effective pre-incident planning, neighborhood-based actions, and real-time response practice.
Planning for this comprehensive approach began with an analysis of potential fire behavior, which indicated that fire spread would be fast, far-reaching, and sustained by wind events. Recognizing that federal assistance could take from 48 to 72 hours, the local departments realized that they would need a safe, quick, proactive and robust local response.
Using this information, they set out to develop a strategy for effective deployment and oversight of 100 fire engines in 100 minutes. First, they prepared solid response plans that involved local residents in their own defense, utilized local and statewide mutual aid, and provided detailed area information to all responders. Next, the departments worked with the Gallatin County Geographic Information System (GIS) Department to develop mapping for all aspects of the wildland fire initial response. This exercise identified at least 500 homes inside the fire departments’ jurisdictions that were within 1.5 miles of an adjacent national forest.
Finally, the departments developed an Incident Action Plan (IAP) that includes: a description of the hazard, the incident commander’s intent, strategic goals, an organization and communications plan, safety and risk management plans, basic information gathering, times and location for a strategy meeting, and logistics information. Ongoing command simulations and real-time practice deployments enable the departments to improve their capabilities and test and refine their plan before a Wildland-Urban Interface fire event occurs.
Through a combination of neighborhood outreach, solid pre-incident planning and practice, the Sourdough and Rae Fire departments are ready to respond in a safe, aggressive, informed, and controlled manner. This style of response offers the opportunity to capitalize on opportunities to stop the fire when it is small and therefore minimizes threats to lives and property.
Case Study B: The Greater Okefenokee Association of Landowners
The Greater Okefenokee Association of Landowners (GOAL) was developed in 1994 to: improve fire-related communication between land management agencies and the forest industry, encourage more efficient use of fire response resources, and increase cooperation for fire prevention and preparedness activities. Since its creation, the association has become a successful model of cooperative, interagency wildland fire management and suppression.
The members of GOAL include the Georgia and Florida state forestry organizations, the USDA Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and several industrial and private forest landowners around the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). More than 2 million acres are within the participants’ various jurisdictions.
GOAL is not a federal or state operated organization. The chairperson is an employee of International Paper Company and is supported by a small, representative steering committee. Cooperative efforts are based on mutual aid zones that have been established around the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and other federal lands and are coordinated with the states and private industry.
GOAL’s state and federal members work together to train private industry and volunteer fire department personnel in addition to their own employees. In some cases, federal agencies have paid to have state employees receive advanced training at off-site facilities.
Initial attack is provided across state lines by local, state, federal and private resources. All parties have the ability to communicate over a radio system during an incident. Compact agreements are used for extended attack involving both states. Funding issues rarely exist due to these in-place agreements that describe times when reimbursement for services is required.
Since 1994, GOAL has effectively managed multiple campaign fires over several months of wildland fire activity. The members of GOAL attribute its success to their mutual trust and understanding, the development of a common mission, and the avoidance of turf battles.
Case Study C: Interagency Cooperation with Fire Departments in Minnesota
After three major Wildland-Urban Interface fires in and near the Twin Cities metro area in 1999 and 2000, it was evident that wildland agencies and local fire departments needed to have better communication and coordination.
To achieve this goal, a task force comprised of wildland fire agency representatives and suburban fire chiefs met during an 18-month period to develop statewide guidelines, also known as the “Minnesota Wildland-Urban Interface Plan.”
Components of the Minnesota Wildland-Urban Interface Plan include: guidelines for managing wildfires in the urban interface, Minnesota incident management team information, suggested organization charts (stressing unified command), common wildfire definitions, how to establish a communications network, radio frequency sharing procedures, local resource lists, air operations safety and guidelines, cooperative agreements, and Firewise information. The plan is in outline format, enabling agencies and fire departments adopting it to fill in their local specifics.
During the process of developing the plan, it was decided to implement a four- to six-hour functional Wildland-Urban Interface fire exercise to test it. This exercise would also provide experience for the three Minnesota type 2 interagency management teams in Wildland-Urban Interface response. An area in the northern Twin Cities metro region—that has potential for a large Wildland-Urban Interface fire—was selected. An actual fire here would threaten many homes, businesses, and cause major traffic disruptions. The fire scenario involved four fire department jurisdictions and two county sheriff departments and included participation in a unified command.
Approximately 70 wildland firefighters and incident management team members, along with 30 local fire department officers and firefighters from nine fire departments, participated in the exercise. According to the evaluations, the exercise proved to be: challenging, helpful for pointing out issues that need more work, supportive for developing better relationships between the wildland agencies and the fire departments. It also gave the Minnesota type 2 incident management teams an excellent opportunity to become familiar with the methods and procedures of their urban counterparts.
The next step is to develop a template of the local area emergency wildfire plan and operating guidelines for inclusion in the Minnesota Wildland-Urban Interface Plan. Incorporating this local plan template will help ensure that mutual aid resources will be able to recognize and utilize the local plan throughout the entire state.
The coordination and collaboration involved in developing a local area emergency wildfire plan and operating guidelines is one of the major benefits in conducting such an activity. Through meeting and creating the local plan, the participating agencies have the opportunity to develop good working relationships, learn each other’s capabilities, and resolve potential problems before a major incident occurs.
Issue Three – Initial Attack/Emergency Communications Ability
Case Study A: Communications Tragedy on Idaho’s 1995 Point Fire
The lack of common communication capability among all units on a wildfire incident can have deadly consequences. An example of this basic truth was tragically demonstrated on July 28, 1995, 16 miles southwest of Boise, Idaho. On that day, a dry lightning storm started several fires, one of which became the Point Fire. The Bureau of Land Managment initially responded to the fire, later calling on the Kuna Rural Fire District for assistance. Two Kuna RFD engines and one water tender responded and began assisting with the suppression efforts.
Later in the evening, the fire’s spread was stopped at 120 acres. At 8:22 p.m. a “red flag warning” for dry thunderstorms and wind gusts of up to 50 mph was issued for the area. Subsequently, winds associated with a thunderstorm cell blew the fire out of the containment lines. The fast-spreading fire overran one of the Kuna engines. Two crew members were killed.
The accident investigation identified the lack of common communication capability as a significant contributing factor in the two deaths. The problem with communication was illustrated most dramatically at the time of the blow-up. The responsible unit leader was aware of the location of the doomed engine and the peril faced by the crew, but was unable to contact them.
Case Study B: Proactive Planning for Communications
and Response in New Jersey
On June 2, 2002, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service’s (FFS) Cedar Bridge lookout tower reported a smoke in the Berkeley Township, 60 miles south of Manhattan and 40 miles north of Atlantic City. The start grew into the 1,300-acre Jake’s Branch Fire, which resulted in the evacuation of over 500 homes in the Wildland-Urban Interface of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
Along with the New Jersey FFS, those responding to the wildfire included 52 volunteer fire departments from two counties, the Fire Marshal’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department, the Prosecutor’s Office, state and local Offices of Emergency Management, and the New Jersey Transportation Incident Management Team. Had it not been for this proactive pre-incident preparation, interagency and multi-jurisdictional coordination had the potential to overwhelm an already complicated situation.
After a 1997 wildfire, the Mayor of Berkeley Township brought community leaders into the fire planning process. The New Jersey FFS developed an operations manual and training program for fire protection in the Wildland-Urban Interface.
Mild conditions during the winter of 2002 exacerbated the state’s already severe drought and caused fire officials to give preparations for the spring fire season a higher than normal priority. State, county and local fire officials in Ocean County held a series of meetings and training exercises that focused on a recently developed forest fire task force. The roles and responsibilities of each organization were clearly defined and reinforced.
One of the largest hurdles to vault was the coordination of all the different radio frequencies currently in use by the various agencies. The Ocean County Communications Center upgraded their mobile communications van to help alleviate this situation. On June 2, 2002, the van was parked at the Jake’s Branch incident command post and proved to be an invaluable resource to bridge the communication gap.
Local pre-suppression activities prior to the Jake’s Branch fire significantly reduced the confusion that often accompanies a major incident. These activities proved key to the overall success of the suppression effort.
In conclusion, “Be Prepared” is a good motto for more than the Boy Scouts.
Issue Four – Coordinated Federal and State Assistance
Case Study: Colorado
The Colorado State Forest Service has administered the Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) Program, funded through a grant from USDA Forest Service since the program’s inception. In 2001, Congress authorized and funded a similar Rural Fire Assistance (RFA) Program to be administered through the Department of the Interior. Both the Volunteer Fire Assistance program and Rural Fire Assistance programs are designed to improve rural fire protection by assisting fire departments in equipment acquisition, firefighter training, and the establishment of fire departments and organizations.
In Colorado, interagency wildland fire response has evolved into the norm rather than the exception. Due to this long history of partnership, cooperative delivery and administration of both the Volunteer Fire Assistance program and Rural Fire Assistance programs was inevitable. Through this combined process:
Combining the two programs has not been without its challenges and pitfalls. In addition, the administrative process is subject to continuous review and adjustment as needed.
For example, the Department of the Interior agencies were initially concerned that Rural Fire Assistance funds would lose their Department of the Interior identity when mixed with Volunteer Fire Assistance program dollars. This concern was addressed through clear agency identification on the application forms as well as on the awards to departments.
In addition, the receipt of federal funding by USDA and USDI agencies is sometimes out of sync. Several agencies within the Department of the Interior have different procedures for transferring funds to the state. Establishing consistency in program administration—despite these individual agency differences—has proven critical to the goal of simplifying and improving service to local fire departments.
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