- Jamie Hinrichs, Public Affairs & Communication, Pacific Southwest Region, July 22, 2022
For the uninitiated, walking into a U.S. Forest Service and CAL FIRE Interagency Command Center has a sense of the cinematic. Screens, maps, and the squelch of radios abound in an audio-visual surround sound. The gentle energy of focus is bolstered by the awareness on background of incoming messages. The Tahoe National Forest dispatch team has mastered the gentle art of putting into harmony what could easily be a cacophony of information. They have a humble sense of the importance of the work they do, but this work is rarely captured by news headlines.
Tahoe National Forest dispatch team coordinating resource orders at the Interagency Command Center. Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service.
Following an initial report of a wildfire from fire lookout towers or 911 calls, dispatchers provide critical support. Ever wonder how fires get their names? That is dispatch, choosing a geographical feature or road nearby by which to identify the fire. Dispatchers also determine what resources – staff, engines, aircraft, and more – need to be sent based on the fire’s location and intensity. As a team, they divide duties: communication with the incident commander, orders for ground resources, and orders for aircraft. They then keep track of those resources and log updates about the fire in computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems. This work often requires them to staff the dispatch center throughout the night to keep the needs of a fire supported.
Their realm of support extends beyond wildfires. Year-round they assist U.S. Forest Service law enforcement and track the status and location of field-going employees. When not in the thick of fire season, they work with avalanche forecasters, aid partnering agencies with medical emergencies or vehicle accidents, and send resources to assist emergencies in other parts of the country.
Their work entails mastery of several forms of technology. To name a few: computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, which record the status of available and assigned resources; remote fire cameras, which operate as virtual fire towers; and an automated flight following system, which tracks the status of aircraft.
There are a variety of pathways into working in dispatch for the U.S. Forest Service. As a Geographic Information System (GIS) intern on the Tahoe National Forest, Kristen Furie developed a fascination with the use of mapping in emergency services. When her internship concluded, she looked for an opportunity to continue working with fire and mapping and found it in dispatch.
“I love supporting folks in the field and the ability to assist on large fires across the country, taking assignments from coast to coast,” Furie said. “You can never predict what the day will bring. There is always something new and challenging.”
Trevor Thurber was likewise drawn to work in dispatch through a dual affinity for dynamic situations and service. “I enjoy the fast-paced environment and the opportunity to help both the public and our public lands,” he said.
When you next read about an emergency, know that there are dispatchers working hard, but generally outside of view, to make the response to that emergency a success.