Nobody Gets Hurt on My Watch. I Naively Lived By that Motto.

[This is the third of four Blog Posts written by Dispatchers that focus on Dispatching that we are featuring this week (beginning Aug. 27, 2018).]

By Renae Crippen, Center Manager, Blue Mountain Interagency Fire Center

It was late July. I was sitting in a hot Communications trailer in the middle of a field watching a huge column increase in size. I was in my element: talking on the radio, documenting radio traffic, sharing information, getting people lined-out, making plans for the next day. I was the Fireline Dispatcher—literally.

This fire was explosive. There was a big black boiling column we could see from our field. We were within one mile from where the fire had started. It was burning away from us. In a short period of time, this fire had consumed hundreds of acres of light fuels and timber. Firefighters were coming in and out of the trailer checking-in, touching base. They were excited to be there fighting this dragon.

So was I.

DISPATCH_Renae and Chris - Copy

Renae Crippen and Chris Wagner, Initial Attack Dispatcher, in their Blue Mountain Interagency Fire Center.

I had so many moving pieces, so much to keep track of. I felt so much responsibility—get their paperwork in order, get them to the right place, and keep everyone safe. Nobody gets hurt on my watch. I naively lived by that motto.

Until that day.

In the early morning hours I received a call from a worried mother and later a brother of family members who were logging up by the fire. They had run up to move some logging equipment out of the area. They hadn’t made it back home yet.

I reassured both of them that there had been no reports of anything out of the ordinary. I told them I would call if I heard anything. In the back of my mind, I was thinking that they were just fine and that they were probably just busy like everyone else and hadn’t found the time to get ahold of anyone. I wasn’t concerned—bad things just don’t happen here.

Followed My Heart

The world that I had naively created for myself came crushing down at daybreak when I received a report on the radio that two bodies had been found next to burned logging equipment. The next call I was making was not to the families to reassure them that their loved ones were fine, but to the sheriff’s office to report that we had fatalities on the fire. The sheriff’s office would make that initial notification call to the family.

Over the next couple days, I spent a lot of time talking with the mom of one of the loggers who had been killed. I became her contact. At first I didn’t know what to say or do. I had never even thought about what I would do in this situation, let alone had any training. I just followed my heart and spoke to her with kindness and honesty.

Now I was That Spouse Fearing the Worst

A few years later, my husband joined a hotshot crew. He was thrilled and proud to be a hotshot. That first hotshot season, he was on one of the crews that were in Colorado on July 6, 1994 when 14 firefighters were burned over and lost their lives on the South Canyon Fire. Information was very limited and spotty that night. The only news at first was that there were fatalities on an Oregon hotshot crew.

Now I was that spouse who was fearing the worst. I waited by the phone all night with the TV on—hoping for any kind of news. At 2 a.m. my husband was finally able to get to a pay phone to let me know he was OK. A huge wave of relief pulsed over me and immediate sadness for the families of the fallen firefighters, followed by sincere guilt that I was so relieved to find out it wasn’t my husband.

I thought back to that hot July day and to the families of those loggers when I was a Dispatcher on the other side of those phone calls.

Dispatch Misconceptions

When I started as a ground-pounder, then an Engine Captain, and later as a member of a helitack crew, I remember I never understood why Dispatch was so slow. Why did it take so long to respond to me? Heck, all they do is answer the radio and phones and do a little paperwork. But when I made the transition from firefighter to Dispatcher, my eyes opened very quickly!

Dispatching is a service-orientated position by nature. Many who perform in these positions are committed to the safety of those they serve. You can walk into any Dispatch Center in the nation and find Dispatchers who have spent many years on the fireline. They are now dedicated to serving firefighters and aviators through dispatching.

In our office, we don’t go home until we know that every firefighter and resource in our unit is accounted for at the end of the day.

Like I had early in my career, there can often be the general misconception that Dispatchers just talk on the radio and answer the phones—a receptionist with a radio. Maybe there was a time when that was the case. But today—with the complexity of fires, technology and multijurisdictional footprints, and the growing wildland-urban interface—Dispatchers do so much more.

One Dispatcher can be managing multiple incidents on multiple jurisdictions over literally millions of acres. We have literally hundreds of resources and thousands of firefighters at our disposal. We can have a fire start in the morning and by the end of shift have hundreds of people mobilized, have them fed, have set up their command posts, have their fuel trucks available . . . this important list goes on and on. In a matter of hours, we have created small cities.

To do so requires a highly specialized skillset and the ability to function in a fast-paced dynamic world.

Controlled Chaos is the Norm

To serve the firefighters and provide for their safety, Dispatchers and their leadership dedicate themselves to building professional Dispatch organizations. Just as certain specialized skills are required for fighting fire, the same is true for Dispatchers. Gone are the days of pencil and paper. Our Dispatchers sit at consoles with 50-channel radio systems on one monitor, a computer-aided Dispatch system on another, and a third to monitor aircraft and weather radar.

While firefighters are focused on the job at hand, Dispatchers are interpreting weather, coordinating airspace, mobilizing resources and communicating essential information to leadership. People who are highly skilled in this area excel in the ability to filter information for relevancy and intent. Often times, they are able to decipher what’s not being said in words over the radio. For instance, a Dispatcher might perceive an IC’s change in tone, or read between the lines of what’s not written down.

Those who show aptitude as a Dispatcher are intelligent, well spoken, and gifted in the ability to multi-task. Controlled chaos is the norm. Unfortunately, this population of professionals are not always regarded for their abilities in planning, operations, and fire line leadership—despite their vast range of experiences given the sheer number and variety of incidents they encounter.

Dispatch sees, hears and documents every situation that occurs on a fire. And Dispatch is at every fire.

The increased complexities of the fire environment have likewise increased the pressure on Dispatchers to be more conscientious, engaged and professional. Today, their margin for error is much smaller.

We Do What We Can to Be Prepared

As I learned in that meadow many years ago—and many, many times since—no matter how good I am or how good my staff is, people are going to get hurt or even killed on the fireline. Just as we as Dispatchers go to every fire, we also participate in every emergency. We do what we can to be prepared.

We train and practice in scenarios for managing the “incident within the incident”, collecting information and mobilizing aid. We have emergency contact plans. We train and practice what to do if there is an injury or, even worse, a fatality. We train and practice how to get a medevac. We train and practice who to call, who to notify, how to notify, how to mobilize help for the families.

But sometimes it’s not enough.

We Hear It All

While firefighters are dealing with the emergency in person, we are dealing with it over the phone and over the radio. We hear it all. We are the ones who bring in the EMS services, medevac ships, and the transports for body retrieval.

We hold our breath waiting to hear the outcome. We feel guilt and blame ourselves when we can’t make things happen fast enough. We are the fixers. It’s truly devastating for us when we can’t fix it all. We lie awake at night going over and over again thinking about what we could have done differently and what did we miss.

Dispatchers may not have visible scars but we often have broken hearts that are not recognized. I have been at too many memorial services in my life. I can’t hear bagpipes without tearing up.

My heart drops every time I hear about a fatality or serious injury. My thoughts go immediately to the families, the spouses, and the kids. When I send resources to fires, I don’t see a resource order or a green truck. I see the firefighters and their families.

All too often we, as Dispatchers, are forgotten when support is brought in to help those who have experienced trauma on the fireline. All too often the responsibility we feel as Dispatchers to ensure everyone gets home—and what it does to us when someone doesn’t make it home to their loved ones— is overlooked.

Dispatch will always be there for the firefighters.

Please remember us.

4 thoughts on “Nobody Gets Hurt on My Watch. I Naively Lived By that Motto.

  1. Well said, Renae! It is such an honor to work behind the scenes for the boots on the ground and the folks in the air. Experiencing the fatalities on the Twisp River fire from a dispatcher’s point of view changed my life, and my career, forever. The pain, the guilt, and the second-guessing are real. The connection we feel to our partners out on the fireline is often as strong as a family bond. What we do for them matters, being responsible for their safety matters, and how we are affected when things go sideways matters. Thank you for putting your story into words.

  2. Thank you for sharing, I am a Medical Director for Wildland Fire EMS teams in NM. While preparing for our fall meeting I read thru your post…it addressed exactly what I need for my topic as Medical is there for the folks on the line and ALL support personnel. Fortunately it has been my experience that Medical and Communications work and hang out together. Thank you for sharing, I will do so also.

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