Insights from a Dispatcher: The Incident that Changed Me

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

By Dolores Garcia

We prepare, we brief, have our 10’s and 18’s, our “9-Lines,” our emergency response guides on our desks as either part of a larger binder or pinned to the wall behind us, perfectly tabbed out. We are just as invested in the outcomes as anyone physically on the fireline. It is not uncommon for Dispatch Centers to have a few medevacs each summer, either from fires we are working or for the public while recreating on public lands. For most of those, we are ready and prepared. The mental and emotional toll is variable from person to person. But we often have our ways internally within the Dispatch Center to work through them or we “tough it out” [maybe]. The experiences then become slides we use for the next one and examples we use when training the rookies. We build “thicker skin” and move forward [maybe].

Trauma becomes relative to your experiences, preparing you each time for the next one, building confidence that you can manage and handle each one that comes at you. Even as an insider in Dispatch, are we truly seeing the emotional toll it takes to build these slides, these slides that give us the ability to support the resources on the ground through challenging situations? The confidence to have command presence over the radio when guiding the firefighter on the ground through the size-up/9-Line to get the information you need for the responding medical crew. The details. Those minutes when lives are on the line as decisions are made, as resources are ordered to respond.

The adrenaline hooks us, then the season lets us go. Left to our own devices. While more and more line personnel receive training on “taking care of our own” Dispatchers only make up a small percentage of these types of training, usually when there is room. Is this why the turnover in Dispatch can be high? [Rhetorical question.] That has been my experience coming up through years of both field fire operations and later into Initial Attack and Aviation Dispatch. You think you are good, until you have that one.

Dispatch Dolores Garcia

Dolores Garcia

My Background

Some background on me may help to establish some of my relationships and my perspective on the incident that changed me. In the summer of 2009 I was detailed in as the Assistant Center Manager – Operations for the Arizona Interagency Dispatch Center (they would later transition to a state only center).

I became very familiar with the districts and management for both Arizona State Forestry as well as the Bureau of Land Management (my agency) and the other federal operators managed by the center at that time. Later in 2009, I became part of the militia dispatching system. No longer based and working primarily in Dispatch, I was now a part of the management of my agency’s fire program at the state level as the Fire Mitigation and Education Specialist/Program Manager for BLM Arizona. I maintained my Dispatch qualifications by working very regularly with our managing Dispatch Center(s).

As an agency, we transitioned from one center (Arizona Dispatch) to another (Phoenix Dispatch) in 2013. At the time, my direct supervisor was the State Fire Management Officer. I worked closely in my “day-job” with our state partners as well as my agency fire managers and personnel at each district.

I bring this up to establish the background of the relationship I had with both local, state and district fire management and two local Dispatch Centers. As militia and a local, I would cover in Dispatch consistently at one center or the other often in Initial Attack and very often in Aircraft. Also, because of my Aircraft specialty, I would cover as Public Information Officer (PIO) at the airtanker base and the mob center when the local media wanted to get close-up and in depth.

I share all this because it is one of many ways many Dispatchers in similar situations may fall through the cracks. The various transitions, in duties, duty-stations, temporary or otherwise, the transient and transitional nature of being flexible and adaptable in this “culture” are just part of why we get overlooked.

The One

Scheduled to work at the Aircraft desk at Phoenix Dispatch Saturday morning, June 29, 2013, I was briefed of the current fire situation Friday night and was aware of the lightning fire just outside Yarnell (as well as several others within the Dispatch Zone at the time). This one had an agency nexus so I also had a piqued awareness.

They begin sorting out the situation a little better by daylight. The local Helicopter Manager calling in to say they were going to recon the area. Making all the proper notations in logs as some of this was already not feeling right. Questions over management and who would be ordering resources, including aircraft, went back and forth most of the morning as they initially called for Unified Command. The main question, “Which agency and which Dispatch would take the lead,” ate through much of the morning and into a more active burning period, as other rotors begin to turn and resources needed to be ordered. Many details I will always remember, conversations with Duty Officers, Dispatch Center and Agency Managers are burned into my brain.

By the next day, June 30th, some transitions were already in play, including Incident Management Teams and my attention on the aircraft being run out of the Dispatch Center. The weather had us on edge from the previous day. Already several storms were moving in, affecting aircraft use across several areas. The DC-10 was being flown out of the Dispatch Center in which I was working and it had been busy.

The National Weather Service had called us personally to warn us of the potential for strong out-flow winds from passing storms. I listened as the Initial Attack Dispatchers at their stations relayed the new weather warning to the field. We also listened to BLM frequencies and I could hear that Prescott Dispatch had received a similar warning and were relaying it to their IC and resources on the Dean Peak Fire near Kingman. Out loud I said, “I hope Arizona Dispatch has got the same alert and is doing the same for Yarnell.” We could hear the process of the IC on Dean Peak move resources off the line. Everyone was responding once they were in safe locations. We watched the radar, saw the winds, grounded aircraft because of winds, got them flying again; the orders came in, all for Yarnell. The rest is history.

In the coming days, I would get assigned to work as a PIO on Yarnell Hill, tied to the Arizona State Forestry Public Affairs/Information Officer and work out of the Arizona Dispatch Center. I watched while the Prescott Dispatch got Dispatcher relief coordinated through the Southwest Coordination Center, allowing the primary Dispatchers in that center some days off following the incident, the Granite Mountain Hotshot tragedy. The same was either not offered to Arizona Dispatch, or when it was, it was “too little too late”, yet they were the primary Dispatch Center dispatching the fire.

Many of the Dispatchers were detailed from other areas/states. They remained in their seats through it all, for days, in various stages of shock, or denial, or numb–running on adrenaline with the occasional bout of tears. We all just wanted to get it done for THEM, Granite Mountain.

A “Peer Support” team showed up, stood at the head of the Dispatch Center, gave a short speech and said they would be available in the building next door, for however many hours. I don’t recall anyone actually taking advantage of it, or any management encouragement to go. Today even my memory of that moment rings with a touch of the same grit, gall and bitterness that ran through many who just wanted to get through and get this fire out for THEM.

On a trip to Prescott days before the memorial, I encountered my direct supervisor. He had advised that they had a group peer-support session and AAR for those who were on Initial Attack. He mentioned they were working as a management team to get those resources some time off. I asked if he had remembered Dispatch. They had not. With tears in my eyes, I registered my concerns to my supervisor. To this day I don’t know that it affected anything. None of my agency Dispatch counterparts nor I got any days off.

For the memorial service, the local Dispatchers and center management attended from Arizona Dispatch. The detailers volunteered to stay behind, as there were limited tickets to attend to continue management of a few other fires that were ongoing. These were the same detailers who sat in those chairs on THAT day, who could have used a memorial service to heal. And yet I saw firefighters from around the country being offered tickets to attend.

Those staying behind needed a local resource who was familiar with the area as well as the Dispatch Center to help guide the detailers in case of a new start or resource questions, so I too stayed behind. We watched the televised memorial from the Dispatch Center, as many did—but none so directly affected as this one.

To this day I have not dispatched. My quals have since lapsed and tears flow every time I think of that lightning strike on the hill on June 28. The Dispatchers that worked with me in the Phoenix Dispatch Center for Initial Attack and Aircraft, the managers who were made aware of my concerns on those fateful days, and my time with the Arizona Dispatch Center in the days following, are all a part of that period of time burned into my memories.

I continue to process to this day. Part of my processing also included “giving back” to the NIMO Team and some of the resources who helped with the 2013 Granite Mountain Memorial, when I traveled to Wenatchee, Washington to assist as a PIO for the Twisp Fire Memorial in 2015.

My goal since that day has been to advocate for taking better care of our own. Not just saying it and throwing an EAP pamphlet on my desk. (Which I have had to use personally as a place to start, not knowing where to turn for more professional help.) And to remind our Agency Administrators and our Fire Managers about other supporting personnel, like Dispatchers and PIOs or PAOs and how they are affected in times of crisis.

Many of us are still processing. To recognize the inherent nature of the business and the stresses and strains it places on all of us, we need to do better. We need to provide ways to cope and recognize the need for help for ourselves or others and instill the habit of reaching in and reaching out.

We need to retrain a culture that wants to help (rescuers), to recognize the need and help those within heal from trauma.

2 thoughts on “Insights from a Dispatcher: The Incident that Changed Me

  1. This is a long time coming! Dispatch deserves recognition and should be included in every facet since we are involved anyway. When someone has a question or need in the fire world, who do they call? Dispatch! Who is the last to know about things, Dispatch! Please don’t forget about us. I retired in 2014 after 16 years on the ground and 18 years in dispatch. Went on an assignment this year to a very busy dispatch center and after about 5 days had a complete mental and physical break down. Was sent home on my request and still in the process of working things out.
    We need to keep an eye on each other and watch for the signs of overload. Take care!

  2. You are entirely correct about a large reason for heavy turnover. Adding to the stress is the amount of continuing education as well as dispatching assignments required to maintain the qualifications to do the job. Many of those currently detailed to dispatch have regular year round jobs with their agencies that often have nothing to do with dispatch. Every year there seems to be additional mandatory training for each normal job and then add in the additional training required for dispatch and you have exponentially increased the stress levels without even having a major incident go down. If a dispatcher’s normal job requires them to be fully involved during fire season they are then left looking for dispatch positions to fill when their agencies release them for other assignments. Taking care of our own too often fails to take note of the support personnel because in their eyes only those running through the flames could be affected. Not even close. Did you know that medical personnel do not get hazard pay because the big book says they are not in harms way? It was the running joke as we would sit around the campfire at night signing each others time books. Even though I ran through the smoke and fire with them, flew into hot zones to pick up injured patients and often worked longer hours than the ground pounders I was not eligible for hazard pay because I was there as support, as a medic. I believe the big book writers are a bit myopic when it comes to any and all “support personnel.

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