What I learned from two weeks at the Great Basin Cache
By Erik Apland, Field Operations Specialist (Acting), Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
I recently mobilized to a 14-day assignment that was completely outside of my previous experience—working for the Great Basin Support Cache in Boise, Idaho. The Great Basin Cache (GBK is its identifier) is part of a national system of caches that support incidents within their geographic areas, and also support each other—i.e. help restock other caches when one Geographic Area has a lot more fire than another. It’s from these caches that incident management teams get yurts, gated wyes, folding tables, and general message forms. Accessed by several roll-up bay doors, aisle after aisle in the large warehouse stock the supplies that are ubiquitous on fires across the country.
GBK is located on the campus of the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), a compound that houses a who’s who of organizations in the fire world, including the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC), high-ranking fire officials of all federal land management agencies, and much more. Next door to GBK is the National Interagency Incident Communications Division, with its national radio cache. The radio cache maintains, programs, and stores what is perhaps the largest civilian radio inventory in the U.S.—hundreds of repeaters and 11,000 handheld radios (along with other accessories and equipment).
On my two-week assignment, this was the first thing I learned: not only does GBK ship fire supplies almost every day during a busy summer, they also coordinate the shipment of all incident radio systems and weather stations (IRAWS). I recognized the nameplates affixed to the sides of the orange radio boxes from innumerable IAPs over the years: C10, C45, etc. These radio systems, programmed to ensure minimal frequency confliction with nearby incidents, are ordered through local Dispatch Centers throughout the U.S. These orders go to NICC and are filled as quickly as possible by the staff at the radio cache. Then the radios come down to the GBK warehouse and are shipped, whenever possible, directly to the fire’s ICP.
Because fires are rarely located close to major airports, often the best way to get vital communications equipment from Boise to an ICP is through a logistics company who specializes in routing cargo. During my brief stint at GBK, we shipped radio equipment via FedEx and with GBK trucks. But the vast majority of equipment went out of the Boise Airport under the passenger compartment of commercial airliners.
Typical tracking info for a shipment of hundreds of pounds of repeater equipment might read: From Boise airport to Sea-Tac to Missoula airport on Alaska Airlines, recovered at the airport and driven four hours to ICP in Troy, MT. Door-to-door the entire trip would often take 24 to 36 hours, depending on availability of cargo space on flights.
During the month of July 2021, GBK drafted and completed 200 separate contracts for cargo shipment (almost all with multiple pieces of equipment per shipment). This doesn’t include what went out by Fedex or carried in one of GBK’s own trucks.
The radio cache staff who refurbishes and packages the equipment, the GBK staff who nails down the best method of delivery and processes the documentation of the order, and the vendors who implement the plan and deliver the equipment, are a bit of an unrecognized part of the process to get communications established on the line. The work ethic and professionalism they bring to their jobs also may be somewhat taken for granted by the eager recipients of the equipment who are likely focused establishing communication on their incident.
The bottom line is all involved understand the critical role of communication in firefighter safety and all efficiently complete the parts over which they have control. Importantly, though I never heard it actually said in my time at the cache, they operated on the motto I first heard when I was with a helitack crew: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. It has to be the right stuff, going to the right place, arriving when it is needed. Rushing the wrong stuff out the door, or the right stuff to the wrong place, sends cascades of problems through the entire system.
Even with only a small amount of direct support needed to fires in the Great Basin while I was in Boise, the cache was always busy filling orders for other caches, filling orders for NWCG publications (GBK is also the only source for publications like IRPGs, S-Course workbooks, etc.), and figuring out efficient shipping for radio and weather equipment. I kept a running list of things that kept coming up, to share as widely as possible as soon as I had a chance:
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I buy PPE from the cache?
This question came up a lot while I was there answering the phone—not every day, but a lot. The answer is No. The support caches exist to send supplies to ongoing incidents and to resupply other caches doing the same. They are not “big box” stores for fire gear.
How close to ICP can you ship our radios/RAWS?
Ideally, the Communications Unit Leader or an equivalent position on a fire can meet a delivery driver at the ICP to accept equipment right there. This is complicated, especially in the case of emerging incidents when an ICP isn’t set up yet, or in places where an ICP is in a totally unpopulated area. A large order of radio repeater equipment is worth tens of thousands of dollars or more. For accountability, it is important to have a fixed location with an actual address to deliver to.
When can I expect my equipment?
In general, delivery—even to quite remote places—is much faster than I would have imagined. But there are many factors that affect the time that passes from when you place your order until you receive the equipment. Assuming a smooth transition of your supply order up through the links in the Dispatch chain, the equipment you are requesting may take considerable work to get ready for shipment. Because it is impossible to predict where and when fires will escape initial attack and require incident communication support, before repeaters can leave GBK, engineers must ensure they will not interfere with other incidents. For fires near the Canadian or Mexican borders, frequency deconfliction takes on even greater complexity, as radio waves don’t stop at U.S. borders.
Once the equipment is ready to ship, factors beyond our control in air freight availability become extremely important. It could be that a piece of equipment finally becomes available after returning from a fire, is programmed and arranged to be shipped—but because of limited cargo space, can’t leave Boise until the following day. Or maybe it made it to the cargo hold of the last flight out, but the flight was canceled due to a mechanical issue right before takeoff.
Whatever the case, predicting an ETA is an educated guess at best, one that assumes no major delays that are outside of anyone’s control.
Considerations When Ordering Supplies
Global supply chain disruption.
Though many of us may feel we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us. The effects on supply chains come in many forms: shortage of raw materials (such as plastic for fire shelter liners and hardhats); competition for materials with higher priority commodities (medical supplies and fire supplies may use some of the same polymers or other raw materials, guess which is getting the priority?); decreased air cargo capacity (fewer flights, fewer pilots, but increasing travelers). These are only some of the factors that are severely altering availability of supplies and our ability to ship them.
Coordinate & Communicate.
Everyone understands that fire is a dynamic environment and one in which our best plans are often not realized in full, or in exactly the way we envisioned. But orders that come in cleanly have the best chance of working through the system and going out cleanly. For that reason, to the extent possible, it is best to consolidate orders. If an incident is in close enough proximity to an ICP, the cache may put a supply order and radios on the same truck, driven by a cache employee. This is almost invariably the quickest way, but it is also the cleanest way, with the fewest intermediate steps where equipment might go astray. Even if the order has to go through Fedex or commercial carrier, the more complete the order, the fewer failure points are created in transit.
Cache and commercial drivers are part of the mission, too.
We regularly acknowledge that driving is one of the most hazardous activities we engage in. Whether they have ever stepped foot on the fireline, it is without question that the driver bringing your miles of hose, or your radio repeater, is critical to the mission. That order may give you a chance to hold the entire Division. That driver, therefore, is suddenly one of the most important people in the success of the plan. Beyond just efficiency for efficiency’s sake, an efficient operation is a safer operation—fewer trips means less windshield time for drivers. Consider how you can get what you need in the most efficient way possible—including backhaul of equipment you no longer need on the fire.
“The bottom line is all involved understand the critical role of communication in firefighter safety and all efficiently complete the parts over which they have control.”
My eyes were opened on this assignment to much of the behind-the-scenes work that takes place in our national cache system to outfit incidents with gear, radios, RAWS, and everything in between. In the past, I had honestly never given too much thought except to complain when, from my limited view on the fireline, it felt like it was taking too long to have my needs met. You place an order and then a while later your stuff appears, through an invisible process.
After this experience, I won’t make that mistake again.