[This is the “One of Our Own” feature that appeared in the Summer 2018 Issue of Two More Chains. Jeff Andrews is now the Fire Staff Officer on the Prescott National Forest, temporarily acting in the position of Assistant Director of Fire and Aviation Management (Budget, Planning, Prevention, Cooperative Fire & Incident Business) for the Southwestern Region of the U.S. Forest Service.]
By Travis Dotson and Paul Keller
When Jeff Andrews was a hotshot at the very beginning of his 30 years—and counting—in the wildland fire world, an injury temporarily bumped him out of service.
“I was one of those folks back then who was placed in Dispatch for a month,” Jeff explains.
This short-term assignment would prove to be very big on the learning front for Jeff.
“That was my first real eye-opening experience on Dispatch,” he says. “I quickly learned that it was far more than just talking on the radio and filling out card stock.”
“I was pretty fortunate,” Jeff continues. “I learned a lot in that brief period of time about all of the other facets and components of what a Dispatcher does and what happens within a Dispatch Center. I thought it was all very interesting.”
After 13 years on the hotshot crew, Jeff would continue his fire career serving as an Assistant Zone Fire Management Officer and Forest Fire Management Officer/Forest Aviation Officer. He has also worked 10 years as Deputy Fire Staff/Forest Aviation Officer, during which time Jeff supervised a Center Manager and the Dispatch Center.
Today, Jeff has been detailed from the Prescott National Forest to serve as a Fire Management Specialist in Budget and Planning for the Southwestern Region. He is also the Incident Commander for the Southwest Area Team 5, Type 2 Incident Management Team.
And there’s another past work experience that makes this fire manager especially knowledgeable when it comes to the Dispatch world. For about one year and a half he also served as a Dispatch Center Manager.
Becoming Dispatch Center Manager
“My understanding of Dispatch quickly evolved when I went into that Center Manager role,” Jeff assures. At that time he was an AFMO. They advertised for their Dispatch Center Manager job three different times and were unsuccessful. Next, Jeff’s Fire Staff asked him if he’d be interested in taking that job.
“I said, sure, why not. It’s something new and completely different. Let’s give it a try. We’re at risk of losing our Dispatch Center because we can’t find folks to manage it.” Jeff continues, “So that was very eye-opening. And by no means am I a technical expert. But we had a lot of really good folks in the Center, folks who were very technically competent. They just didn’t have the time in grade to qualify for the Center Manager position.” Reflecting back today, Jeff says that serving as the Dispatch Center Manager was “the best job” he’s had in the U.S. Forest Service. “I learned a ton and it was a great experience.”
Are Dispatchers Firefighters?
“You bet they’re firefighters,” affirms this fire manager. “It takes a whole bunch of different folks with different skills and backgrounds to manage fires. Dispatchers play a critical role in fire management and fire response. While they’re not out on the ground and subject to the hazards that somebody might be who’s on the end of pulaski, there’s a whole host of other hazards—especially as it relates to mental wellness,” Jeff points out. “Dispatchers are as much of a firefighter as I am as a Type 2 IC.”
Is There Exposure to Trauma in Dispatch?
“Yes, for sure,” Jeff confirms. “It’s a difficult and stressful job in so many different ways. For our Dispatchers, there’s a tremendous amount of exposure to trauma.” Furthermore, he believes this exposure contributes to the “mental hazards” of being a Dispatcher.
Jeff explains how in 2013 the Dispatch Center on his Prescott National Forest was exposed to the nearby tragic Yarnell Hill Fire that took the lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. “While that wasn’t a fire that our Dispatch Center was in operational control of managing, certainly there’s a lot of information that comes over the radio, especially the aviation traffic. And, of course, it’s difficult for folks to deal with that, especially from being in a remote position.”
A Critical Irony
This fire manager acknowledges a critical irony.
Many people might believe that Dispatchers are physically removed from where the trauma is happening out on the line and therefore aren’t exposed to this trauma. But, in reality, that space and time component, that feeling of helplessness, actually helps to trigger a Dispatcher’s trauma. They can’t run through the radio and help.
“There’s no question that this definitely becomes a contributing factor to the Dispatchers’ trauma and their mental hazards,” Jeff assures.
A Heavy Burden to Bear
Jeff explains how, often times, the Dispatcher is the critical link during a tragic event or urgent, escalating medical events. “They become the link between somebody on the ground getting the help that they need and your ability to procure or come up with that service. That’s a lot to have rest on your shoulders.”
Jeff points out how our Dispatchers don’t want to let down the firefighters out on the line.
“And their work becomes just as important as what’s happening out on the ground. In some cases, it might even be more important than what’s happening out on the ground. That’s a heavy burden to bear.”
During Your Ten Years of Supervising the Dispatch Center Did You Worry About Your Dispatchers?
“Yes, for sure I did, whether as a Center Manager or as an FMO supervising Dispatch. We worry about them a lot because it’s a stressful job and there’s really no downtime. I mean, you’re always on call. And you’re often underappreciated or forgot about.”
For example, Jeff points out how while the rest of the fire folks are on vacation during Christmas holiday, the Dispatchers are still going to be on call. “That’s going to wear on a person year after year, especially for our career Dispatchers who have to keep their Centers open seven days a week, 365 days a year,” he says. “And, in some cases, I think there are Dispatch Centers that are understaffed. That contributes to this predicament even more.”
This fire manager has another perception and concern about the Dispatching job. “They work in close quarters, in an office environment 365 days a year. You know how in August and September how driving in a crew carrier can get on your nerves after a while? Line folks always have more of a physical outlet, more of an opportunity to get away—but not so much for our Dispatchers.”
Jeff shares another concern he has about our Dispatchers.
“Something else I worry about is how our Dispatchers don’t get to see the final product or celebrate the fruits of their labor. Whereas you and I might be on the ground and we can see the rewards from putting in a line or putting a fire out. Dispatchers don’t get to celebrate that.”
Jeff continues, “So, for Dispatchers, it’s not as easy to rejoice over your accomplishments. And that’s a toxin as it wears on. You don’t know whether or not your efforts are appreciated immediately—unless folks are providing you feedback.”
Overlooked and Underappreciated
“I believe Dispatchers are critical to the success of the fire management organization,” Jeff says. “And yet they are often overlooked and underappreciated. Out of sight; out of mind.
“You just don’t realize or appreciate how much work goes on behind the scenes to get a cubie of water delivered to the line or whatever it might be in terms of supply or service in general. There’s a lot of work off season and during the season to make everything happen and it’s basically all taken for granted.”
How Can FMOs and Fire Managers Become Better at Supervising Their Dispatchers?
“You have to jump in and spend some significant time working in and around that program,” Jeff answers. He says that you also have to get the Dispatchers involved, whether it’s a Center Manager or Assistant Manager, in other aspects of the unit’s fire and aviation management program—“have them attend the conference calls, go to the meetings, get out on the ground with the troops.”
“And it’s really important that you hear their perspective, their side of story. It will make a better overall fire management program if you can understand the pros and cons or difficulties with how your Dispatchers are able to perform their jobs.”
Jeff is also a proponent of “cross-training”.
“Just as I should learn a bit more about the Dispatch job, they also need to learn a bit more about some of the other functional areas. I think they would find it rewarding and have opportunities away from the Dispatch Center, to take on an assignment that’s not Dispatch related.”
How Can We Do a Better Job of Preparing Our Dispatchers for Dealing with the Aftermath of Tragedies?
“First, is the awareness that they’re involved in the incident. You need to recognize that and then utilize some of the tools that have been created over the last 10-20 years in terms of peer support. There’s a degree of preparation or proactive things that we can also do to prepare for these events.”
Jeff explains that besides the physical hazards, we also need to focus on the mental hazards. “I think we’ve made great progress in the last several years in recognizing the mental hazards that are associated with wildland fire tragedies.” But he stresses how we can’t overlook Dispatchers being included in these peer support efforts.
“I think we’re getting better at that and we’re evolving with peer support,” Jeff acknowledges. “But nowhere do we really prepare you to be on the other end of a radio when you’re dealing with a tragedy.”
Jeff continues, “The police departments and the fire departments have been in this business for a long time. They do a better job of training their folks to deal with these scenarios. We’re getting better at it. But, for us, it’s not that mainstream yet.”
Let’s end this serious topic on a lighter note:
What’s the Funniest Thing You Ever Heard Over the Radio?
Jeff has a darn good one.
“I think of this long conversation that was between a Module Leader and the Dispatch Center. It was the description of a large glow that was visible, describing it as an escalating fire. I think it was about five minutes of conversation.
“They had this fire out there. It’s rapidly growing, an intense glow. They’re ordering up as many resources as they could—only to find out that it was simply the moon coming up from behind the mountains.”