Dispatch center in Bozeman, MT to close

Reasons cited include difficulty in filling positions

Map -- Custer Gallatin NF western region

One of the three dispatch centers that serve the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana is closing. Bozeman Interagency Dispatch Center has been the smallest of the three and multiple factors over the last decade have created a situation where the center is not sustainable, according to information released by the Forest:

Fire seasons are generally longer and often intense, increasing the expectations from dispatch centers that directly support firefighters. Additional policy changes affecting aircraft dispatching and the cost of living to attract dispatchers to Bozeman, MT are also factors.

Over the last three years, Bozeman dispatch has tried unsuccessfully to recruit and fill the Initial Attack dispatcher position in several separate hiring events. The cost of living in Bozeman was cited as the biggest deterrent to accepting a position.

The Forest Service (FS) and the other agencies staffing the Bozeman Interagency Dispatch Center have decided that the Bozeman-based dispatch center “will transition to Billings,” meaning, Bozeman Dispatch will close.

Marna Daley, the Public Affairs Officer for the Custer Gallatin NF told Wildfire Today that the organizational chart for the Bozeman Dispatch Center had five positions supplied by the Forest Service — two permanent full-time, one permanent part-time, and two seasonals. Because of the difficulty in filling the jobs there, in recent years typically there were only two FS personnel in the office. Ms. Daley said with so many vacant positions at Bozeman, they often brought in detailers or used other methods to take up the slack.

As this transition is occurring, and with it being early in the fire season, only one position is filled, and that person has accepted a different job on the Forest.

dispatch center -- Great Plains in Rapid City, SD
Example of a dispatch center — Great Plains in Rapid City, SD. January 25, 2012.

The Billings Interagency Dispatch Center is staffed by workers not only from the FS, but also the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources. The FS’s contribution will be three permanent full-time positions and one seasonal.

But in recent years both Bozeman and Billings have operated at low staffing levels with critical unfilled vacancies. 

“Often throughout a wildland fire season dispatch centers need to operate seven-days/week, round-the-clock schedule to support wildland fire operations, which has proven difficult at current staffing levels,” the FS wrote in a briefing document about combining the two dispatch centers.

The FS described Billings as “A city with a broad base of socially and economically diverse systems including housing, schools, airport, healthcare, childcare, and family necessities associated with the cost of living…A fully staffed Billings Interagency Dispatch Center should also provide a better work-life balance for employees across the spectrum.”

The FS tentatively expects Billings Dispatch to be fully operational with the appropriate radio communications and additional duties on April 18, 2022. Field testing has been going on since March. The phone number to report a fire will be the main dispatch number, 406-896-2900.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

13 thoughts on “Dispatch center in Bozeman, MT to close”

  1. It would be interesting for a broader story about the wildland dispatching situation. Seems there are similar challenges in other regions. I’ve heard the Pueblo and Grand Junction dispatch center will be combining. The area of coverage will be huge. The difficult staffing situation fits right in with other fire related disciplines. By-in-large, dispatchers are in lower grades and work long hours under very high stress.

    1. Pueblo and GJ will not be combining. The consolidation is allegedly something like.

      Pueblo moves to Colorado Springs and gobbles up Ft Collins. GJ will dispatch the Western Slope which will cause Durango, Montrose and Craig dispatch to close. Anyway, something like that.

      The Regional clowns also want to close Durango Tanker Base which is an absurd train wreck of a thought given the current wildfire load in the area and that the SW portion of the state is in a perpetual extreme drought. They want to free up more $ for “Clines Folly” aka “The Death Star” aka Springs tanker base…that will pump about 16 gals of retardant a year. The R2 RO is a mess.

      1. Yet the DRO ATB breaks retardant delivery numbers nearly every year. Many years the DRO ATB H2O wells can’t even keep up with demand, and R2 provides little support. Local FDs supply water for free (via tenders)to support IA water needs at the ATB. The DRO ATB and the DRC dispatch center are crucial to life safety in SW CO , yet the region has decided that that SW CO is better served by a GJ dispatch center and front range ATBs. 2012, 2013, 2017, 2018, and 2020 saw the Durango ATB and DRC dispatch do an amazing job, yet the pencil pushers at the RO didn’t see it.

        Dispatch consolidations and ATB realignments only serve a political purpose. SW CO will soon see significant losses when ATBs and dispatch centers can’t send air resources across the continental divide during monsoon season.

    2. That is not correct .. that Pueblo and Grand Junction are combining. They are consolidating Dispatch centers but not those two together.

    3. Similarly, Taos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque dispatch centers are rumored to consolidate in Albuquerque.

  2. I started my fire career here. It is a tough area to cover with lots of WUI, mixed jurisdictions, and of course tough fuel types and terrain. Just feel sorry for that type 4 IC spiked out waiting for an order that won’t get filled anytime soon. Not sure what the other problems are but can attest to the cost of living problem in Bozeman–sounds like a lot of other issues I hear coming out of SOCAL and other places.

    1. There’s a lot to be said for intimate local knowledge in a dispatch center. Stretching lines of communications in this day and age when the USDA relies on commercial phone and internet carriers to pass essential life safety communications is very risky. Sorry to see Bozeman go away. Hopefully they don’t tear out the infrastructure just in case Billings looses service.

      1. What concerns me is the loss of local knowledge. I mean no disrespect to a dispatch 600 miles south of me but when I needed something that wasn’t in the playbook a local and experienced dispatcher could massage a RO and produce what I needed – not what the GACC wanted to send me.

  3. Oh, this is the tip of the iceberg in Region 2. Pueblo Dispatch will be moving to Colorado Springs, Craig Dispatch will be absorbed by Ft. Collins and Durango and Montrose Dispatch will be combining with Grand Junction. Good luck filling all of those positions at these “Super Centers”. Rumor has it that tanker bases are next! The sad thing is that all of these dispatch centers and tanker bases that were created were due to tragic incidents (ie. South Canyon) or recommended by studies (tanker base study of 2000) stating that this is what we needed to operate safely. It amazes me that this agency will be willing to repeat these mistakes again and not learn from the past. Well, actually it doesn’t amaze me at all in this day and age.

  4. I’ve seen this happen in R8. They started consolidating dispatch, because they didn’t have enough people to cover the field offices. There was technical difficulties and some really bad things happened. And then they over worked the people in the consolidated dispatch and so they retired. As I read, this article I just kept thinking not again, not again! The FS doesn’t seem to learn from its past mistakes.

  5. If this consolidation interrupts dispatch coverage, my people will be home, teleworking and unavailable to fight fire. Not going to put people on a fire OR in the field without dispatch. No.*%#^^ way.

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