Shortage of radio technicians may have compromised safety on Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire

More than 1,000 fire personnel were affected by inadequate communication with the Incident Command Post

technician sets up a portable radio repeater
File photo. A Radio Technician sets up a portable radio repeater on the Sprague Fire in Glacier National Park in Montana, September 16, 2017. NIFC photo.

The difficulties in hiring and retaining wildland firefighters which has resulted in one-third of the Forest Service firefighter positions in California being unfilled, may not be restricted to just those who directly battle the flames. The old axiom, “amateurs think strategy, generals think logistics,” does not only apply to the military. If firefighters can’t be supplied with food, water, vehicle maintenance, hose, tools, fuel, and communications they will not be successful in a long campaign.

The concept of firefighters ensuring that before they engage, they must have adequate Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes, and Safety zones (LCES) was developed by Paul Gleason. It is shorthand for combining a list of Standard Orders fire personnel must follow to protect themselves from fireline hazards such as being entrapped in the fire. According to a report on SAFENET, there was a four-day period from May 15 until May 19 when the Communications leg of LCES was not covered adequately on the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in Northern New Mexico.

The National Situation report for May 15 shows that in the United States that day there were 10 large uncontained fires, with all of the fires in the country being staffed by a total of 4,708 personnel. When the fire season nears its peak this summer there could be five times that many people assigned to fires. But in the middle of May there was a shortage of radio technicians and radio operators which made it impossible to set up an adequate radio communications system when it was needed on the north zone of the fire following a reorganization.

I was told by mentors as I came up through the ranks that firefighting is not an emergency — not to firefighters. It’s what we do. So when the situation gets suddenly more complex and decisions must be made and executed quickly, think calmly, act decisively, and communicate clearly. At least one of these suddenly complex situations occurred on the fire. A person needed medical treatment and extraction by air. It is referred to in the SAFENET as an incident within an incident. They are usually managed separately by an offshoot organization, and they always require efficient, robust, dependable, instant communication.

The text below is taken word for word from the SAFENET. The only change we made was to translate the acronyms.

Narrative

When Southwest Team 1 took command of the North Zone of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire communications were unable to be linked with Incident Command Post (ICP). The zoning of the incident required the current radio communications system to be split. The North Zone remained on the current system with the South Zone moving to their own system. During this transition there were no radio techs to switch the repeater link for the North Zone and install the repeater to cover ICP. For a duration of 4 days, the link with communications at the ICP was ineffective. This was highlighted on 5/17 with a red medical that required extraction by air. During the Incident Within an Incident (IWI) communication were not able to function from ICP to the field and back. As the fire progressed, the repeater that was required for ICP was also needed to cover field personnel. Approximately, 300 personnel in the field had limited communications, with the only link established through a human repeater. During high fire behavior periods, several resources were forced to abandon tactics and leave the line because communications could not be established. The contributing factor, is the lack of radio techs available nationally. Orders were placed for radio techs days before transition and after transition. Orders for one week were returned unable to fill (UTF). Furthermore, radio operators were also unavailable. Orders were also placed for CAT personnel which was also UTF. The lack of communications personnel resulted in decrease support for the field and inability to coordinate IWI response and transport through ICP and the communications unit. About 1,200 firefighters were affected by the lack of communications with ICP.

The lack of communication personnel is limiting the “C” in “Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, Safety Zones” (LCES) and needs to be resolved at the national level. The trend of unable to fill communications personnel has progressively gotten worse over the last few years and will most likely result in incidents without communications in the future.

Immediate Action Taken

Field personnel had communications on the most fireline through the existing repeater system. Approximately, 25% of fireline personnel had no communications coverage which was unsatisfactorily resolved with a human repeater during the 4 days without a radio tech. Field Operations was utilized to coordinate response and transport for IWIs placing their self in a location with cell service and radio service. A radio tech was sent from the South Zone once their system was installed and working. That individual then moved to the North Zone on Day 4 to begin configuring the North Zone communication system. On 5/20, 4 days after transition, the North Zone communication system was operating providing coverage for ICP and the incident.

Other mitigations for correcting the problem took considerable time to no avail and included contacting commercial vendors, national guard and state compact agreements. The solutions did not pan out. Currently, land management agency fire organizations have no capacity for implementing a communications system on an incident without reliance on personnel outside of the fire organization.

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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.

31 thoughts on “Shortage of radio technicians may have compromised safety on Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire”

  1. This is the case for just about all single resource overhead. The system can’t staff up a handful of team fires sufficiently. Single resources just don’t flow between regions like they used to. It will make things tough.

  2. I love how a majority of these articles focus on “California”…. California isn’t the only place with these issues…. Get over yourself California! It’s bad EVERYWHERE!!!

    1. Wake up Buckwheat. Buy some reading glasses. Take a class on “reading comprehesion!” But, for God sakes cut with the Regional Sniveling!

    2. It’s so frustrating to see all these storages in the FS and to be fighting the FS for 4 years to be reinstated. I just don’t understand.

  3. AT&T has well established incident response teams dedicated to agencies and first responders establishing communications and repeaters in these events just a thought

    1. AT&T is a joke when it comes to fire response. They don’t setup repeater. They set up first net cows. Even when you do get them out there, you have to get the devices from a different section of AT&T. Was on a fire in NM and they setup a firstnet cow but never could get devices by the time we left 10 days later. Also, first net is not the answer for field operations. Does not have the coverage.

  4. No talky talky, no worky worky.

    These IMT’s need to quit ordering sh__ if they can’t support what they have. You can’t support me with chow? We leave. You can’t support me with Comms? We leave. You can’t support me with saw mix? We leave.

    We were all taught that self -demobing was “bad”. I say, Eff that, IMT’s need us more than we need them. There will always be another fire to get plugged in to, always!

    1. Agree. I have set self-demob as a result of inadequate logs, comms, team, div, tfld, – if those things are insufficient – my crew and I are not sticking around. Been running this way for about 5 years now. In the past it was “I dont owe anything to these arseholes” today its “I dont owe anything to your constant promotion of ineptitude, lack of logistical support, lack of awareness that your arse-tail is wagging your dog”

      Problems:
      1. making tflds into divisions on T1 and 2 fires
      2. making our engine demob, federal, over other contract engines on a FS fire – if our captain didnt take tfld
      3. No comm give a fuk
      4. And it gets worse. May that inform your present and future decisions.

  5. It is a Senior leadership ‘FAIL’. california As well as Federal. with. The availability of. Widespread Satcom technologies, Every Large. Wildfire or. LE resource should have. A satcom ‘ terminal.’ GlobalStar, by example.

    Without. Doubt, many. Wildfire Responders are national Guard “Types”. Satcom is Here And Now! C3, Command Control, and Communications should, be on Every team. Management at every level should be ON this. Look ad DOD After. Grenada. And Desert Storm. i carried my Trusty Globalstar. Sat phone For Years! tho, Being called from Cal. in Italy in acozy bed at 3A.M. is a “Nuisance! “troops. In the “Field must not be “Cut” Off”!!
    I’ve seen and used these “cool Lifesaving “toys”! I’ve Seen it Done. a carried a brick too! As valuable as a shovel!

    1. Strikes me that a wide swath of Management, is marking Time til retirement. Whatever lessons they ever “Learned“ have been forgotten! “ROAD’… “Retired on “ active Duty”.

  6. At some because the USA can’t staff anything sufficiently we will see a fire left to burn, and not in a remote or difficult place. When Colorado Springs burned up in the Waldo Canyon Fire, there was no IAA for the state to request resources and the need brief was in front of the USAF air field full of parked MAFFs. The public lost it when the sheriff said they were working hard to limit the fire’s growth. Incompetence and lack of personnel, we used to make fun of the soviets for holding that benchmark.

  7. Unreal!
    The whole North Zone of the fire should have been stood down.
    Am I surprised that didn’t happen?
    Nope
    And now the SW1 Team should be stood down.
    Will that happen?
    Nope

    1. Rosie, why are you calling for the team that actually spoke up to be stood down, rather than all the other teams that have dealt with similar issues this year that chose to just “make it work” and muddle on through? The comms problems didn’t just appear on the north zone when team 1 took it over from another type 1 team. The problems had been ongoing, the difference is that the safety on team 1 spoke up and filed a Safenet so that other people could learn from the situation and it could be made known to others that this is likely to be an ongoing concern.

  8. A large majority of the RADO and COMT positions are staffed by AD’s. Many of them have stop coming out to fires due to the lack of sufficient pay. Why would a person come out and work 15-16 hour days for 14 days straight and only get paid $18.08 an hour. They can stay home and sleep in their own beds and make more than that working part time at McDonalds or a grocery store. The same is true for COMT’s. Their pay is a bit better but not sufficient to entice people to come out. Every year they increase the AD pay scale by 2 or 3% and it has not kept up with the going wage. This is the same issue for the firefighters. It’s not like they can’t increase the pay or change the classification to a higher pay rate as they did with the MEDL position this year ( From an H, $32.56 to an L $51.12). They just don’t deem the positions to be of a significant importance to support them. Then there is the issue of having qualified personnel that work for the Forest service but have supervisors that refuse to let them participate on teams or go out on fires. Forest Service Management talks a good talk but fails to implement what is needed to get the job done.

    1. When did the MEDL get their pay increased to that level. I’m just wondering because I’m a Medl.

      1. March 28th of this year they were moved to AD-L.
        Straight from the first page of the AD Pay Plan.

        • Section F: Re-leveled the following positions:
        o MEDL, Medical Unit Leader, AD-L

    1. Yeah.

      “We will utilize all the bright, ready, intelligent, contract managers to hold them to account! “ – says nobody that actually sees how much contractors get away with in the fed gov ever.

      Swing and a miss. Im sure jeff that you were being sarcastic.

  9. There was a lot of concern this year in the pre-season IMT group meetings about a deficit in resources. Honestly, I am fairly nervous about going out for an IMT assignment. I guess we’ll see.

  10. There are many reasons that led up to the situation we are dealing with today, here are a few but I’m sure I missed others. Just too many holes lining up that may cause problems.

    Used to be every Forest had 2 Radio Techs with some bigger Forests having up to 6. Reductions and the start of the CIO has led to maybe 2 Techs covering an area of 3 or so Forests. The CIO has gotten in trouble with too many vacancies and was forced to fill positions but the OPM system is hampering hiring. We should be developing Techs from the Fire Fighters on Forests that are already into what working for the FS entails. Not to many people are willing to be away from home weeks at a time, deprived of sleep from long hours and sleeping on the ground while breathing smoke. Also recent changes in political/cultural landscape that you are forced to put up with are just not worth dealing with. Add in the BS COVID has caused with vax requirements, masks and food problems, no wonder the mood is sour.

    And don’t get me started on COMTs that don’t have Electronics backgrounds and can’t repair equipment, that will just get me written up for hurt feelings.

  11. The majority of forests in the US have antiquated radio networks. Poor infrastructure, no battery backup, unreliable power supplies, and no engineering support by the forest are just some of the problems. Multiple holes are well known on every forest where repeaters do not reach down into the canyons or have dead spots shadowed out by terrain. Few qualified communications techs, a lack of funds for replacing old equipment, vandalism and theft by the public are all daily issues, and adding a fire only makes it all the more difficult to have adequate comms. On the Santa Fe, the Barillas repeater and lookout were destroyed by the Hermits Peak Fire and late last year the Deadman repeater was stolen. The Dome repeater requires maintenance every year or so as locals walk away with one or two solar panels. When they can’t remove a solar panel, they just destroy it. Until the USFS decides it wants to improve infrastructure, train and hire more techs, this will continue to happen.

    1. Thats right. Instructions for Chief of the Forest Service, Regional Foresters, Forest Supervisors, District Rangers:

      1) take head out of anal orifice
      2) use eyes to look around
      3) if your eyes dont work enlist (and pay) for someone elses
      4) listen to what they tell you
      5) if you cant think well enough to interpret the info – then elist (and pay) for the use of somebody else’s brainpower
      6) plan and take action ASAFP (yes the “F” is what you think)
      7) question why you have a job. Wonder for how much longer that will be. Choose two paths :
      1) easy right (congrats you are schadenfreude) -or-
      2) hard right (you pass … feel good about your salary and sleep well)

  12. You just have to look at past SAFENETs to see there is a pattern of problems involving Communications. https://safenet.nifc.gov/safenet_rpt.cfm

    Also note there is a canned response in many of them from management to not point out problems and use the HelpDesk to get it solved. These problems are severe enough they justify the use of the SAFENET to bring attention to the frequency of problems, especially when Dispatch Centers are down. Relying on the data network for critical infrastructure is not working out, it is not robust enough.

  13. I’ll never roster with an IMT ever again, EVER!!!

    Total goat rope clown shows with IC’s that are more worried about fluffing the Agency Admins than they are about the people on their “team”. For years they just staffed up with Muni clowns because it took the FS 20 years to get an employee to TFLD. Now, the situation has gotten worse! Not to mention 15.5’s after “showing a lunch”. I avoid IMT fires like the plague!

  14. Seems to me making use of all hazards COMT and COML etc might help them alleviate their shortage. Make a shorter bridge program to take the people already trained up to speed on the forest service way of operation. You would be amazed at the number of all hazards people that would be willing to go out

    1. Let me rephrase, have a bridge program to take the people who are all hazards trained and train them in nwcg.

      1. The bridge program would be to open a taskbook and complete it along with completing the RT requirements. I am certified in both AH and NWCG. They are two totally different training classes that don’t cover each others equipment or needs. Get into the system, get your RT stuff and do a pack test. Then come out as a trainee and learn the equipment and setups.

  15. Where would we be without firefighters ? Too much of the southwest would be cinders. Have you read about the procedures – regardless of personal safety and weather – these skilled and courageous men and women follow ?At present I understand there are so many active fires here in New Mexico etc there is a shortage of firefighters. Of any people more important anywhere : $ 18.75 an hour – are you kidding ??? The Hermits Peak fire , still enormous, is left on “watch” : no air or other means of fire supression measures ! Leaving it to the monsoons to totally quell a monster fire such as this is unacceptable – and Very Dangerous I will so much appreciate an encouraging answer from you A copy of this letter will be sent to Santa Fe New Mexican Thank you Ethelinda

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