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.


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.

Radio headsets for dozer operators

Adventure Fire
Dozer puts in fire line on the Adventure Fire north of Placerville, California, July 16, 2015. CAL FIRE photo.

Should all heavy equipment operators have access to radio headsets?Tim Banaszak pointed out to us that while working on a fire, communication between an operator and the Heavy Equipment Boss (HEQB) can be difficult or impossible. The equipment makes so much noise that it can be a challenge to hear the radio. Even relying on hand signals is not reliable due to dust and vegetation, Mr. Banaszak said.

We are still throwing rocks or sticks to get the operator’s attention, YIKES! The high RPM noise makes a portable [radio] useless. All other fireline operations have a clear and reliable communication link. Just hearing the word STOP can prevent equipment damage, an injury, or even worse.

He suggests that a cache of headsets for radios be available that could be checked out at a fire with the operator’s portable radio.

What do you think? Is this a problem that needs solving?

Communication during wildfire incidents

Frequent and effective communication between response organizations and individuals is critical to ensuring the most effective response during wildfire incidents.

Above: Incident Command Post at the Eiler Fire, August 8, 2014 at Anderson, California. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Most of the detailed reports I have seen about critical incidents identified communication as an area that needed improvement.

In a recent study, researchers analyzed the influence of pre-incident familiarity, stakeholder affiliation, and primary wildfire response/functional role on communication frequency and efficacy during three western U.S. wildfires ignited on U.S. Forest Service land. All fires occurred in wildland/urban interface areas, and involved a range of parties including Type 1 Incident Management Team response teams, local forest leaders, and responding agencies. 

Below is an excerpt from the research.


“…Since wildfires are one of the most common disasters faced by communities in the U.S., understanding factors contributing to effective disaster response is key to improving response efforts. Effectiveness of disaster response is strongly impacted by the effectiveness of communication between individual responders during the incident. This research shows that mechanisms that establish relationships between disaster responders prior to wildfire incidents may increase communication between responders during wildfire incidents, and thus, reduce problematic communication and increase the effectiveness of disaster response.

Pre-incident relationship building may serve to strengthen understanding and increase mutual trust between responders. This suggests that community efforts to increase social contact between responders prior to incident can lead to benefits during disaster events by increasing the frequency and effectiveness of communication between individual responders.

This research also suggests that it can be problematic to assume that individuals with shared institutional roles will have more effective communication.

The least effective communication reported in this study was between individuals with similar institutional roles but no pre-incident familiarity.

A potential explanation for this trend is that individuals that share similar roles and/or stakeholder groups may be more likely to make assumptions about the other person’s approach to, or understanding of, a given situation, leading to false expectations and misunderstandings.

This suggests that to reduce problematic communication, responders who lack familiarity with each other must emphasize clear communication and refrain from making assumptions about the other person’s knowledge or strategy, regardless of how similar their institutional roles are…”


The information above is based on the following article: Nowell, B., & Steelman, T. 2015. Communication under Fire: The Role of Embeddedness in the Emergence and Efficacy of Disaster Response Communication Networks. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 25 (3): 929-952. doi: 10.1093/jopart/muu021.