For the non-dispatcher, walking into an Interagency Command Center has a sense of the cinematic. Screens, maps, and the squelch of radio correspondence abound in an audio-visual surround sound. There is a gentle energy of focus in the air, an awareness on background of incoming messages. The Tahoe National Forest dispatch team has mastered the gentle art of dropping a side conversation midstride to respond to the duties of their positions. Their manner of putting into harmony what would otherwise be a cacophony of information and requests for resources is truly awe-inspiring. They each have a humble sense of the importance of the work they do, coordinating responses to a diverse array of emergencies, but their work goes on behind-the-scenes, rarely captured by news headlines.

TNF dispatch at the Grass Valley Emergency Command Center
TNF dispatch at the Grass Valley Emergency Command Center

During a wildfire, dispatchers provide critical support. They send all necessary resources to the incident, keep track of those resources, and accurately log updates about the fire in computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems. Typically, the initial report comes to dispatch via fire lookout towers or 911 calls.  From there, the team identifies what resources need to be sent based on the incident’s location, response area, and dispatch level (an assessment of incident intensity that determines the amount and type of resources to provide). Dispatch level changes daily and is based on fuel moisture and a few other factors. As a team, they divide duties: the initial attack position talks to the incident commander, the support position orders resources (e.g., engines, water tenders, dozers, etc.), and the aircraft dispatcher orders the aircraft. They often staff the dispatch center throughout the night to keep the needs of a fire supported. Ever wonder how fires get their names? That is dispatch, choosing a geographical feature or road nearby by which to identify the fire in forthcoming communication and response efforts. 

Their realm of support stretches beyond wildfires. Year-round they aid the forest’s law enforcement staff and also track the status and location of all employees in the field, including those on recreation, wildlife, road, and archaeology crews. They also manage the Incident Qualifications and Certification System for the forest, recording all certifications and training records for each responder. When not in the thick of fire season, they work closely with avalanche forecasters, and also train and help partnering agencies with medical emergencies or vehicle accidents. When it is “off season” for the Tahoe, it is often fire season in other parts of the United States, so they send resources to assist other states.

This work requires use and mastery of a lot of technology. To name just a few: computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, which record the status of available and assigned resources; remote fire cameras, which operate as virtual fire towers, providing live imagery to detect smoke; an automated flight following system, to track the status of aircraft; and telephones and radios to coordinate information with staff, partners, and the public.

The Tahoe's first "First Responders"
The Tahoe’s first “First Responders”

There are a variety of pathways into working in dispatch for the U.S. Forest Service. As a geographic information system (GIS) intern on the Tahoe National Forest, Kristen Furie developed a fascination with the use of mapping in emergency services. When her internship concluded, she looked for an opportunity to continue working with fire and mapping and found it in dispatch.

“I love supporting folks in the field and the ability to assist on large fires across the country, taking assignments from coast to coast,” Furie said. “You can never predict what the day will bring. There is always something new and challenging.”

Trevor Thurber was likewise drawn to work in dispatch through a dual affinity for service and dynamic situations. “I have always had a knack for helping others and my community,” he explained. “I enjoy the fast-paced environment and the opportunity to help both the public and our public lands.”

When you next read about an emergency, know that there are dispatchers working hard, but generally outside of view, to make the response to that emergency a success. On the Tahoe National Forest, we are so thankful for the work our dispatchers do to keep our visitors, staff, and forests safe.

Editor’s note: We concur!