Charlotte Dalbos and her CAL FIRE mentor Sean Griffis. Photo: YubaNet

NEVADA CITY, Calif. June 18, 2018 – A student needing an internship to complete a degree as a professional firefighter recently finished the ten-week assignment with CAL FIRE’s Nevada-Yuba-Placer (NEU) unit. So far, nothing unusual, right? Except, the student traveled close to 9,000 kilometers (approx 5,600 miles) to get to the unit.

Meet Charlotte Dalbos, a  volunteer firefighter from Bordeaux, France. The 19-year old is completing her degree at the Technical University of Bordeaux (IUT Bordeaux) with her goal being a professional firefighter. Her internship is part of a program started by CAL FIRE’s Butte unit, now run by Battalion Chief Sean Griffis with the NEU unit. We had the opportunity to chat (in French) with Charlotte before she returned to France.

“It was unbelievably amazing and I already miss all of it – even though I haven’t left!” Charlotte exclaimed. “Normally, the required 10-week stint is done in France, because it’s easier to evaluate the student and see if they fulfilled the requirements and thus complete their studies. But, my English teacher has great contacts, including with the Butte unit who ran the program for 16 years. Due to the retirement of the principal mentor, the unit was looking to pass the program on. Sean [Griffis] accepted the job and so, here I am.”

Dalbos was tasked with shaping a new mapping solution for the unit. Her work will eventually be rolled out in the form of paper and electronic maps, correctly tracing and identifying every road in Nevada, Yuba and Placer counties.

“My English teacher told me that he had this opportunity, with a new unit and a new supervisor, opening up and he thought I’d be a good fit – even though I am not the strongest coder in my class,” Dalbos quipped. “In preparation for my project, I was given a trial license to ArcMap and I familiarized myself with the program – because all the contextual help and the program itself are in English only. Originally, the project was to create a complete map atlas for the NEU unit. The data available was collected over the years in the field by NEU personnel. Once I got here, the project was refined and I was tasked with assisting in the creation of a standardized map set for the unit. The dataset for the roads alone in the three counties is over 200,000 data row.”

The practical aspect of working with large datasets includes having a powerful enough computer to open such large files and efficiently work with them. Griffis and Dalbos found  a computer capable to handle the GIS program and the data at Station 20 – Griffis’ own desktop computer.

“I couldn’t verify all the data by myself not being familiar enough with the area. If someone tells me there’s a typo in a road name, I don’t know what the correct spelling is supposed to be. So, it is absolutely essential that everything is checked by field personnel. Our work will be sent out to all the fire stations to verify the data. Then, the next person – maybe another intern! – will finalize the maps and finally every firefighter in the unit will have the same set of maps.”

Firefighters rely on paper and electronic maps besides their knowledge of the area. But, commercially available paper maps are no longer updated and many new roads are missing. Electronic maps have errors too, showing trails as passable roads or bridges still in existence when they have been decommissioned for years.

“To be as useful as possible, we decided to create three different atlases, one for each county within the unit. The maps come in three different formats as well. One, a general area overview, a medium resolution showing what you see now on paper maps and the third version a very detailed map of each area that firefighters can glance at and see the roads in detail.” Dalbos explained.

The ArcMap version will be available to the Emergency Command Center (ECC) and at some point replace the rather antiquated map solution dispatchers are working with now.

Dalbos is fully aware of the importance of the project. “It’s not really important if an address is a few feet off on your preferred map app. But, if a bridge is no longer available for an engine to use, the delay in response time can be the difference between quickly containing a fire and a large incident – not to mention medical calls where minutes can make a huge difference.”

At Station 20. Photo YubaNet

Her mentor, Sean Griffis, is a role model for Dalbos. “Sean is incredibly comfortable with technology and very detail-oriented. We wanted to do this right, so we took the time to create a solid foundation for the work. At the same time, I learned so much – if I’m asked back home to create a similar map, I can totally do it! It wasn’t just ‘Click here, now click here’ and finish the project in record time. This experience is invaluable and I can’t say enough about everyone who helped me with the project.”

Her first day in the unit was spent at the ECC, where dispatchers showed herthe CAL FIRE dispatch system. While a little jetlagged, she was impressed with the variety of calls handled and the seamless way resources are dispatched, regardless of agency ownership. She has returned several times to the ECC during her internship, always fascinated by the way dispatchers multitask.

Having to submit her final report on the project to her exam panel back in France by last Wednesday, Dalbos was able to electronically file her mini thesis with an assist from JoAnn Cartoscelli at the ECC. “She helped me combine the pdf files and add some of the map pages created to my report. Most importantly, she explained the organizational structure of CAL FIRE as a statewide agency and how each unit is structured, because of course it’s different from what I’m used to in my volunteer fire department.”

By now, she is used to the small differences, like the size of coffee cups (bigger here) or the different bread crust texture. But foremost, she relishes the landscape and vistas in California. “The forest is so different here from the Gironde and Landes departments where I live. It’s so much denser, the potential for fire is so high. At the same time, it’s so beautiful, and incredibly diverse. How can you not love this area?”

Dalbos flew back home on Saturday, arrived Sunday and today she is presenting her final report and will pass the oral exam this week. Her time in Nevada County was “the experience of a lifetime,” spending time with the Griffis family and getting to know the area was “so amazing, I want to come back!” If at all possible, she wants to accompany the next group of interns or come back to serve as a seasonal firefighter, her way of thanking everyone for her two months of training. Her plans for the future include completing the two-year degree, possibly adding another year and apply to the officer program for professional firefighters in France.

Editor’s note: Bonne chance à l’oral et peut-être à bientôt Charlotte!