BOULDER, Colo. (KDVR) — Radio communication was a challenge during the Marshall Fire for several agencies, according to an informal survey of mutual aid agencies conducted by the FOX31 Problem Solvers.
Mountain View Fire Rescue Chief Dave Beebe said that similar problems have come up during other major incidents throughout his career, and he would like to see better coordination among different jurisdictions.
“Somebody’s got to demonstrate some leadership. I don’t know if that goes to the governor or up to his office,” Beebe said.
“No matter how much we complain or point out things, we don’t have the horsepower to make it happen,” Beebe said. “It’s just that simple, and until somebody steps up and takes the bull by the horns and wants to own it and has the power to make it happen, it’s not going to change. I’ve been in this business 35 years. It has not changed.”
Beebe said he thought communication was better 35 years ago, when radio channels were limited.
Fire chiefs discuss Marshall Fire response
During an exclusive roundtable discussion with the FOX31 Problem Solvers, Beebe and three other fire leaders, whose crews responded to the Marshall Fire, talked about the challenges their teams faced.
Beebe said he learned of a concerning time during the fire when one of his chiefs did not have direct communication with his crew.
“He’s having to face-to-face with these guys to make sure they’re safe. So, this puts firefighters in danger,” he said.
Beebe said he also spoke to a chief in another county about the communication problems. Beebe said that chief told him, “I had engines on scene that had no idea where your guys were working. They could see fire, but they didn’t know where to go, and it just becomes an issue.”
Other chiefs who provided mutual aid told the Problem Solvers many of the communication issues involve the type of frequencies and radios that are used by varying departments.
Some mountain agencies use very high frequency, or VHF, radios, but other city-centered departments use digital radios with 800 megahertz, and often, the two systems cannot speak to each other.
“Face-to-face communication is always great, but it is hazardous. I think everyone on the fire should have a radio,” said Cody Trevithick, the Hygiene Fire Department chief.
He told the Problem Solvers some new radios are dual-band, so they can communicate using VHF or 800 MHz. But the problem with that, he said, is that “our radios are very expensive, so you have to slowly ease into it because it would break the bank trying to go and buy all new radios for the whole department.”
Trevithick said it could cost up to $6,000 for a radio with accessories. His agency and several others have recently applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants to help their agencies buy radios.
Boulder notification system revealed shortcomings
For Louisville Fire Chief John Willson, another “huge problem” that must be improved is the method by which people are notified to evacuate.
“Hopefully there will be things that will be addressed shortly,” said Willson, explaining that he believes the county is working on trying to implement a system that will notify people on their cell phones.
Boulder County’s system is Everbridge, “and it worked the way it’s supposed to work,” he said, “but I think a lot of people didn’t know about it. I think a lot of people don’t know how it worked.” He said the service works with a landline or if people sign up for it.
“Sign up for Everbridge. That’s a big thing,” Trevithick said. “Your house. Your kids at schools. Put all those addresses on there, so if your kid’s school is getting evacuated, you get the text message or phone call or whatever,” he said.
“We rely on neighbors notifying neighbors,” he said. “We rely on police officers notifying people, banging on doors. We rely on ambulances driving down the road and telling people to get out, so I think it’s a whole team affair, and that team is the citizens along with the first responders. I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to check up on your neighbors to make sure that they get out.”
Resource mobilization for a changing situation
Boulder County Sheriff’s Office Fire Management Officer Seth McKinney described challenges with resource mobilization.
Dispatching a crew to a wildland fire is much different than dispatching them to a structure fire because firefighters bring different equipment and strategies, based on what information they are given.
“This was a wildland fire for maybe an hour or two,” McKinney said, “and then it became something a lot more.”
McKinney said a wildland dispatch would indicate to first responders that they should report to a fire with wildland firefighting gear and trucks, “and it’s vastly different than say, a Type 1 engine. My wildland truck carries 300 gallons of water, and that does not get too far on a large event, so there’s some retooling that needs to occur there to get the appropriate resources going.”
McKinney said many crews were seeing lots of smoke and believed they were responding to a wildfire, but the nature of the fire had changed.
“I think it went well initially, but as it escalated, we were continuing to a wildfire system on an event that was much more than wildfire,” he said.
McKinney said that people need to become more aware that fires like these can happen anywhere.
“Everybody should have that ‘ready, set, go’ plan,” he said. “I never expected a fire like that to blow into Louisville or Superior. Again, this is a game-changer. We really need to up our ownership, up our efforts. I think there’s a lot of ways we’re going to be able to move forward positively from this,” McKinney said.
“The main thing is that people just need to pay attention,” Trevithick said. “On windy days, if you know wind is coming the day prior, don’t do burning, move tree branches off powerlines. Take care of your area, but it’s a whole team effort. Everyone needs to do it.”