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San Bernardino County: Grand Prix/Old Fires - Deja Vu...."We Have Been Here Before"

Author: David Dowling

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

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Originally Published in our April 2004 issue.

October 21, 2003 was hot and clear with a great view of our local mountains.   In Rialto California, at the San Bernardino County Fire Department dispatch center, interviews were being conducted to select the next "much needed" Emergency Service Dispatcher.  At around 1530 hours, the last interview was completed when one of our on duty dispatchers took time out to point to the small column of smoke clearly visible to the northwest of our facility at the south end of the Cajon Pass.  This was the beginning… the "Grand Prix" fire had started. 

With little wind, the fire burned upslope toward the San Bernardino National Forest.  Initial attack resources would be unable to contain this slope driven fire.  The community of Lytle Creek would be threatened within hours but the fire was expected to burn into previous burned areas.  Because of the excellent visibility that day, dispatchers were fielding calls from all the communities in the San Bernardino Valley.  Unfortunately, our interviews for new dispatchers were not in time, for we would need all the new dispatchers we could muster up to handle the events that started that day and lasted for three weeks, until November 16, 2003. 

San Bernardino County has a history of large, wind driven wildland fires.  Since 1970, The "Bear,” "Meyers Canyon,” "Thunder" and the most famous, the "Panorama" fire, have all burned separately.  But these next two fires, the "Grand Prix" and "Old" fire (started on October 25), would join and surpass the acreage of all these previous fires put together.

On October 21, in quick succession, pushed by predictable and strong weather changes that are normal to these wildland areas in Southern California, several fires erupted.  Some were arson caused, some were accidental, creating an urban interface fire situation that had only been seen once before in this County – 1980’s "Panorama" Fire.  Planners had made changes since 1980, added radio channels, created inter-operability, streamlined the mutual aid ordering process to better handle events like these.  The dispatch system had come a long way, but it still required the skillful work of many communications professionals to process orders, dispatch equipment and provide tactical communications for these huge fires that would devastate Southern California over the next several weeks.

Our Center (one of nine fire dispatch centers in San Bernardino County), provides fire dispatch services for eight of the 47 fire departments in our County and is also the County's Operational Area Dispatch Center for the State Office of Emergency Services/Fire and Rescue Division. In this role, our dispatchers process and co-ordinate all fire mutual aid activity within the County.  This involves the dispatching and tracking of engine strike teams, overhead, incident management teams, and other fire mutual aid equipment.  We also are co-located with the County Emergency Operations Center and provide communications and intelligence support to EOC operations.  Our dispatchers also manage, on a minute to minute basis, the 800 MHZ trunked radio system utilized by the majority of the County's local fire agencies.  In other words, we assign tactical channels to departments based on need and geography.  Considering the fact that the major wildland fire departments – California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection (CDF) and the US Forest Service (USFS) – are still operating in the VHF radio spectrum, the need for frequency co-ordination became even more of a challenge to the firefighting agencies responsible for controlling these fires.

Our normal on shift staffing includes 1 supervisor and 5 response/command operators (RCO) for the busy time of the day.  At the height of this fire activity, we were staffed with 3 supervisors, 7 RCOs, 1 calltaker, 1 resource status keeper, 1 GIS technician and 3 clerks.  In addition to this staff, we had 2 local Chief Officers representing the Operational Area and 2 liaison Chief's from CDF.

San Bernardino County’s first fire, the “Grand Prix,” is seen here on October 24th, rapidly approaching, and ultimately short-circuiting, a 500,000 volt transmission tower.
Photo: Troy Whitman/9-1-1 Magazine archives (April 2004 issue)

The spread of these fires was directly attributable to wind conditions, geography and the extreme "die back" condition of our wildland and forest areas.  The "die back" conditions in the forest and its ramifications had been under discussion for months.  Tactical pre-planning by local fire agencies was instrumental in saving many structures and radio sites.  The geography was a known quantity, with steep slopes and unburned fuel at it's worst.  Close contact with the National Weather Service by our dispatchers and field personnel allowed us to better predict when weather and wind patterns would affect the fires the greatest.

Since 1970, our county has seen rapid growth in the construction of new residences within this urban interface area.  This growth, along with these other factors, was instrumental in contributing to the loss of 150,769 acres of valuable watershed and forest and the complete destruction of 1128 residential and 10 commercial properties within San Bernardino County alone.

Our dispatchers went "above and beyond the norm" trying to match available firefighters from one department with reserve or "mechanically challenged" engines from another department, just to try and get "something" that could pump to the fires.

I saw fire officers do "everything they could" to get engines released from strike teams so they could go back to their home jurisdictions to save homes that were burning or imminently threatened.

I saw and heard of dispatch centers learning more about houses burning from the TV news media than they could from their own people due to overloaded radio channels.

Engine companies were heard making "pleas" for additional assistance with dispatch center personnel knowing that the needed resources were many hours away.

Dispatchers were observed placing orders for resources that could not be filled in a timely manner due to the drawdown caused by multiple, simultaneous fires in Southern California.

Dispatchers from our center worked hand in hand with their counterparts at the California Department of Forestry/San Bernardino Ranger Unit ECC and with the Federal Interagency Communications Center in a fine example of co-operation and Unified Command.


By the numbers.......

On the "Grand Prix" fire, San Bernardino County fire dispatchers were responsible for assembling and coordinating thirty five Type 1 engine strike teams, seven Type 3 engine strike teams, four Task Forces of engines, sixteen single engine increments and twenty overhead personnel.  Dispatchers also arranged for a FIREMARS mutual aid repeater, a USFS cross band repeater, OES FIREMARS radio cache, and two 800 MHZ radio caches.

On the "Old" fire, our dispatchers were again responsible for the assembling and coordinating nineteen Type 1 engine strike teams, three Type 3 engine strike teams, thirteen Task Forces of engines, twelve single engine increments and thirty overhead positions.

These statistics do not reflect any Forest Service or CDF resources utilized on these fires.   In addition and during this same period, our dispatchers sent various local government fire resources from this County to the "Pass,” "Roblar 2,” "Cedar,” "Padua,” "Paradise" and the "Simi Valley" fires.


David Dowling has been the Communications Manager for the San Bernardino County Fire Department/CONFIRE JPA for 35 years.  From it's original 1968 workload of "about 200" calls a year, this Center now handles nearly 80,000 incidents per year and employs 37 dispatchers and administrative staff.  

Related story: RIP David Dowling April 18 2014


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