Strategies for community preplanning for WUI incidents
A fire department needs to have a plan. The community needs to have a plan to support or be supported by the fire department. (Photo by author.)
Finding the balance in your career seems to always come down to the issue of time. Time seems to play a part in everything we do. How much time is it going to take to prepare for an interview? How much time is it going to take to train? How much time is it going to take to get the next certification? How much time is it going to take to become eligible for a promotion? How much time am I going to need to feel prepared? How much time are we going to have to gauge an offensive attack? How much time is it going to take to respond? How much time have I been on scene? How much time do I have to search? How much time do I have on the job? How much time do I have until retirement?
Balancing time also plays a huge role in your personal life – making sure you are spending enough time with your family, loved ones, and friends. Personal and professional relationships all have a huge influence in our lives. When you really look at it, time seems to be the most valuable asset in our lives. We can never get it back or have enough of it.
This past wildfire season, this country saw its share of catastrophic events. We witnessed devastation across communities that left our customers without homes or the means to carry through. Time after time, we saw our brothers and sisters putting themselves on the front lines to help our stakeholders in their time of desperate need.
This commitment took time. It took training; tactics; resources; certifications; schooling; knowledge; and, most importantly, planning. It is fair to say that not one of our fellow firefighters jumped into the wildland-urban interface (WUI) without demonstrating a commitment to a good percentage of these time-consuming endeavors. Our team would not blindly commit to a set of structures without the time spent on the drill ground or in the classroom. This is a well thought out, drilled set of strategies and tactics to ensure everyone goes home. It is a preplanned event. There was time spent evaluating hazard, risk, tactical proficiency, and crew performance. We understand the capabilities and form expectations of our crews.
The Roaring Lion Fire in southwest Montana was an event that nobody expected. It was an event where there was no time. The fire completely engulfed a populated canyon in under 50 minutes. The residents had zero discretionary time. They had to decide to leave immediately – with little to no warning. There was no plan, no discussion, no strategy, and no training involved. Each resident understood the risk of residing in the canyon and took some action to make the neighborhood safer. But time was against them.
Fortunately, there were no injuries when the country witnessed the ferocity of that particular wildland fire. One of the homeowners stated he saw the plume of smoke, his neighbor warned him five minutes later, and 25 minutes after the initial plume was reported his home and all its contents were incinerated.
The local and state fire departments responded quickly to the event, working to ensure that the community was protected and supported, but tremendous damage was done.
Now imagine this happening in your community. What is the plan? How much time do you have? How much time do you have to evacuate your home with everything you need and love? How much time does your fire department have? What are the capabilities of your fire department? These are the tough questions that need to be addressed. A fire department needs to have a plan. The community needs to have a plan to support or be supported by the fire department.
The fire department’s job is to ensure a level of safety is in place within its jurisdiction. Planning for an escalated major event is our responsibility. Coaching our team to help create a community that can help us make it safer is what it is all about.
Each fire department must educate its customers on the honest capabilities of its service. This will get the conversation started on how the residents and stakeholders can help the fire department do its job better. Come up with a preplan. Have the conversation on the front end of an incident to prepare your fire department and the community it serves. Education can start with basic mitigation techniques that will transition into community continuity that ensures a safer environment for everyone. Have the community own the concepts that support your strategies so the hard stuff is already talked about and discussed and plans are formulated. The homeowner can be the voice for the street, the street can be the voice for the subdivision, the subdivision can be the voice for the village, the village for the community, and the community for the district.
Understanding everyone’s wants and needs is a conversation that must happen. Ensure that the public knows a single-engine company cannot protect everyone when a huge threat is knocking at the door. The fire department needs help. The community needs help. We need to ask for that help. This starts by understanding what our major hazards are and having a plan for them. The customer becomes the student, the student becomes the teacher to other students, and the teacher becomes the voice for the community. Soon, we have the people who we serve as the spokespeople for a safer community, which ensures a safer work environment for us.
Preplanning a community for a wildland-urban interface event is something that is commonly overlooked. What are our resources? What needs to be addressed in the first 24 to 48 hours? What are our capabilities? How much help can come and how quickly? How do we inform everyone? What is our evacuation plan? How do we get help coming in and customers going out? Each question has a host of “what ifs” to go along with it. Answering these questions can be accomplished by preplanning, but this takes time – time that we are not going to have when we need to act. The more time spent on the front end, the more effective we can be on the street. The roaring lion does not care how much time you have spent on training, education, mitigation, or strategy. It is running at you full speed, and time is on its side.
Finding the balance of good solid prevention through preplanning is essential in our risk analysis of our community. Making time is imperative; just ask the 16 homeowners who lost everything in the Roaring Lion Fire. They all wished they had more time.
Seth Barker is a captain and training officer for the Big Sky (MT) Fire Department. He is a state fire instructor for the Montana State Fire Service Training School and a state lead EMS instructor. Barker has a Blue Card Instructor certification, is an ISFSI instructor, and is one of the curators for FirefighterCloseCalls.com.