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Who takes care of the firefighters who take care of us?

September 2, 2018
By Mike Weland

As Boundary County residents in the Fleming Creek area were moved to safety after the breakout of the Fleming Creek Fire nine miles north of Bonners Ferry August 24, local fire crews were helped as Idaho Department of Lands and U.S. Forest Service crews, including a team of hotshots, came in.

As families went back to their homes, the question arose, "these firefighters are out here taking care of us ... but who is taking care of them?"

I put that question to Karen Sjoquist, the IDL public information officer who helped keep KootenaiValleyTimes.com updated on the fire, and she put me in touch with Alisa Schotzko, the logistics chief on the Fleming Creek Fire who came here from Deary, Idaho, to take charge of everything to do with taking care of the firefighters.

Alisa graciously provided the follow information, all based on the national Incident Command System developed by FEMA that is used on nearly all emergency situations, from car wrecks to terrorist incidents to natural disasters, that require a coordinated response to resolve. In the ICS scheme, Alisa's job falls under the logistics heading, and it involves everything from facilities to food to medical service to supply -- everything to do with taking care of the people who fight the flames while those gallant souls are taking care of us.

"Facilities" covers where the firefighters and support personnel stay. It can be anything from a school to a field; as well as additional off-site facilities for things like eating and showering. Existing infrastructure, if any, is supplemented by contracted services and interagency fire-cache supplies for things such as showers, bathrooms, dining areas, generators, light towers and office space as needed.

"Every incident is different," Alisa wrote. "We try to scale our infrastructure appropriately based on the size and anticipated duration of the incident. As a rule, I try to keep things as small and simple as possible, while providing a camp environment which meets the needs of, and supports our firefighters."

On the Fleming Creek Fire, the Boundary County fairgrounds were used.

"Crews and overhead camped in tents on the grass," she wrote. "We used the Memorial Hall building as office and meeting space. Crews were fed meals in the covered basketball courts. KG&T Septic was contracted to provide portable toilet and hand-washing stations for camp sanitation. The Panhandle Health District, operating under a pre-season agreement contract, provided their mobile command vehicle. This was used as office space and provided internet service for the incident. Alpine Linen was contracted to provide cleaning service to the Incident Command Post building after the team’s departure."

Due to the relatively short duration of the incident, a local or contracted shower service was not used. Instead, firefighters were provided with “bath-in-a-bag” towels, which are essentially bath-towel sized towelettes used for personal hygiene.

"The wildland firefighting environment is inherently dirty and the firefighters are used to going several days to a week without a 'soap and water' shower," she wrote. "On longer duration fires, we do our best to provide them with actual soap and water.”

Firefighters are a well-prepared group. Not only do they arrive with tents and sleeping bags for camping, but they also carry with them all personal items they will need for being on a fire for two weeks. As a result, the need for facilities such as laundry service are eliminated.

However, extra items are such as Nomex, the fire resistant clothing firefighters wear, personal protective equipment and basic first aid items are available in the supply area for firefighters whose items are damaged or otherwise unserviceable.

The majority of supplies that are available in a fire camp are those which support the operational needs of the incident such as hose, fittings, pumps, tanks, fuel, oil, batteries (for radios), flagging, tools and personal protective equipment, supply. However, things like first aid supplies, extra Nomex, sleeping bags, tents, hygiene items, headlamps, personal protective equipment items are also kept in supply to meet the needs of the firefighters.

The vast majority of items are obtained from regional interagency fire caches, such as the Coeur d’Alene cache. Items not available from the cache system are purchased locally. Examples of common locally purchased items are chainsaw chain and saw parts, copier paper and cleaning supplies used in the maintenance of camp facilities.

"On the Fleming Creek Fire, the Kootenai Valley IDL office did a great job of ordering the operational supplies needed for the incident prior to the team’s arrival," Alisa wrote. "As a result, on this incident, we were able to maintain a fairly small supply cache."

At the end of the incident, all of the supplies, used and unused, are palletized and sent back to the regional cache, where they are refurbished and restocked, ready for use on subsequent incidents.

Safety is the number one priority on any fire. As part of the overall safety plan for the incident, medial services are frequently utilized.

"For us, this is usually in the form of 'line-qualified' EMTs or and/or a contracted ambulance service," she wrote. "Most often, there will also be first-responder/EMT qualified individuals on the crews and amongst operational staff as well. On the Fleming Creek Fire, Boundary Ambulance Service was contracted to provide an ambulance and line qualified EMTs. This facilitated rapid response and triage of medical issues."

One firefighter on the Fleming Creek Fire was injured when stung multiple times by bees or wasps, thanks to quick response, the firefighter was taken care of quickly and soon back on the fire line.

The ability to pass along information in time to respond to a developing situation such as a wildfire is essential, and communications are a big part of what logistics chiefs see to.

Most incident communications are conducted over handheld radios. Each fire has an assigned set of communication channels which are used on the incident. Depending on the incident, different channels may be used for operational communications on different parts of the fires, communicating with air support resources such a helicopters and Single Engine Air Tankers, or communicating with all resources on a fire.

"We don’t provide mail service for firefighters, but anymore, it’s pretty rare to be somewhere that doesn’t have cell phone service either in camp or at higher elevations up on the fireline," Alisa wrote. "I doubt folks have trouble keeping in touch with their friends and family while on assignment. It’s pretty common to see folks texting and talking on their phones after dinner."

Which bring us to the crux of the original question, food.

"Providing food to upwards of 150 firefighters can be a challenging task at times," Alisa wrote. "Options range from establishing agreements with local restaurants and vendors to bringing in a large on-site caterer; even going to the local grocery store. Firefighting is a demanding job physically, and as a result it takes a significant quantity of food to feed line resources. Ensuring the food is nutritious and also tastes good is important. When options are limited, firefighters can and do eat Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). However, we strive to provide the best food possible for the firefighters. All efforts are made to provide firefighters with a hot breakfast and dinner. Lunch is taken to the line by the folks and consists of a sandwich, a second sandwich or other entrée item, fruit, veggies, and six snacks – all of which can be consumed at lunch and throughout the day to provide sufficient and consistent source of energy."

Firefighters burn between 1800 and 2600 calories per operational shift and up to 5000 calories per day. Water and Gatorade are ordered by the pallet. Water is often also provided to firefighters in five gallon cardboard and plastic containers called “cubies,” aptly named for their square shape.

On the Fleming Creek Fire, Super 1 Foods in Bonners Ferry provided breakfast, lunch and dinner during the first operational period. Once the Incident Management Team (IMT) arrived, the team was able to utilize Boar’s Nest Lakefront Bar and Grill, Spirt Lake, to provide meal service for breakfast lunch and dinner at the fairgrounds.

"Boar’s Nest provided great food and was great to work with," she wrote.

"Local partnerships and teamwork contribute significantly to the success of any incident," she continued. "On the Fleming Creek Fire, the pre-existing relationships the local IDL office had with a variety of community organizations and county emergency management were a huge asset, both on the fireline and in camp. Everyone we worked with was extremely welcoming, informative, accommodating, and provided great service."

So, what can the people being protected do to support firefighters working on an incident in their community?

"Probably the best things is to send or bring by cards and pictures," Alisa said. "We can set up a sign board to display them at meal times. If you live on a road which accesses the fire, putting out a temporary thank-you sign is a great way of showing support. Often times people want to donate food and water. Unfortunately, we are not able to distribute any food that is not in factory sealed packaging. As noted above, since we purchase water and Gatorade by the pallet, there is always plenty on the fire."

People can also donate to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which provides assistance to fallen firefighters’ families and to firefighters injured in the line of duty.

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P.O. Box 1625
Bonners Ferry, ID 83806
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