RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - Officials are sorting through glitches
in dispatching crews to fight wildland fires now that the Red Point
Fire has given agencies their first test of a new system.
The 17,500-acre Red Point Fire started July 21 southeast of
Newcastle, Wyo., and burned grass and timber on the southern edge
of the Black Hills National Forest, which straddles the
Wyoming-South Dakota state line. It was the first major wildland
fire using the Northern Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center at
the Rapid City Regional Airport.
The center combines state and federal fire resources in one
location. Before, crews were dispatched from separate locations and
agencies, often duplicating services.
"The whole interagency concept is new to us," said Sheri Fox,
manager of the Northern Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center.
"It's not perfect and will probably take three to five years to
get this center working the way it should."
A new dispatching system and a computer database were started
this summer. The national database contains information identifying
the availability of fire equipment and people trained to fight
wildland fires.
Fox and dispatchers across the country have criticized the new
database system for being cumbersome and slow.
Crews were issued qualification cards, or red cards, this summer
as well. Crews need the cards to be listed on the database. And the
cards must be updated and renewed annually.
Denny Gorton, Pennington County fire administrator, said some
volunteer fire departments applied for new red cards but had not
gotten them when the Red Point Fire started. Firefighters don't
need the cards for the initial attack on the fire or to protect
buildings. But the cards are needed to work the front lines of
wildfires, Gorton said.
Joe Lowe, state wildland fire coordinator, said he didn't turn
away volunteers without cards. But when calls were made to
volunteer fire departments on July 23, several departments
indicated they had equipment but could not provide crews because
red cards had not been issued.
Lowe said many volunteer fire departments waited until the May 1
deadline to submit information, creating a big rush to get cards
out. He said other departments, such as Black Hawk, didn't submit
information until July 3.
By May 29, 639 cards had been issued to 48 fire departments.
Another 400 cards have been issued in the past several weeks.
"We're trying to do everything we can to make things right
(with the volunteers). We need them," Lowe said. "It comes down
to meeting the deadlines in the contract."
Dar Coy, Hill City fire chief, said part of the delay stemmed
from state fire officials working at out-of-state fires.
Next year, volunteer fire chiefs can issue red cards for basic
firefighters, Lowe said. Crew chiefs and other fire managers would
still need to qualify through the state, he said.
Rockerville Fire Chief Paul Smith said it's an untapped resource
when volunteers who want to fight fires aren't used. "It's
frustrating to put in the effort to comply with state and federal
guidelines and then not be recognized."
Red cards assure that people meet training and fitness
standards, said Joel Behlings of the Custer Volunteer Fire
Department.
"An unsafe firefighter is just that; it's not safe for them and
the other firefighters working beside them," Behlings said. "Just
like any job, they need to complete the training and be
qualified."
If the database didn't list firefighters as available, they
weren't called, according to Dean Berger, fire management officer
for the Black Hills National Forest. Many firefighters were unaware
they had to update their availability weekly, he said.
Lowe said fire chiefs might be responsible for updating the
availability of equipment and crews in the future.
Berger said, "The next fire will be better, and every fire that
we have is additional experience. People will be better trained and
familiar with the system, and we'll know how to work through the
pitfalls."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)