Rurally Speaking: Keeping Rural Fire Departments in the Dark; What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

Carl Haddon implores the powers that be to not keep rural fire departments in the dark.

By Carl J. Haddon

My alternative title for this piece was “S*** You Can’t Possibly Make Up,” but I’m guessing my editor wouldn’t have been able to publish that. Hopefully you get the point.

During my now almost two decades in the rural volunteer fire service (after 25-plus years as a career urban firefighter), certain things still never cease to amaze me. One of those things is the lack of information or notification about critical happenings in our response areas. By “critical happenings” I’m referring to those events that the fire department should be notified about to allow them to be prepared for.

In the same way that we are (or should be) notified about new building projects or developments, or large public events coming to the area, we should be notified—and, more importantly, given the opportunity to purchase, prepare, and train for the type of things that I share with you in this article.

What I am about to offer you actually happened to me and my family just last week. After the shock and anger wore off a bit, it made me realize just how much deeper the issue is, and how many more lives could have been affected because our local fire department knew even less about the incident than I did.

Around 7 a.m. last Tuesday, as my wife and I sat in bed enjoying a cup of coffee, an unexpected noise outside our window rattled not only us, but our four horses and two Great Danes as well. You see, the noise was from a medium-sized helicopter that was less than 10 feet off the back lawn, travelling slowly past our bedroom window. Coffee flew, dogs freaked out, and our horses created their own rodeo. If it couldn’t get any weirder, I recognized the sound of the helicopter landing in my back pasture.

My youngest son was home at the ranch for a visit, and he offered to go see what was going on while we soothed animals and gathered our wits. When our son returned with the news, all I could do was shake my head, and say “you could never make this s*** up!”

The U.S. Forest Service had, unbeknownst to us, commissioned an aerial weed spraying project on public lands. The helicopter pilot didn’t think the original landing area (wherever that was supposed to be) was safe and chose our pasture as a safer base of operations. Expecting Forest Service brass to knock on our door at any minute, I told my son that I gave temporary permission for the helicopter and pilot to remain in place while we figured things out.

What we also didn’t know is that with the helicopter also came a 3,000-gallon herbicide semi-tender with a landing pad on top of it and a large Jet A fuel trailer being towed by another truck! Unbelievably, that knock on the door from the Forest Service never came, and the air operations commenced as if we were invisible and as if they were on Forest Service land.

Suffice it to say that this situation was wrong on more levels than I could describe, and heads are rolling, and then I learned that our rural volunteer fire department knew nothing about the operation either.

A few “what ifs” come to mind:

What if the worst possible thing involving a helicopter in this situation would have happened, say a catastrophic failure of the aircraft while refueling on top of the 3,000-gallon herbicide truck? A couple of our fire service sayings have always been “train like you fight,” and “prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” How do you prepare, train, or even do equipment and apparatus needs assessments on scenarios that you don’t even know are happening in the district?

An incident such as I’ve described can certainly be simulated and trained on for everything from hazardous materials release to Class B-flowing fuel fires, to mass-casualty multi-agency response. Needs assessments for equipment, expendables, firefighting agents, and even apparatus can be done, especially if these types of aerial operations over private land and dwellings are, or become, a regular occurrence.

Additionally, where our ranch is located, in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho, something far less than a catastrophic helicopter failure or crash could set off a wildland forest fire of unimaginable proportions. That scenario opens up a whole other bag of cats, but one that could also be evaluated, department needs assessed, and trained for, BUT no department can do any of “what we do” if they don’t get the information that it’s happening PRIOR to when the fecal matter hits the oscillating rotor blades (just think “prior to when bad things happen”).

As angry and frustrated as we were when this happened without our knowledge or prior consent, so too should our local fire department be angry and frustrated for not being informed about the operation within the fire district, and on private land. The U.S. Forest Service and other federal government agencies are “Johnny on the spot” to make sure the general public understands what we can and can’t do in our forests and on public lands. If the county were formally notified about this project and they didn’t think to notify the local fire departments about it, then two levels of government let not only the volunteer fire service personnel down, but, ultimately, both of those levels of government failed their citizenry.

On the flip side of that same coin, do your fire commissioners or fire chief regularly attend the county commissioner meetings to find out what might be happening in the response area? We all know just how much finger-pointing goes on between agencies when something goes wrong, but responsibility for getting the information to the fire department must be shared. After all, not all incidents are as glaringly wrong as the one described above, but, remember, it could have been much, much worse.

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