New Yorkers learn how to work the system ... in the Boundary Watersby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
Officials in charge of the Cavity Lake wildfire are not only putting out a 50-square mile fire. They're also training some New Yorkers in the system they use to handle such long-term, large scale events.
Gunflint Trail, Minn. — The Cavity Lake fire has been burning since mid-July. More than 500 people have come to the far end of the Gunflint Trail to fight it. They're using planes, helicopters, and boats. They've brought in tents and tools and pumps, and miles and miles of hose. They need food, water, a place to take showers. And someone to coordinate it all.
It's all in a day's work for the Pacific Northwest National Incident Management Team 2, according to spokeswoman Lori Hammer.
"We know we can bring order to chaos. We're really, really good at it," she says. "We've got logistics down. We know how to move stuff around, we know how to keep it organized, we know how to work with communities."
Emergency agencies all over the country, including FEMA, have their own systems and structures. Barry Shullanberger, a division commander with the Pacific Northwest team, says the incident command system developed by the Forest Service and other land management agencies emphasizes getting everybody on the same page.
"We're learning, we're working," he says. "Unfortunately we've had quite a few hurricanes, but we're learning that the incident command system works, and it works well in those situations, so we're trying to get everybody trained up on it."
And people are ready to get trained. Several emergency workers from New York and the Twin Cities have been shadowing the Pacific Northwest team at the Cavity Lake fire.
Back in 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, these Forest Service workers called the New York Fire Department to offer their help.
Jack O'Loughlan remembers the reaction when they appeared at Ground Zero.
"People in New York are so used to looking at home and saying, 'We can do this,'" he says. "And in comes the Forest Service with their emblem on their shirt being a tree, to Manhattan saying, 'We're here to help,' and it's like, 'Oh my.' It's quite interesting, because their system is adaptable to anything."
O'Loughlin is a third-generation New York firefighter. At the Cavity Lake fire, he's shadowing the facilities manager.
He says he's learned that in a long term emergency, every part of the response is as important as every other part. It's basic instinct for a firefighter to rush in and fight the fire. But to sustain an operation over days or weeks, other functions are essential. Like facilities and logistics and supply.
O'Loughlin also shadowed a team responding to Hurricane Katrina. That's where he learned how to use the Forest Service system.
"I needed a ball hitch on one of the vehicles to move a generator," he recalls. "I went to supply and said, 'I need a ball hitch.' So they went to Finance who said, 'Hang on.' They went to the buying team in Baton Rouge and they said, 'Ok,' and they went to the local auto parts store and I had it within a day. So the system works when you need the tools, it's just going through the system to get it."
O'Loughlin says knowing the system will help if New York firefighters ever have to confront another drawn-out disaster like 9/11.
Several agencies in the Twin Cities area have also sent representatives to the fire in the Boundary Waters. They've been training since January in the incident command system, and this is a chance to see how it works in practice.
Tom Deegan works for the city of Minneapolis. His job would be to get city offices working again after damage from a tornado or other event. He says the Pacific Northwest team treats everyone with respect.
"The egos seem like they've been checked at the door," he says. "There's a lot of highly experienced people, lots of credentials. They sit down, it's a formal briefing they have a lot of times, but there's lot of respect, no cross talking. That's a real different thing than the background I came out of, and it's really pretty nice to see."
Deegan and six others from the Twin Cities will take that mission-driven approach back to their agencies. They're creating a team that could manage any sort of large-scale incident.
- Morning Edition, 08/02/2006, 7:24 a.m.