Officials: Fire communications system ready | SierraSun.com

Officials: Fire communications system ready

Jenny Goldsmith
Sierra Sun

If a wildfire sparks this summer in Truckee or North Tahoe, officials say that critical communication breakdowns that occurred during Tahoe’s devastating Angora Fire last year will not be repeated.

During the initial minutes of the Angora Fire, telephone calls reporting the fire were dismissed by Truckee-based CHP dispatchers.

Dispatchers initially told callers the fire was a controlled burn and did not follow the CHP policy that instructs them to keep callers on the line and transfer them to a local fire department.

“During the Angora Fire, there were some things that slipped through the cracks,” said Communications Director Frank Yost for the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office. “There were some good things that came out of this. We learned to work together at a level I’ve never seen happen before in my entire career.”

Following the incident, the CHP dispatch center started reinforcing existing policies and started a controlled burn log, which provides updated information from the Forest Service on controlled burns in the Basin, said Capt. Gary Ross, commander of the CHP field office in Truckee.

In addition, the issue over whether or not the dismissals caused a delayed response to the fire led to a push for changes in California’s 911 system to prevent future communication delays.

“There is work in place right now to separate 911 calls by the GPS location and reroute them to the proper geographic location,” Communications Director Frank Yost for the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office said. “There has never been any technology allowing us to separate calls that way, but the electronic industry is working diligently to make it happen.”

Gaps were also found in the radio frequency communications between the different emergency response agencies, and several workshops were held over the winter to address the gaps and identify solutions.

“The public safety agencies needed to learn each other’s plans and frequencies to better prepare for sharing information,” Yost said. “We’ve now developed additional frequencies and we have better equipment in place to interconnect.”

Finally, an enhanced public awareness grew out of the devastating Angora fire, said Truckee Fire Chief Bryce Keller.

“The public’s awareness has never been greater about the threats of wildfires,” Keller said. “There was a control burn yesterday and the calls poured in. This tells me that everyone is realizing they have a responsibility too.”

What started from an illegal campfire that gusted out of control, displaced hundreds of South Shore residents and scarred the landscape, has now resulted in improved levels of communication on a local level and also throughout California, Yost said.

“What’s unique about Angora is it’s now being used as a model throughout the state as a way to better connect multiple agencies with each other,” Yost said.