NW Fire Chiefs Meet in Red Lodge: “Red Lodge is Light Years Ahead”

Eleanor Guerrero
News Editor
Thursday, September 26, 2019
Article Image Alt Text

Photo by Eleanor Guerrero
Fire Chiefs from the Northwestern states came to Red Lodge to hear experts on technology and fire safety such as speaker Al Gillespie, as well as to share their own experiences.

Last week the Northwestern Fire Chiefs gathered at The Pollard Hotel in Red Lodge to find out the latest on leadership, technology and communications for increasing safety in fire fighting. According to Fire Chief Ron Lindroth of the Central Valley Forest District in Belgrade, there were about 50 present, coming from all over the Northwest: “Alaska, Washington, Montana, Wyoming Colorado and Utah.”

The chiefs filled the main pub room and spent two days listening to various speakers and presentations. 

Fire Chief Bryan Schaeffer of Spokane, WA., raved about the presentations this year. “It was pretty incredible for us!” Referring to Red Lodge Fire Rescue Fire Chief Tom Kuntz’s event he said, “Red Lodge is light years ahead because of wildland forest fires. The have a fire management team and even send reserves out to western states. That’s not normal! They send firefighters to California. They’re leaders in innovative fire service around the Northwest. We share a lot of the same challenges: interfacing, communications, and leadership.” 

Schaeffer said the organization meets regularly once or twice a year. 

Schaeffer found Red Lodge a pleasant place in which to spend their off time. "The town has magic to it! Everyone walks, everyone’s nice. You see so many wearing pagers-there are so many volunteer firefighters." He said there is trouble elsewhere in fire departments getting volunteers. “It’s just not like that other places.” He continued, “The access to Yellowstone! It’s a small community; everybody knows everybody. I love it!”

He laughed at the difference from his urban life. “Some locals at the conference rode their bikes to lunch!” He said the big cities just don’t see it. “Obviously, it’s the norm here.”

He liked learning about Intterra group (intterragroup.com), a system that has data modules for preplanning, operations, information and analyticals to reach objectives and channel expert insight for organizations as well as incident management. 

It says on its website, “Access all your department’s data in one centralized, visual interface. You’ll have your first ever complete picture of what you’re dealing with on a moment-by-moment basis so you can make the right decisions at the right time.” 

Schaeffer says, “The GIS based (mapping) program focuses on analytics. It contains a number of different technologies, things that can be used for evacuations and fire behavior.” Most importantly, “It has become affordable and it’s become very reliable. Before this we used maps and sharpies! Now, it’s live data. You can ID homes at risk, send out volunteers to triage a neighborhood. It’s a foundation that builds and builds.” He talked of various regions and their specialties. “Boise has a prediction service. Most California divisions have wildland mitigation. I similarly try to stretch our resources that dwindle as more people come.” As population grows there is a public safety imperative to do more.

Al Gillespie President at Public Safety Broadband Technology Association in Vancouver, Washington, talked about First Net, Intterra and other tech systems that ideally as modeled could instantly connect fire fighters in the field with the latest communications not only to the command post but could give instant updates on weather, wind and conditions, and predict possible fire paths and safe areas. In such a system you could locate missing firefighters within centimeters not miles. An active fire map could be blown up on your windshield showing the route in or out. All is now possible.

On its site, First Net states, “When the FirstNet Authority issued its request for proposals in 2016, AT&T identified the project as crucial to communications future. In addition to getting access to the 10×10 MHz swath of 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to the FirstNet Authority, the FirstNet buildout required telecom crews to install new gear on towers throughout the country and to ready its network for 5G. By virtue of FirstNet, spectrum aggregation, 5G, we’re increasing the entire nationwide capacity of the AT&T wireless network by 50 percent.”

As a result of this work, AT&T now believes it has “unequivocally the fastest wireless network, the best-quality network. These efforts have positioned the company to have a nationwide 5G footprint in the middle of next year on its commercial spectrum bands below 6 GHz.”

Funding the technology to keep communities safe and finding enough work force was a common issue. 

“The amount of city taxes usually can’t keep up with salaries, benefits and the needs of the community. It’s a big issue,” said Schaeffer. 

The solution, he finds, is to “stop doing the same things over and over” that aren’t working. “You have to be very innovative, creative and sometimes disruptive. Think completely out of the box. Like using social workers to reduce call volumes instead of dispatchers doing 911.”

Some innovations include using Intterra to track opioid overdoses. “In Vancouver, they follow up three days afterwards with people-narcome trained people, counselors," said Schaeffer. "They tie services together. It’s not the normal response from the fire department." 

In lieu of sending fire fighters and a truck they narrow it down to two firefighters and solve the problem upstream. It can prevent a critical issue from occurring (such as a fatal overdose). But says Schaeffer, “it could be hypertension, a heart attack. If we are able to intervene and save a life it also saves the community."

Former Chief Fire Marshall of California, co-founder of Intterra and its President, Kate Dargan, a living legend, was one of the carefully picked guest speakers. With over 30 years of fire fighting experience, she strives to bring “innovative geospatial and remote sensing solutions to first responders.” Her first inkling of possible communications gap solutions was as “captain that I started engaging with remote sensing. One of my assignments was air attack officer, which means essentially forward air traffic control over wildfires. I flew on an OV-10 Bronco for seven years as an eye-in-the-sky translating a map of what I was looking at from several thousand feet aloft to the firefighters on the ground. They had no other way to get that information.” She saw the difference between the technology of videoing an image and being able to translate it quickly. 

At the end, there were ten speakers given 7 minutes to talk about what mattered to them. Local, Guynema Terry, was first up to talk about the history of Red Lodge. She gave a tribute to first responders for helping after her serious auto accident last year. Regarding Red Lodge, she said the whole block of buildings on Broadway carved with the year “1900” were built following a fire that leveled the whole block. She mentioned in those days the fire department held a free midnight dinner “feed” of roast beef to feed those in need. 

Other speakers spoke of fire fighting as well as the challenges of keeping communities proactively safe. A warning was given that fire devastated areas may find their insurance rates soar. It was a heartfelt sharing of problems and challenges as well as solutions.