Dispatcher frustration over stress and pay risks US wildfire chaos
A firefighter covers his face while battling the Butte fire near San Andreas, California September 12, 2015. REUTERS/Noah Berger
What’s the context?
Here's how a potential shortage of wildland fire dispatchers could affect the U.S. government's ability to battle climate-fueled blazes
- Dispatchers may not benefit from Biden infrastructure law
- Report reveals heavy toll of stressful desk job
- Nearly two-thirds may quit absent changes: survey
RICHMOND, Virginia - Eric Wiersma says there's an 80% chance he'll quit his job helping direct crews to U.S. wildfires if office staff like him are denied new benefits intended for federal firefighters.
And he is not alone.
As wildland fire dispatchers - hundreds of men and women who direct action in the field - grapple with long hours, intense stress and ever more frequent and vicious fires, efforts to tame the flames look increasingly precarious.
"Just from the people I have talked to in dispatch, I think you're going to see a mass exodus," said Wiersma, assistant center manager for the Missouri-Iowa Interagency Coordination Center.
"Dispatchers are the first incident commanders, because we're the ones in control of the incident until someone on the ground gets there," said Wiersma.
"We are (firefighters) - it's just that we're not on the ground," said Wiersma, who has been in dispatch for about six years after working on an engine for about 20 years. "We feel we are part of that wildland firefighter group."
Negotiations are ongoing about whether to include dispatch staff like Wiersma in the new benefits, part of a 2021 federal law intended in part to boost pay and career advancement opportunities for wildland firefighters.
Yet dispatchers suffer pressures similar to the anguish endured by frontline workers who face the flames, according to a new report surveying hundreds of serving and former dispatchers from across the country.
Preliminary findings from the report said one in three dispatchers who replied to the survey had experienced suicidal thoughts and most said they had to log hundreds of hours in overtime every year just to make ends meet.
All of which suggests the toll of fighting wildfires stretches well beyond the front line. And that toll is set to get worse as climate change fuels ever more intense and frequent fires, with staff retention an increasing challenge.
The anonymous testimonials in the survey suggest that a potential walkout by dispatch staff would push an already stretched service to the breaking point.
"It's a level of national security and safety that we maintain dispatch - I don't think fire operations can sustain themselves without a dispatch center," said Robin Verble, a professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology and a leading author of the study.
"Every tragedy, every accident, every mortality passes through that dispatch center."
Suicidal thoughts rampant
Verble said roughly one in three dispatchers reported suicidal thoughts, according to the preliminary findings.
One respondent said they had to initiate the search response with law enforcement for an employee who had died by suicide - and had to communicate that search effort to the family, too.
"I have guilt still that I did not do more to help them," they said.
Another staffer who reported going through "multiple fatality situations and many emergency situations in both the field and dispatch" had finally hit a crisis point, saying: "I just can't do one more."
It is this heavy toll on dispatchers' mental health that most surprised Rachel Granberg, a wildland firefighter and co-author of the report, who said the material was so intense that some students crunching the data needed breaks to recuperate.
"You listen to enough people dead or dying (and) it will never go away," said Granberg, recalling the dispatcher quote that had struck her most deeply.
"I don't think people realize that's what our wildland fire dispatchers are dealing with: life-or-death situations. It's not just dealing with moving aircraft and fire trucks around."
She stressed that her statements reflected her own opinions and not those of her agency.
A portion of the preliminary results included responses from 250 people who were dispatchers at the time of the survey. Researchers are still analyzing the final survey results.
Verble estimated that there are just over 2,000 people who are qualified as wildland fire dispatchers in the U.S. - though that's likely an overcount of the number active in the field.
Dispatchers also routinely use pain pills and most said they worked 300 or more hours of overtime a year to pay their bills.
Dispatchers share the grueling phone duty - around the clock, 365 days a year - which takes a toll on loved ones, too.
"It is a hardship," said Charlene Rogers, a center manager and report co-author. "People don't realize the sacrifices that we make – just like firefighters make sacrifices with their families, we do the same. It's just in a different way."
Forest fires on the rise
The 2021 infrastructure law directed the agriculture and interior departments to redefine the job description for wildland firefighters and who gets to be called one.
The aim, in part, was to reclassify frontline wildland firefighters - many of whom have historically been called "forestry technicians" - and ensure they get new benefits to match the new job title.
Agencies were supposed to implement the new series no later than June - though that timeline has slipped for the Forest Service and it remains unclear if dispatchers will be included in the new catchall title.
Spokespeople for the Office of Personnel Management, which is helping implement the changes, Forest Service and Interior Department said discussions about dispatchers were ongoing.
"A lot of us are going to quit and find some other job to do if we're not included - that's just how strongly we feel," Wiersma said.
About two-thirds of respondents in a 2022 survey included as part of the preliminary report said they would not stay in dispatch or were not likely to stay if dispatchers were excluded, which could leave agencies woefully understaffed.
"This is a multi-agency, multi-division operation where you have aviations operations trying to coordinate with boots on the ground, you have multiple crews trying to coordinate with one another, you have multiple fire engines," Verble said.
"All that communication has to (be relayed) through somewhere, and that's the dispatch center."
But many of the pivotal people at the core of firefighting feel marooned, despite warm words from the top.
"Our first priority is to protect the health, safety, and well-being of the wildland fire management community and the public we serve," a Forest Service spokesperson said in a statement.
"Dispatchers play an essential role in our organization, from tracking us in the field to coordinating the critical resources needed for fire and incident response."
Cold comfort to many dispatchers who fear they will be locked out of the new benefits.
"Just treat us like humans," said one survey respondent.
"We are dealing with just as much shit, if not more, than the folks on the line. Take care of us. That is all we ask."
*Quote source: 2022-2023 Surveys of Wildland Fire Dispatcher Environmental Health: Preliminary Results. Report prepared by Robin Verble, Ph.D.
(Reporting by David Sherfinski; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths)
Part of:Wildfires in a warming world
Updated: August 03, 2023
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