Texas Emergency Management ONLINE 2016 Vol. 63 No. 3

Behind The Wildfire: The Hub of Information

Aerial view of Hidden Pines fire

Aerial view of Hidden Pines fire near Bastrop, October 2015.

Battling intense flames, digging a fireline or saving a structure from sure destruction easily come to mind when thinking of a Texas wildfire, but out of sight from those on the frontlines are behind-the-scenes key players ensuring that the management of a suppression runs smoothly for all involved. These unsung heroes are the men and women of Texas A&M Forest Service’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

Picture a large room where TV and computer monitors line the walls. The latest news flashes on one screen, on another a large map of Texas shows the latest wildfires burning across the state while another gives the latest weather developments. In the center of the room sits a large conference table surrounded by agency leaders and emergency responders conducting an operations briefing on the latest incidents and discussing their next moves.

This is likely the scene you’ll see in the EOC during any given wildfire season.

During a wildfire season, the EOC functions as the hub of information for the agency. EOC personnel work day and night collecting fire information, photos, tracking resources and fact checking information to make sure agency leaders are informed of what’s going on, especially when the state is affected by multiple incidents.

Maps outline wildfire boundaries and show the location of agency resources, helping keep leadership well-informed during wildfire seasons.

Wildfire Activity

While making maps may sound dated, Geospatial Specialist Jordan Smith explains that map-making is a modern cutting-edge feat of precision. Smith’s job plays an integral support role in managing an incident.

Most of Smith’s day-to-day duties consist of gathering data and making and editing maps. During a wildfire season his normally tedious duties become more crucial.

“This summer was my first fire season with TFS. Usually you hear, ‘I hope this isn’t another ’11’ or ‘This looks like another ’08,’” Smith said. “This puts you on edge a little and you start to pay more attention to the fires and media coverage so that you’re on top of things.”

After TFS resources have a good hold on a fire, Smith sets out to map it. Mapping a wildfire can be done two ways, by walking the fire if the lines are safe or flying the perimeter. Both use GPS tracking, but flying the fire also gives Smith the opportunity to get aerial photos increasing the map’s accuracy. From there the maps are shared with state leadership to give them a better understanding of the size and direction of the fire. By analyzing the map, leadership can decide if and where more resources are needed.

While Smith admits his job may not seem like the most interesting, the benefits his products provide make his job worth it. “It’s rewarding to see and know that anything I do directly helps people on the line making those big decisions,” Smith said.

Monitoring state resources
Through intelligence gathered during wildfire activity, members of the EOC, like EOC Specialist Lance Isenhour provide a valuable service to help manage incidents.

Map of properties saved or lost during the Hidden Pines fire

Map of properties saved or lost during the Hidden Pines fire.

“While we do not influence how the fire is fought, we do have influence on how resources are allocated. This is accomplished by providing decision-makers with the ‘big picture’ and giving them the information they need to make educated and responsible decisions,” Isenhour said.

During heightened activity, the normal EOC staff nearly doubles as select personnel take on additional duties to help with the flow of information. Regular 8 to 5s turn into 10- to 16-hour shifts. Busy with situation reports, mobilization of resources, tracking aircraft and coordinating with resource vendors, Program Coordinator Shawn Whitley understands the importance of the EOC.

“The EOC is supposed to keep a strategic mindset of the entire state and provide support to the field. We have to look at the big picture, immediate and long range,” Whitley said.

Tying in with the state
While the EOC mainly focuses on keeping state leadership informed and monitoring resources during a wildfire, the agency also connects with the Texas Division of Emergency Management’s State Operations Center (SOC) to provide resources that can be used in all-hazard incidents.

Texas A&M Forest Service offers motor graders for snow removal, chainsaw crews and coordinate incident management teams throughout the state.

Once an incident has grown in complexity beyond what regional resources can handle, the SOC can order these additional resources through the EOC.

The agency further supports the SOC by having one full-time position staffed at the center, easily facilitating the flow of information between the two entities. When a large disaster occurs, the agency will provide several staff members to support the operations center.

This tie-in helps paint a clear statewide picture, showing how interagency partnerships work together to more effectively manage incidents.

Information hub
Whether during a busy fire season or if someone happens to stop by on a random day, the EOC has no shortage of visitors who are getting fire updates, requesting maps or watching the giant monitors lining the walls. While the staff may not be on the frontlines, their jobs provide valuable insight for the leaders making decisions that help to better protect lives and property.

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