Firefighter in the Field: A Day in the Life of a Wildfire Dispatcher

By: Brooke Sterling

Hey everyone, I’m Brooke Sterling and I’ll be acting as your dispatcher blogger for the next few months. I’m looking forward to keeping you updated on the happenings in the Edson radio room.

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The outcome of each day is entirely unknown when I enter the fire centre in the morning and sign on to the radios. That’s one part about this job I love – we could be in for a quiet day with no detections or fires, or we could be in for an action-filled day with multiple fire starts. For me, the highlight of dispatching is the action and energy in the radio room when we start receiving smoke detections and dispatching our initial attack crews to assess and action the fires.

Being a wildfire dispatcher is a role I take pride in having. When I applied for this position, I had no idea what I was in for. As it turns out, I enjoyed it so much my first season that I didn’t even hesitate in returning for another one. The friendships I have made with the people I work with have resulted in a work environment I always enjoy going to, and after working almost every day for four months with the same four dispatchers, we’re more of a family than anything else. The feeling of ensuring the safe return of all personnel, crews, and aircraft after a long day of fire is an extremely rewarding feeling, and I definitely take pride in working a job that has such high importance.

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One of the most important aspects of being a wildfire dispatcher is remaining calm in stressful situations. When the energy picks up in the radio room and we have both of our radio consoles filled with dispatches and fire-related transmissions, the phones are ringing with 310-FIRE callers, the duty officer and deputy duty officer are telling us who to send where, keeping our cool is key to ensure our crews and aircraft are given all the information they require in order to work safely. Teamwork is key in the dispatch centre.

The middle of May and June brought with it lots of rain and cooler temperatures, allowing the fire hazard in the Edson Forest Area to remain lower. The recovery of our conditions allowed two of our own dispatchers to headup to Fort McMurray to work as radio operators on the fire that started at the beginning of May.

Emily’s export to Fort McMurray exposed her to the resilience of those who work in wildfire and in emergency response: “I met great people out of a bad situation.” Emily’s drive into the city was marked by check stops consisting of police cars and news vans, small fires burning in the ditches and in the trees, and thick smoke. Although her arrival into the city was daunting, she soon fell into pace working the firenet channels with other radio operators including one from Saskatchewan and one from the North West Territories. During Emily’s 14-day period up in Fort McMurray, the fire grew from 85,000 hectares to 251,007 hectares and almost 40 aircraft had been hired. Some of her days up there were quiet because the airport was smoked in, but their base at the warehouse allowed them to see the aircraft lifting and landing on the busier days when the skies were full of aircraft bucketing, assessing and mapping the growth of the fire.

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With the end of June already upon us, another of our dispatchers has returned from Fort McMurray. Being able to offer support for these types of incidents is definitely one of the more rewarding aspects of being a dispatcher. The dedication and hard work that all members of the Alberta wildfire team have put in up in Fort McMurray is an inspiration and it is a team that I, as many are, am proud to be a part of.

Until next time, I’ll be on the radios!

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