Filling out paperwork at the I.C.P. is not how Lea Wofford wants to spend her day. She came to Florida from North Carolina as a member of the Southern Area Incident Command's Blue TeamÂ to fight Bugaboo after it spread to North Florida from Georgia last week.
"I'd rather be out there on the line," the Operations Chief said. "Those of us who sit here in this building, we tend to think we're not really contributing to fighting the fire."
Wofford may feel their contributions sometimes go unnoticed, but they are no less important. Wearing dark blue vests with the 13 states in their region embroidered on the back, members of Blue Team work 16 hours a day for up to 14 days straight. Much like a military unit, they are responsible for establishing command posts and directing everything from planning and logistics to communications and finance for every agency working in their area of operations.
Also like a military unit, members must be prepared to drop everything and respond to the call at a moments notice. Team members from as far away as Virginia and Texas were on their way to Florida within two hours of receiving their notification.
Janan Sharp came from Tennessee and has been working ever since she stepped foot in the I.C.P.
"I joke that the first day I got here, I answered the phone three times, and six hours later, I was actually able to do what I was supposed to be doing for the day," Sharp said.
Joking aside, Sharp is tracking over 500 firefighters and support personnel from eight separate crews. She not only maintains numbers, but specific data on each man, woman and piece of equipment in the area of operations. Her database lists firefighters from Oregon, California and Massachusetts currently working in North Florida. Tracking crews and equipment is no small feat, much less maintaining command and control over them--a lesson learned during Hurricane Katrina--and a huge part of that is communications.
This is Dennis Brigante's first assignment with Blue Team, but he said their communications plan is working well.
"It's been really good working with state and federal agencies, and local companies have been really helpful to us with hasty communications," he said.
Radio frequency management and cloning each radio off a master at the I.C.P. has not been a problem, but the flat terrain and the amount of foliage found in Florida presents a problem. Carrying a VHF signal over the distances needed to combat the 119,500-acre fire has been requiring more repeaters and more batteries than normal. Cellular and satellite communications have been sketchy at times, but not to the point where inter-operability with other agencies has been hindered. The Incident Commander stays in constant contact with other teams across the United States, such as the Red Team, which is battling Bugaboo across the Georgia line where the fire started, as well as other teams situated where the fire could spread.
"I talk with the Red Team Incident Commander and the Texas State Incident Commander everyday," Michael Quesinberry said. "We're communicating back-and-forth to let each other know what we're doing. We're all basically working in conjunction with each other."
Working together could become even more important over the next few days. Firefighters expect winds to pick-up possibly pushing the flames southwest. If the flames advance further into Florida, more people and equipment may be needed; and if they are needed, Woffert said Blue Team will be ready to direct them where to go and what to do.
"We would all like to be there actually fighting the fire, but this is an important job."
By Ted Latiak, WCJB TV20 News.
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