Waldo Canyon fire inspires changes to training, equipment

June 23, 2013 Updated: June 23, 2013 at 10:20 am

After the Waldo Canyon fire last summer, the Colorado Springs Fire Department drastically changed its emergency call-back system - an untested staffing plan for emergencies that left the department spread too thin and working overly long shifts during the fire.

The call-back, or hire-back, plan was activated June 26 - the day the fire destroyed 347 homes. It brought all firefighters in town - some of whom were off duty - back into fire stations. Then, some worked for days extinguishing fires in Mountain Shadows, often getting little or no sleep. It was the first time that the Fire Department used its hire-back policy, and it didn't work as intended, Deputy Fire Chief Ted Collas said.

"We've had that policy for years, and we'd never used it until Waldo Canyon, when we had to call back everybody, bring everybody on," Collas said. "So obviously there was some hiccups with a policy that was that drastic and had never been exercised."

In early June, fire administrators were about to make official the new hire-back plan, which will split one of the department's three shifts and reduce the shift rotations from three to two. On a regular daily basis, firefighters work in A, B or C shifts, which overlap days or weekends. During call-backs, the firefighters will be divided into two shifts and will work longer hours per shift.

"It enhances our staffing levels with more people on duty every day" during an emergency, Deputy Chief Steve Dubay said.

The Waldo Canyon fire inspired some changes in firefighter training and equipment - new wildland firefighting clothing and some mechanical devices for trucks, as well, Dubay said. This spring, three department lieutenants designed and taught a class reviewing lessons learned from the fire, and every department firefighter or officer attended. The class included a Waldo Canyon staff ride - a practice adopted from the military - that took firefighters into Mountain Shadows to relive the decisions made the night of the firestorm.

The class later opened to fire departments from across the state, Dubay said.

Otherwise, no changes have been made to the Fire Department's requirements for wildland firefighting training, a system of certifications that is entirely different from those required to battle structure fires.

In 1989, the Fire Department nominally created its Wildfire Suppression Program; in 1998, it required some firefighters to have wildland training. Firefighters at stations 4 and 9, headquarters for the department's Wildfire Suppression Program, as well as those at stations 12, 13, 16 and 18 are required to have higher level wildfire certifications.

All firefighters also are required to have basic training in the Incident Command System, a national standard for managing disasters or other large-scale events.

These requirements were in place long before the Waldo Canyon fire, Dubay said.

The department has beefed up its internal communication system by using its broadcast studio - which broadcasts live to the 20 fire stations around the city - that can be used to pass on updates during an event, Collas said.

"In the midst of the chaos, we didn't do that," Collas said of the Waldo Canyon fire. "It is a more efficient way of communicating internally."

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