Bob Roper: Helping Craft the Fire Service’s Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic

Nevada State Forester. Chief of Ventura County Fire Department. Past Chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Wildland Fire Policy Committee. Policy Advisor at the Western Fire Chiefs Association. Bob Roper, has had a career unlike any but a precious few will ever experience.

He now finds himself an advisor in the response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, helping multiple agencies craft guidelines for First Responders grappling with many unknowns, including the rules of engagement wildland agencies will have to follow during wildfire season this year.

When the Coronavirus pandemic began to unfold, he decided to write the first of several position papers on how the fire service needs to address the growing list of issues associated with fighting wildland fires while keeping personnel and the general public safe from COVID-19.

“The article was designed to be thought-provoking, and it’s done that for a lot of people,” said Roper. 

“Now we all know how un-ready we are. We have thought about this for a number of years, but it never happened. The closest we ever came to this happened after 911. Bioterrorism, smallpox, was going to be the thing. There were plans put in place, but they were localized to regions, not worldwide. That’s what has really been the difference between 911 and this.”

So now, he has to help advise federal, state, and local leadership on how to tackle this problem. “The report by the three AC/IC teams that were commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service should be made public by the end of April. What you will be getting right now from me or anybody else is conjecture and forecasting because nobody has come out with a policy yet. Even their report won’t be policy, but will allow agencies to begin making policy and exemptions to past practice.”

This isn’t the first time firefighters have had to make up the rules as they go along, as Roper explained. 

“The biggest challenge that we’re having right now is the uncertainty of the full effect of the pandemic. The fire service has always prided itself on improvising and overcoming situations.” 

When we’re in our rookie academy, we’re trained in black and white. But you always have to try to figure out how to operate between the lines. That has been our success for some known and some unknown things, but the pandemic is different because we don’t have past experience to fall back on, so it has created this uncertainty. 

“Every day when you read the newspapers, there’s a different nuance with the pandemic: how does it spread? How is it transmitted? How can you protect yourself? What shortages are we having? Every day is a learning experience. The fire service is having to develop emergency measures to the best of its knowledge on a day-to-day basis, being flexible as commodities are in short supply, maintaining safe distances, etc. We’re having to adapt, and that’s the biggest thing we’re learning right now and what we’re preparing for.”

The Undiscovered Country

Shakespeare identified the future as the undiscovered country. As fire agencies prepare for fire season, some of the tried-and-true factors which have been the hallmarks of past fire seasons no longer apply. This makes this season the undiscovered country indeed. 

“Many agencies are saying that they won’t be able to provide the same level of mutual aid or the same depth of resources that we’ve had in the past,” Roper admitted. “That has created a lot of ‘what if?’ questions and one of them is aviation, which is actively being discussed nationally. CAL FIRE has 23 fixed-wing aircraft and the federal fleet has around 36 air-tankers. This implies that, as a nation, we should have 60-80 air-tankers total, but how do we accomplish that? 

Even the private vendors of aviation assets are asking the question. It’s not just the aircraft, it’s also the support people – from pilots to mechanics, to getting fuel, to getting retardant, it’s a whole system. We’re looking at the weak points in those systems and developing contingency plans. Once those are established, we’ll be advising incident commanders that when they come upon an emergency that they will be weighing the risk versus rewards on how to attack the fire based on the resources they know they have and what resources they might have in the system to make some tactical decisions.”

Some futuristic new technologies could get their baptism of fire this season. “There’s a lot of advantages going into this year. There’s the FIRIS program with UC San Diego’s supercomputer, which will be enhanced this year. We’re looking at that and wondering if it can become a national tool to provide better intelligence to the incident commander so that they have a management decision support tool in their back pocket. Those are the types of assets and tools that we have to use to work smarter, not harder, this year because of the potential of limited resources that we may have available in each area.”

Another change will be the sharing of resources. Australia has already indicated that they probably won’t be sending crews north to help with our wildfires. Some states face that same dilemma. Alaska has a problem with just getting enough personnel up into the Last Frontier, so this year it’s going to be interesting to see what happens. How many lightning fires are they going to have? How many crews will they need from the Lower 48. Only time will tell.

“Another thing we’re trying to prepare within the fire service is that we know we have a COVID pandemic going on,” said Roper. “We know we’re going to have wildfires happening this year, and other natural disasters – earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes. It’s always been important in the fire service to adopt the mantra ‘Improvise and overcome’ by looking at all the alternatives.” 

In short, wildfires won’t be happening in a vacuum and what we learn there can be applied to other natural disasters as well.

The Collaborative Approach

“The good thing about the pandemic is that it’s got everybody talking, everybody pulling on the rope in the same direction.” 

“There’s probably less emphasis on local, state, or federal jurisdiction. The emphasis is going to be on how to attack a wildfire, how to extinguish it with the resources you have to eliminate the amount of smoke, the degree of the hazards out there. There’s probably an all-time high of that type of cross-communication and cross-planning to attack what we see as the challenges before us this year,” Roper said hopefully.

“From what I’m hearing, everything’s on the table and they’re just trying to understand all the options that are out there and I think you’ll see some creative solutions to it. I haven’t seen anyone being a hindrance to the system. All parties are open to entertaining any solutions to the challenges that lie before us.”

And homeowners can do their part. “Locally, we’re trying to get homeowners to understand the limitations in fire response the system may have and we’re trying to emphasize that they’ve always had a role, but we’re asking them to enhance their efforts around their homes, their neighbourhoods and the communities because that’s the type of thing we’re going to need to help the total system.”

Will money be an issue? “The jury is going to be out for a long time on the total economic impact of this, and the emergencies will not wait for us to address those issues. The federal, state, and local governments have opened up their financial coffers to address the virus head-on. It’s probably the untold story about the unprecedented amount of money that has been spent because they didn’t prepare for this.”

Remaining Challenges

“The fire service and law enforcement, as first responders, are going to have no shortage of challenges to address,” Roper said. 

“There’s a whole litany of things, everything from preparations by homeowners to whether fire departments have enough staff or the time to go out this time of year inspecting lots to see which need to be cleared to what they’re going to do about evacuations this year. Evacuations will have to be done in one jurisdiction or another, but the one thing we know is that you can’t create a playbook on how to resolve it for everybody if their jurisdictional area is different. Not every jurisdiction has a Red Cross chapter. Not every jurisdiction has a local church that can be used for disaster response.”

Social distancing, under those circumstances, will be a serious challenge. “Even if you have facilities, how can you deal with social distancing in a crowded high school gym? If we evacuate people to another area, are we spreading the Coronavirus? If there is an evacuation, will people heed the evacuation or will they stay at home to prevent looting? If we evacuate people, can we use a re-entry program that is different from what we’ve used in the past? In the past, we’ve turned electrical power back on so that people can use their utilities. Now, incident commanders are going to have to think about re-entry as they decide whether to order an evacuation. Utility companies may have problems with the PSPS (Public Safety Power Shutdown) process generating unrest among people who lose the electricity to keep their stored food refrigerated.” Something which is already happening in San Francisco’s East Bay, according to the papers.

Some of the solutions may be simple, yet unorthodox. “Instead of having people come inside a facility, have them stay in their car. That way the people are contained, they’re protected from the elements.”

In Roper’s treatise on the subject, he sums it up as follows: “Life is full of the unexpected and how we react to the unexpected determines our fate/success. We can begin to address the impending wildfire and COVID-19 challenges today, unlike if an earthquake happened unannounced. 

“We must think outside the box, improvise and overcome, and survive, but time is of the essence.”

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