The National Interagency Coordination Center looks very much like Mission Control. Four rows of desks and computers, each about fifteen work stations wide, face a wall with large screen monitors, a very large projection screen, digital clocks. It’s a very large room. Walking in, you suddenly feel the size and weight of the show.
At the back, in an office that looks just like everyone else’s, Chuck Womack keeps track of the nation-sized effort.
It would be wrong to say he is the boss. But if there is a person at the top of the
Chuck leading the morning briefing
national wildfire effort, it would be Chuck, NIFC Center Manager. This is the guy who runs the morning briefing. This is the guy who brings the agencies together.
“This place?” he says. “Think of this place like the Pentagon. At the Pentagon, you have the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines. They have the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And they have a war room. We have the Federal agencies. And the NICC, this is the war room.”
There are stories about this place that have nothing to do with fire. Hurricane Katrina. The Columbia Space Shuttle. 9-11. And there are stories about Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was the Governor of California. There are stories about the future, about the NIFC’s work as an All-Risk center. When large disaster strikes, this is where the telephone rings.
“This office answers to all the fire directors in the building,” he tells me. “And in this building there are the directors, or their acting counterparts, from all the agencies that handle fire.”
It strikes me that he says his office answers to them, instead of them reporting to him, and I tell him that it seems dangerous to me, that so many Federal agencies working together is knife-edge at best. All it takes is one person who doesn’t play well with others. But I’ve also learned this is not a community where the grooming process has been corporate or political. Everyone here has worked a fire. Everyone has stared at flames and watched something burn.
“There’s delegation of authority,” he says, “through the NMAC [National Multi-Agency Coordinating group]. Even though the Forest Service has more money and the BLM has more engines, everyone’s got more of something. Instead of the forces being against each other we all work together.”
“Firefighters are a bunch of type-a personalities,” he says. “But it’s funny because we’re all maybe a B when we get up here. We can’t survive without each other.”
The morning briefing was quiet. The large scale fires, for the moment, are mostly contained and the weather is relatively wet. But this is the office that plans, and prepares, and tries to imagine what problem or disaster might strike next. Chuck’s phone rings, he addresses the person on the other end as “Sir” and listens intently for a long time. The conversation is about releasing the California MAFFS back to the state for possible activation at that level. Then the conversation is about other resources.
“The problem is DOD always comes to the table with these great ideas when we’re at PL4 or PL5,” he says into the phone, laughing. “We need to negotiate in November or December.” Then, “I’m already getting information from NIROPS about Air Force infrared capability. You know we have Firehawk. You know you guys provide some type of secret imagery to us and we never know where it comes from. But there must be something bigger going on in the world right now because we keep getting UTFd from you guys.” UTF means Unable to Fill. He laughs. “You can’t tell me, right?”
When he hangs up, Chuck looks at me and Don. “Colonel McCormack,” he says. “It’s Army versus Air Force,” he jokes. “See, we all get along.”
“We have a military rep from NorthCom here,” he continues. “He has the MAFFS and the capability to mobilize battalions. But the MAFFS are Air Force and the position here is Army. We use the MAFFS more than we use the military as firefighters on the ground, so it gets a little confusing sometimes. And what I’m trying to do today isn’t fitting in with their plan. But we pay for them when they are here, so it’s a little frustrating. We have our own King Air and Cessna Citation to do infrared,” he continues, “and they can download their dataset to our system. But when we get into over-extending our aircraft then we go to Department of Defense and they provide imagery to us.”
“From where?” I ask.
“We don’t know.”
The NICC is where most of the action takes place on a national level. If you want to have a national influence, you turn your career toward Boise. Like nearly everyone else, however, Chuck started young. Straight out of high school in 1980 he joined the Army as a firefighter. After his tour, he went to the Marshall Islands as a contract firefighter. “This was back in the Reagan days,” he says. I was on this tiny island and they were shooting MX missiles at us and we were trying to shoot them down. Star Wars days. Then my brother sent me a letter about a job in Alaska and I got hired into a hot shot crew in the BLM. I went from an island that was three and a half miles long and half a mile wide to Alaska.”
Chuck started in Boise as a coordinator on the NICC floor. He has been with NIFC for eleven years.
On a normal day, Chuck arrives between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m. and fills his head with information. Knowledge and context are the biggest parts of his job. “Everything that everyone’s got going on are pieces that are moving, so when things are popping up you know what your Plan A will be, but you also need to have Plan B in mind. I have four coordinators out there, and one of them is always on duty. They are working the phones, talking to the eleven geographical areas, working on capabilities. We’re like a brokerage firm. We don’t own a lot of resources here, the resources are owned by the local units, but we know in effect who’s buying and who’s selling.”
I ask him about changing from PL4 to PL3.
“That’s not easy to do,” he says. “It sounds easy, but now you’re unloading resources that you worked equally hard to get ramped up. What you hear out there on the floor is quiet, because that’s the fire activity that’s going on. But what we’ve got to do now is readjust the nation. Everything’s been mobilized. And now we need to get it redistributed back home.”
“What happens if someplace just explodes tomorrow?” I ask.
“We can always go back to PL4,” he says. “But you’ve seen our meteorologist and our fuels guys. I know what’s going on today. Their job is to keep us thinking two and three days out. And that’s a tough job.”
“Is there a cost savings to going down a level?”
“Why not go to PL4 on May 1st?”
“That’s the whole thing. It’s a capabilities scenario. How many crews are committed? How many are available? When we get to the highest planning levels, what I’m basically telling you is that I’m committed. When we’re at that level, each of the geographical areas may have fifteen hot fires going on, and they all want hot shot crews. Well, in the whole nation there’s only about 105 hot shot crews, right? And they have to have days off every now and then, so you’re basically playing with about 90 hot shot crews a day. And they can be committed to an incident up to 14 days. You really have a finite capability there. So the NMAC may say to Great Basin we’re going to cap you at 30 hot shot crews, which is a big surge in capability, and then the GMAC has to figure out how to divide that up amongst the incidents. Otherwise all they do is keep ordering from us and we keep saying no.”
In the wildfire world, there is a story about this office saying no to the Governor of California.
“I’ve heard the Arnold Schwarzenegger story,” I say. “Tell me the truth of that one?”
Chuck smiles and sighs. “What really happened,” he says, “is that California had a lot of fires going on, and they placed an order for something like 100 engines. And we filled like 80 of them. We could not fill the other 20, so we UTFd it. The other 20 were on other sites. The next day they placed an order for 50 engines, and we got something like 35. We’d UTF the others again and send the request back. You need to remember that we don’t own the engines. There has to be someone who’s willing to let something go. Then what happened is that these UTFs were added up. Someone came up with a number of engine orders we refused to fill, when the reality was that we provided a lot of engines to them. Unfortunately, the way the governor got the information, he wrote a letter to the President and we were instructed to provide them with that capability. And because it came from the President—remember, we didn’t have any more capability to offer them—suddenly local fire departments were coughing up engines to send to California. I mean we all want to help. But the reality was that when it all showed up in California is was over what they needed.”
A colleague stops by the door and tells Chuck they need to talk, but it’s nothing urgent. His desk phone rings. His cell phone rings.
I want to ask him about Hurricane Katrina. I’ve heard that NIFC personnel went out to find parts of the Columbia Space Shuttle and crew. The phrase is All Risk.
“When you talk about ‘all risk’ you’re talking about our FEMA support,” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Years ago, when FEMA was just ramping up, they really didn’t have a great logistical capability. Management team type of capability. And so they leaned on us pretty heavily. That’s how we got so involved in Katrina and 9-11 and the space shuttle.
“What did you do for Katrina?”
“We’re really good at is logistics and procurement. So for Katrina what we did was we sent incident management teams into distribution centers. FEMA brings in all these trailers and trucks of baby food and water and such, and we get them distributed to the right places. And we bring in procurement capability so we’re not sitting there without the ability to buy more batteries and such.”
“Why would BLM or Forest Service or anyone at this site have any interest in buying supplies for New Orleans?”
“We do it under ESF function. Emergency Services Function. So we get a tasking from FEMA to do it. Forest Service takes the lead.”
“It’s tremendous organizational expertise,” he says. “That’s what we do. It’s a three tiered dispatch system. Across the street is the Boise dispatch center. That’s where somebody calls in a panic—there’s a fire in the foothills!—and they distribute the engine and the aircraft to head up there and start knocking the fire down. That’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s tier three—that’s where most of the hard work is done. But if the problem grows, the second tier is the eleven geographical centers. They can share what they have. Finally you have the NICC. We have a phenomenal capability and with staffing we can come into a place with no infrastructure and we can feed people, we can shower them, we can bed them down.”
“With what hardware?” I ask. He points out into the NICC, the war room.
The War Room
“My front row is hardware,” he says. “We have national contracts with caterers and showers. The caterer comes with tractor-trailers. Full on kitchens, potable water trucks, gray water trucks. Same for the showers. Without any water, electricity or plumbing, we set up in some valley somewhere where there is some large fire and we can feed up to 1500 people three meals a day. We bring in COWs—cellphones on wheels—and we have the largest cache of radios outside the military. We have frequency managers here. We can bring in entire communications systems.”
“What if?” I ask. “What if the problem isn’t fire, but it’s just over the top huge? What if the New Madrid fault were to fire off tomorrow and all of Memphis were to slide into the Mississippi?”
Chuck grins broadly. “See that envelope over there, that big folder leaning up against the wall?” he asks, pointing at a very large envelop on a corner table. “That’s New Madrid right there.”
“Well, FEMA has spent a lot of money using New Madrid as a catastrophe model of what might happen. You know, if that were to happen, you’d lose all of your bridges. What would your runways and roads look like? Everything that is mobile now would become immobile then. It’s a planning problem we need to solve in advance. You not only have to bring in support for the people there, you have to bring in a way to support yourself. You can’t just throw two to four thousand new people in and leave them hungry and tired—I mean that won’t work.”
“I like the planning that’s going on there,” he says.
“What do you say,” I ask him, “when someone asks you what your job is like. Not what do you do, but what is it like?”
He pauses and thinks, then smiles. “You know,” he says, “350 homes were lost in the Waldo Canyon fire. And that’s terrible. But 80% of the homes at risk were saved by firefighters. You see everyone out there on the floor? Everyone on the NICC floor comes out of operations. That’s important. When you hear the angst in their voice, or you listen to the descriptors they’re using, you know that comes from experience in the field. We may have just gone down a PL level, but it’s possible we’re just a week out from another challenge.”
“In short,” he says. “I have the greatest gig I the world. I get to be in the middle of everything.”