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Long before the Marshall fire, Boulder County fire chiefs wanted a more robust response on dry, windy days

A consortium of fire chiefs in the county say they’ve been frustrated by the pace of change as they work to try to improve the dispatch system.

A Boulder Rural Fire Department firefighter approaches a burning home near Trail Ridge Road and Washington Avenue in Louisville, CO, on Dec. 30, 2021. Driven by 110 mph winds, the Marshall fire ripped through Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County, consuming 6,200 acres and destroying more than 1,000 buildings. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Two years before a wind-whipped grassfire gobbled up nearly 1,100 homes, Boulder County rural and city fire chiefs asked their dispatch center for more robust response to fire calls on windy, dry days.

Their request — along with an even older one for improved communication between the three dispatch centers in the county — has not been put into action.

In January 2020, the Boulder Valley Fire Consortium, which includes fire chiefs in six towns and rural areas, asked Boulder County to put in place a color-coded system that would trigger fire response in line with the weather, according to documents and emails obtained by The Colorado Sun under open records laws.

The premise was simple and modeled after firefighting protocol in California: The number of engines, brush trucks and personnel dispatched to a wildland fire would depend on the temperature, wind and humidity. 

On a “green” day, when the temperature was below 60 degrees and the wind below 5 mph, dispatch would send one fire engine, one brush truck and one battalion commander, the fire chiefs suggested. But on a “red” day, when the temperature was above 80 or the wind above 15 mph, dispatch would send two engines, three brush trucks and two tender trucks, used mostly for carrying water, as well additional leadership to coordinate a plan of attack. 

Instead of a weather-influenced response — what firefighters call an “indices” response — the Boulder County Communications Center responds to every fire call like it’s a “green” day. The first engine on the scene, as happened the day of the Marshall fire, assesses the fire and then calls for more support if needed. 

The response is the same whether “it’s December or July,” whether the ground is bone dry or covered by a foot of snow, said Mountain View Fire Chief David Beebe, whose department was the first to respond to the Marshall fire.

Louisville Fire Chief John Willson summed up the concept this way: “If it’s a dry day, if it’s a windy day, we should probably have a bigger response. If it’s snowing sideways, then we don’t need as many resources to be dispatched.”

But what seems in concept a simple upgrade is not that simple to put in place, according to the dispatch center. It’s not that the plan isn’t solid; it’s that it takes intensive collaboration among six fire departments to agree on an appropriate response to each scenario, legal documents and a plan to figure out how to tell the computer-aided dispatch system whether it’s a green, yellow or red day, particularly when weather conditions might vary across the county, said Steve Silbermann, director of the Boulder County Communications Center. 

“Don’t get me wrong, everybody wants to make something happen,” he said. “We are all working together for change.”

Homes and vehicles destroyed by Marshall Fire in a neighborhood near Harper Lake in Louisville on Friday morning, Dec. 31, 2021, in Colo. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Fire chiefs said that even if such a system were in place Dec. 30 when the Marshall fire sped through Superior and Louisville, it would not have stopped the destruction. It might have helped, though.

Several chiefs told The Sun they’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the county’s dispatch operations over the years and that their concerns have failed to make a significant impact. Emails and documents obtained by The Sun — including the color-coded green, yellow and red spreadsheet created in January 2020 — show the chiefs have repeatedly discussed fire response with the dispatch center over the past two years.

Boulder Rural Fire Chief Greg Schwab, who came to the department in 2019 after working near Lake Tahoe, has been the main force pushing for a weather-related response system. In Georgetown, California, his department had seven different response levels, dependent not only on wind speed and temperature, but also soil moisture and the number of homes near the fire. 

“You can show up with a garden hose, and that’s not the same thing as showing up with a firehose,” he said. “It’s not only how quickly you get there but the weight of the attack.” 

His idea has been discussed among the fire chiefs and with the dispatch center multiple times, he said. “Nothing became of it,” Schwab said. “It would be great if they would implement the plan.” 

Connecting three dispatch centers is higher priority 

Beebe, who has been at Mountain View Fire for 16 years, said fire chiefs want the wildland fire response upgrade, but for many, a higher priority is getting the three dispatch centers in the county to better communicate.

“We have been trying to work with these guys for almost two years now to try to get something done,” he said. “Trying to get everything out of the dispatch center at one time is not going to work.” 

The city of Boulder has its own dispatch center for its police and fire departments. So does Longmont. All other jurisdictions use the Boulder County Communications Center. (The University of Colorado Boulder has a fourth dispatch center, which is used for its police.)

Fire and law enforcement departments across the county have an agreement that the closest unit will respond, no matter in what district the fire or stroke victim or downed telephone pole sits. But departments that use the Boulder County dispatch center can’t easily see vehicles using the dispatch centers for the cities of Boulder and Longmont, so it’s difficult to tell which unit is the closest to the scene. 

When Chief Beebe looks at the laptop map in one of his fire trucks, he can see the location of fire trucks and ambulances from his department as well as Boulder Rural Fire, Lafayette and Louisville. 

If I’m the one having the heart attack I want the closest unit. I don’t care whose name is on it.

Mountain View Fire Chief David Beebe

“Somebody could have a heart attack, and there might be a fire truck from the city of Boulder that’s across the street,” he said. “And we can’t see it. If I’m the one having the heart attack I want the closest unit. I don’t care whose name is on it.” 

The conversation about fixing the system has gone on so long that Beebe can’t even remember how many years ago it began. 

“We have been working on this a long time,” he said. “I mean, really a long time. It’s just been a constant battle. I’m not gonna lie.”

The Marshall fire destroyed neighborhoods in Superior, Colorado, pictured on Jan. 6, 2022. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Willson, the Louisville fire chief, called it a “heartache” that chiefs have been asking for better dispatch communication for what he said has been about five years. His district sits near the middle of the county, so his firefighters and paramedics are often responding to calls outside their boundary that are not emergencies. 

“If it’s something that is a life-altering event, I have no qualms about ‘let’s get the closest unit down there,’” he said. But the shared-response system is muddled by the fact that the three dispatch centers can’t communicate well with each other. 

“We’ve been fighting that, and I’m still fighting that,” Willson said. 

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Part of the issue, chiefs say, is that the rural and city fire departments in the county don’t pay the Boulder County dispatch center, and they feel they have little say or control in the process. They get the dispatch services for free under an agreement with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department, which is responsible for handling fires in unincorporated Boulder County. The rural and small-town fire departments respond to those fires, and in exchange, do not pay the dispatch center.

“You get what you pay for,” Willson said. “And we don’t pay.” 

Dispatch center is “actively working” on the upgrades

The Boulder County Communications Center is on board with the proposed changes and has met weekly for months with fire chiefs to discuss better communication between the three dispatch centers in the county, said Silbermann, the center director.

“This is something that we all have been actively working on,” he said. “I can assure you that all six fire departments and three communications centers are actively working on it and want to make changes.” 

Just in the past couple of years, the Boulder County Communications Center upgraded its system so that all four fire departments that use the center — Mountain View, Boulder Rural, Lafayette and Louisville —could communicate better with each other. The next step is bringing in the cities of Boulder and Longmont, Silbermann said. 

The process is arduous. The fire chiefs first must agree on their “business practices,” meaning they have to collectively decide what the proper equipment and manpower responses are to every scenario, Silbermann said. This is difficult when not all the departments have the same trucks or workers. Mountain fire departments typically have a different set of equipment than city departments, for example.

“The challenge is that it’s not just a flip of the switch,” he said. 

Residential damage following the Marshall fire pictured on Jan. 21, 2022, in Louisville. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Also, the dispatch center doesn’t dictate the fire response — it’s the fire departments that created their response plans, which then were entered into the dispatch system years ago, Silbermann said. Computer-aided dispatch — called CAD — is programmed to work based on protocols entered into the system by humans. When a 911 caller reports they are having a heart attack, for example, the system uses geolocation to determine where the person is and dispatches paramedics to the scene because the system has been told how to handle a heart attack call. 

Revamping the system so that fire response depends on weather is on a priority list set by fire chiefs, but ranks below the issue of building three systems that talk to each other, Silbermann said.

We have to solve the bigger problem first. It’s definitely not that we are saying no.

Steve Silbermann, Boulder County Communications Center

“We have to solve the bigger problem first,” he said. “It’s definitely not that we are saying no.” 

The challenge with incorporating a weather-dependent fire response, for starters, is that not every place in the county has the same weather, Silbermann said. The dispatch technology does not interface with the National Weather Service, so in order for a weather-related response to work, fire departments would have to tell the dispatch center whether it was a green, yellow or red day— and that might vary depending on where in the county they are, Silbermann said. 

“We could have entirely different weather for our mountains and our flats,” he said. “It could be a perfectly fine day down here and we don’t need a weighted response.” 

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Still, the communications center is committed to figuring out how to make both requests work and collaborating with fire chiefs as their “partner,” Silbermann said. He was unsure how many departments in Colorado have such a system.

“They are the ones that matter,” he said. “They are the ones running to calls.”

Only a “massive fire break” or air power would have stopped Marshall fire

The fact that technology at the three dispatch centers doesn’t communicate effectively is a near daily problem, fire chiefs said. The other request — for a layered wildland fire response based on weather — affects operations less often, but could have dire consequences, the chiefs said. 

Still, no one can say for sure if it would have helped the day of the Marshall fire, the most destructive in Colorado history. The first call that day was to report a downed power line, and a truck from Mountain View was dispatched. The first unit was on the scene within about five minutes, Chief Beebe said, and quickly called for more units. 

As the fire tore east toward Superior, units from across the county began to respond. But the flames moved too fast, skipping across the dried-up grassland on the force of 110 mph wind, for firefighters to keep up. 

If we could have had aircraft, it might have helped, but you’re not going to get aircraft when the wind is 100 miles an hour.

Mountain View Fire Chief David Beebe

“The only way you may have been able to slow it down was a massive fire break at the beginning of the fire,” Beebe said. “If we could have had aircraft, it might have helped, but you’re not going to get aircraft when the wind is 100 miles an hour.”

The Longmont Fire Department was among those that responded to a call for mutual aid, eventually sending out eight units. The first three headed toward Marshall Road, near the origin of the fire, but were redirected by the commander on scene as the fire raced across open space toward Superior.

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Longmont’s fire chief, Dan Higgins, said his department sent “everything we could.” He wasn’t sure what to say about whether it would have mattered if the county had a system in place declaring it a “red” day that triggered a weightier response.

“Boy, is that the question of the day,” he said. “In some instances, it absolutely would help. But on this day, it’s hard to say. Those wind gusts going over 100 miles an hour is not a typical situation.” 

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