A fire briefing takes places during the Powerhouse Fire in LA County (2013). Photo credit: Branda Nowell

When Help Arrives: Is Your Community Ready?

By: Branda Nowell, Ph.D. and Toddi Steelman, Ph.D.

Topic: Planning Resilience

Type: Best Practices

Cooperator meetings, such as this one that took place on the Beaver Creek Fire (2013) near Sun Valley, Idaho, are an effective way for Incident Management Teams to work with local community stakeholders during fire incidents. (Photo credit: Branda Nowell)

Cooperator meetings, such as this one that took place on the Beaver Creek Fire (2013) near Sun Valley, Idaho, are an effective way for Incident Management Teams to work with local community stakeholders during fire incidents. (Photo credit: Branda Nowell)

A complex fire event that threatens a local community can quickly overwhelm local resources.  If this occurs, it can necessitate the involvement of a regional or federal incident management team (IMT) that comes into the community to manage the fire.  These teams come with a wealth of resources, knowledge and experience in incident response.  However, each incident is different because communities are different.  In order for this outside assistance to be the most effective, they need help from the local community.

For several years now, our research team, Firechasers, has been asking the question, “How can IMTs work more effectively with local communities?”  However, at the same time, we also have wanted to understand what local communities can do in advance of a fire that will prepare them to work with IMTs who are coming in from outside the area.  It turns out there is a lot that can be done to help IMTs and host communities partner more effectively.  Based on our research, here are three key things local communities can do:

1)     Know Your Values at Risk (and Be Able to Communicate Them!)

IMTs can’t protect the things that are most valuable to a local community if the IMT doesn’t know what and where they are.  According to a survey we conducted in the spring of 2013 with 137 USFS Districts in OR, ID, WA, and MT, over 25% of Districts reported they did not have detailed documentation of values at risk that could be handed over to a federal IMT in the event of a WUI fire.    Across 22 wildland urban interface (WUI) fires that occurred in 2013, effective communication of values at risk was an area that IMTs indicated host communities had the greatest room for improvement.  Local communities can identify and map structures and critical infrastructure as well as areas of cultural, economic, recreational, historical, and/or ecological importance.   These need to be developed in collaboration with both local community stakeholders as well as state and federal land management agencies to establish a shared base of understanding in advance of a fire.   These documents need to be readily available to hand off to an IMT when they arrive on site.

2)     Know Your Local Incident Response Network (and Maintain Up-To-Date Contact Information!)

A complex fire event in the wildland urban interface (WUI) can involve a wide array of local stakeholders including fire agencies, law enforcement, media, emergency responders, utility companies, local landowners, and local government.   In order for the incident to be managed in a coordinated manner, IMTs need to work in collaboration with these local actors.  Valuable time is wasted if IMTs are forced to hunt and search to figure out who’s who in the area and how to get in touch with them.   Out of 137 USFS Districts surveyed, one out of five Districts reported they did not have up to date information on key contacts to give to IMTs.   Across 22 WUI fires in OR, ID, WA, and MT in 2013, IMTs reported “Timely contact information for pertinent local cooperators” as, on average, having the second highest ratings of room for improvement.   Local communities can work with federal and state land agencies to ensure that contact people are identified and that comprehensive, up-to-date lists are maintained.   These lists should be available to hand over to IMTs when they arrive on site and include primary contact information for: a) local government, b) utility companies, c) liaisons for the transportation department(s), d)   all fire, emergency response and mass care agencies/organizations, e) media contacts, f) large landowners, g) neighborhood associations, h) prominent community leaders, and h) key locations for disseminating public information.   Maps detailing property ownership can also help IMTs stay in communication with landowners if a fire threatens private land.

3)     Build Capacity within the Network of Local Responders

In our research, relationships are repeatedly identified as one of the most critical factors in determining how well things go when managing a complex incident.  We have found that responders who are more familiar with one another before an incident are statistically more likely to communicate more frequently and more effectively during an incident (Nowell & Steelman, 2014).  When communities have invested in building relationships and capacity among all local responders before an incident, it can make it easier for all of those participants to coordinate more effectively with incoming IMTs.  Our survey work with 137 USFS Districts and 109 counties in OR, ID, WA, and MT indicated there is more work to be done in this area.  Nearly half of all Districts were not prepared to maintain communications with other agencies in the event of power and phone outages. Further, one out of every four Districts reported not having plans in place for how to manage inter-agency communications during an incident.   Planning efforts to establish protocols for communication and coordination during an incident can provide the foundation for building key relationships.   Familiarity with the incident command system (ICS) can also assist local stakeholders to communicate more effectively with each other as well as an incoming IMT.  In our research, we found that fire service, law enforcement, and county emergency managers were generally trained and experienced in ICS.  However, other key actors, such as county and municipal elected officials, town and county managers, and animal evacuation/sheltering organizations were significantly less likely to be familiar with ICS. Such lack of familiarity may create challenges as these actors seek to define their role and communicate effectively with incident command and other cooperators.


Faas, A.J., B. Nowell, T. Steelman and L. Bradford. 2013. County Wildfire Incident Readiness Report: Fall 2013. Fire Chasers Improving Community Response to Wildfire Study. September 30.  Available for download at: http://cnr.ncsu.edu/blogs/firechasers/reports/

Faas, A.J., B. Nowell, and T. Steelman. 2013. National Forest Wildfire Capacity Report: Fall 2013. Fire Chasers Improving Community Response to Wildfire Study. October 9. Available for download at: http://cnr.ncsu.edu/blogs/firechasers/reports/

Nowell, B. and Steelman, T (in press) Communication Under Fire: The Role of Embeddedness in the Emergence and Efficacy of Disaster Response Communication Networks.  Manuscript in press with the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory (contact authors for more information).

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5 thoughts on “When Help Arrives: Is Your Community Ready?”

  1. Annie Schmidt says:

    Great post! Our experiences in this area would substantiate items 1 and 2. This year for the first time, we maintained this documentation in the form of a letter that can be handed to the IMT when they arrive. The information the letter transmits is all contained in our CWPP. Contacts, values at risk (e.g. addresses and phone numbers of summer camps and preschools, location of infrastructure, economic values). We’re already learning, during this fire season, ways to improve.

    1. Branda says:

      Thanks for the comment and great to hear Annie!

  2. Nick Goulette says:

    Thanks to Branda and Toddi for a great post and some really outstanding and relevant recommendations. For me, all three recommendations point back to one of the best practices for fire adapted communities; the need for a standing local coordinating group that includes all of the relevant local parties with a role in wildfire preparedness, mitigation and response. Whether organized around CWPP implementation or wildfire preparedness, the relationships built, data compiled, and resources leveraged will pay dividends during wildfire response. Another practice that is emerging is jointly populating and updating the Wildland Decision Support System (WFDSS) on an annual basis. All of the information needs sited in this post can be updated in WFDSS annually, and the process of doing so together can ensure a level of shared-awareness about assets at-risk, communications networks, and available resources that facilitate strong IMT integration.

  3. Branda says:

    Thanks for the comment Nick and for the heads up about the joint community/land agency efforts updating WFDSS. That is a great idea – we’ll be sure to pass that idea along!

  4. Thomas Kelly says:

    This article is spot on. Most areas are totally unprepared. names and addresses of important contacts, police fire and all media, lists of hospitals and most important MAPS OF THE AREA . My town was surrounded by fire in 2008 Maps and detailed demographic information helped immensely. I have been working with the Red Cross on a disaster assessment team in Northern california. Each community should have detailed information on hand. It takes time I am willing to help show anyone how to gather the necessary information. Maps are a huge problem. google maps are worthless in a fire incident Detailed topo maps of each area need to be on hand, they will be impossible to make during the incident. realize that most of the help you are going to get is from out of your area. THEY NEED ACCURATE MAPS. Ist order of business is to establish communications and assess the size and scope of the incident. a command center must be established and an incident commander appointed to run the show,, During 1989 I set up a command center in Oakland california as a first responder. There were 41 deaths but we also saved and rescued a lot of people at the cypress fereeway.

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