Cool heads in dispatch critical to successful wildfire fighting

7 Sep, 2017Kishugu Aviation

The life of a dispatcher demands a person who can, in the words of writer Rudyard Kipling “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.”

So, when Wildfire Dispatcher Lizette Heine heard over her earphones that a water bomber had “gone down,” she took a very deep breath. Her husband, and Kishugu co-founder, one of South Africa’s most experienced wildfire firefighting pilots, Johan Heine was also flying that mission.

“Time stood still,” says Lizette. “I think I stopped breathing. But I had to keep calm and carry on working. Then after what seemed like hours, but was in fact only seconds, there was some static crackle in my headset and I heard the spotter pilot suddenly say: ‘Pilot okay. Ops Normal,’ which allowed me to breathe again.”

Today, the “Voice of the Lowveld” as Lizette has come to be known, thanks to her daily Fire Weather broadcasts on forestry two-way radios, as well as Radio Jacaranda and Radio Safari broadcasts during the winter fire seasons, is one of the most respected wildfire fighting dispatchers in South Africa.

The role of a dispatcher is crucial in today’s sophisticated coordinated response to fighting unwanted wildfire. Typically, a dispatcher is the “spider’ in the middle of the web of action, dispatching wildfire firefighting ground teams and supporting aircraft, keeping a timeline of events as well as maintaining interactive operational communication on various levels. The dispatchers also request additional resources through the coordination system during extended periods of operations.

Today, there is a national network of wildfire dispatchers, with support from Provincial and National Coordinators.

It’s not a nine to five job. “It’s like wrestling a gorilla,” they say. “You stop when the gorilla stops.”

Today, Lizette and her fellow dispatch and coordination colleagues are masters in the migration of resources between the winter and summer rainfall areas, that create the conditions for the various fire seasons in South Africa.

It was not always like that though. Lizette was a pioneer in her field in South Africa when she began as a dispatcher in 1986. Thanks to her passion, professionalism, her focus and attention to detail, international exposure and the specialised training curriculum that the South African dispatch and coordination personnel receive, staff are as skilful as any of their international counterparts.

The devastating Lowveld wildfires of 1985 during their first fire season changed their destiny. Johan became a commercial charter pilot for Sappi and the first Fire Protection Association was formed in the Lowveld.

At the time, the Lowveld Fire Protection Association (LFPA) began to play a proactive role in fire suppression, with forestry members such as SAPPI contributing to costs.

In an attempt to prevent a repeat of the damage caused by unwanted fire the previous winter, Johan convinced Lizette to “help out” during the 1986 winter by listening out on a forestry two way radio installed in the first Wildfire Dispatch centre in the Lowveld.

The SAAF owned a prefabricated building at Nelspruit Airport that was infrequently used. It had fallen into disrepair until, with permission from SAAF, it provided an ideal “headquarters” for LFPA.

“I had no idea what I let myself in for,” says Lizette. Nevertheless, she arrived at “work” with baby Lizane – who slept under a nearby desk while Lizette taught herself to become a dispatcher.

“After all,” she says with characteristic modesty, “How difficult can it be to answer a radio and send boys out to fly their aeroplanes?”

“Our second daughter, Ruzane was planned to be able to sit by the next fire season, to allow me to be a dispatcher again,” says Lizette.

” I accredit my current knowledge to the guidance from, assistance and exposure to some of the finest people I ever met along my professional journey. They include pilots, foresters, managers, subordinates and fire gurus nationally and internationally. They helped me along the way to learn what I know today.”

Another turning point was when LFPA, by now renamed to FFA, won the tender in 2003 to implement the South African Government’s Working on Fire Programme. (WOF).

Today, from the humble beginnings in a neglected “pre-fab” at Nelspruit Airport, “dispatch” has grown to a vital and respected component of WOF and Kishugu’s implementation of their Integrated Fire Management (IFM) strategy.

Wildfire Dispatchers and Coordinators – no longer trained by Lizette, but by a dedicated Training Officer – are able to serve in Wildfire Dispatch and Coordination centres across the country to dispatch and coordinate the response units to unwanted fire.

Lizette makes it clear that wildfire dispatcher does not fulfil the role of an Air Traffic Controller. Wildfire Dispatch is more in the mode of the emergency 911 service – where the staff take the original call for assistance, then dispatch and coordinate the required air and ground resources with interactive operational communication in accordance to set operational procedures. “It is like supporting a raging war against a common enemy – an unwanted wildfire,” she says.

Lizette and her dispatcher colleague, Pat Scott, were able to interact with American colleagues during an exchange training opportunity. The 911 Dispatcher training exposure allowed for adaptations to suit our needs.

“We have a lot to be proud of,” she says, ” but there is never room for complacency.”

It shows the kind of compassionate person that Lizette is, when she describes her most stressful times as a dispatcher, not as the radio controller calmly dispatching aircraft, vehicles and firefighters to the scene of a blaze, but rather hearing the news of responders harmed in the line of duty.

To be a successful Dispatcher, she says you need to be mature and in control enough not to overreact during stressful situations but to calmly convey your ability to assist. You need people skills, to interact calmly with people during highly stressful situations, and you need to listen, stay focused and pay attention to detail.

She concludes by saying that you need a sense of humour. “After all, what is life without some fun.”

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