Only On 6: Fire Fight, Who's in Charge

In the last 12 months nearly 4 million acres across the state have burned; more than 2,800 homes charred; and sadly the lives of citizens and firefighters have been taken, all from the state's most disastrous wildfire season.

Fire departments and volunteer firefighters have had their work cut out for them, never knowing that they would face day to day. From battling raging grass fires to evacuating homes and blocking off major highways. Their job is challenging. What's even more difficult than all of that is getting information out to the public. Newschannel 6 spoke with several local leaders to learn what goes on behind the scenes of a fire and just how difficult it is to get information out to you. What we learned is that every fire has an incident commander, but not every fire has a designated public information officer.

The role of PIO changes depending on the fire. It can be a fire chief, a county sheriff and even the city of Wichita Falls Public Information Officer. If you've noticed when we cover major fires the person speaking often changes from fire to fire. We were curious as to why, when wildfires are so prominent here, there is no one person in charge and if that at all effects the operations of a fire department and public safety.

"In the case of a grassfire they see the grassfire so they call 911. The dispatcher takes the call and routes that to the fire dispatcher. The dispatcher then tones out fire stations, alerts the fire stations and gives them the information the address, where the grass fire is," said Wichita Falls Fire Chief Earl Foster.

In four minutes the usual response time for Wichita Falls firefighters, trucks are on scene, firefighters are ready to go to battle. Immediately an incident commander is in charge. That position goes to the chief of the department that responds or the highest ranking firefighter on scene and tasks are then assigned through airwaves or once a unit arrives.

"As the departments come in everything kind of blends in," said Mike Hall, Lake Arrowhead Fire Chief.

As departments rush in to respond it gets chaotic, a unit's first mission when they get to the scene is to check in with incident command, but even that itself can be a challenge.

"If the fire is already big and you're in a strange area that you're not familiar with sometimes
finding command can be difficult," said Hall.

As the flames billow into the sky threatening homes and lives it's time for firefighters to take another step and inform the public.

"We can go door to door. We can get on a PA system. We have a number of ways to contact the citizens if we need to alert them for some reason," said Chief Foster.

The role of PIO changes from fire to fire. In Wichita County Sheriff David Duke often fills that position.

"Since I've been Sheriff as many years as I've been here as a fire investigator and firefighter I know the importance of shutting down the road and keeping those firefighters safe," said Duke.

Sheriff Duke is a 30 year veteran of the Wichita West Volunteer Fire Department. He and his deputies play a major role in fighting fires.

"Sometimes a deputy can get there and get people out first and the fire department thinks hey we need to get people out of the houses and then we'll let 'em know we've been there, the Sheriff's Deputies have been there, those people have already been evacuated," he said.

Miscommunication at a time when communication is key, when lives are on the line. Could that be avoided if there was one specific person in charge of communicating to both the public, media and the department at all times.

Any PIO can give a general release but having one person over the entire staff to do that you're not going to get the right information. You're not going to get it quick enough," said Sheriff Duke.

In Comanche County Oklahoma there is a designated PIO who assists incident command in all public, media related matters, and can also assist emergency personnel. Both Chief Foster and David Duke believe that one is not needed here despite how active our fire season is.

"We've seen that on a state level how they do it and sometimes they don't get out the right information to get dispersed to the media," said Duke.

Chief Foster says communication is always the weakest link no matter how big your resources are. Despite having a rotating PIO office, they all agree it works here.

"Sometimes that's not as easy as we like. Sometimes the reports are not as regular as we like to get them out but we try to have them out in a fairly timely manner," said Chief Foster.

We spoke with a few media outlets across Texas including Amarillo and Midland. What they told us is likewise that role is always filled by a different boot, either the county or the individual fire department.

Barry Levy serves as the City of Wichita Falls Public Information Officer. He is called in to serve the primary role of PIO during major grass fires when all city departments, including police are responding to a fire.

Crystal Hall Newschannel 6.