The busiest joint Federal Interagency Communications Center (FICC) in the United States is located in San Bernardino California at the headquarters for the San Bernardino National Forest. The center serves federal fire and law enforcement agents who are in charge of 33,000,000 acres of federal land in Southern California. Dispatchers at the communications center serve the US Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
According to veteran FICC Dispatcher Karen Brown, her job is complex, as each agency they serve has a different mission and different procedures. She also says that the types of calls that they receive vary by season and range from fire to rescue to law enforcement. Summer and Fall are typically marked with high fire department activity, due to wildfire season. Winter calls are predominantly law enforcement and search and rescue related because of the dune buggy enthusiasts who frequent the Imperial Sand Dunes, also known as Glamis, and the dunes in the Barstow area.
Brown explains, “We get a lot of lost people. we have a lot of search and rescues within the sand dunes and the national forest. As far as human nature goes, they tend to go out to have fun, and at times they get disoriented. That’s when we get called to go and find them.”
Jason Megowan, another FICC Dispatcher explains how he, Brown and their colleagues manage the large volume of calls they receive saying, “It’s all about learning to multi-task. That’s really how it works, by taking notes, by being a good listener, and knowing when to say ‘help’ because it can get overwhelming. If it gets into an incident where it does get big, then you start calling people or teams that come in and can help ordering stuff and taking some of the heavy load off the initial attack dispatcher.”
Having spent time out in the field also helps the dispatchers to handle the calls. Megowan says his experiences on the federal land before becoming a dispatcher help him to prioritize where to send resources when multiple incidents are taking place. The dispatchers are also sent on ride-alongs with federal employees regularly to familiarize themselves with the terrain and the procedures various agencies they dispatch for.
San Bernardino National Forest Fire Chief Kurt Winchester says that the Federal Interagency Communications Center is key in getting resources to the right places expeditiously, and maintaining the proper levels of staffing during various times of the year is also very important.
Megowan and Brown both recommend their job to others interested in a career as dispatchers. Brown says, “It keeps you young. It keep you vital. It keeps you on your toes, and I have always enjoyed the job.” Megowan suggests, “Get out there go out to a fire station. Stop by their dispatch center. Spend some time. See what people do.”