With fire season in full swing and more acres of Nevada vegetation burning by the day, I recently began to wonder what happens when a 911 call is placed to report smoke or flames. If Hollywood gives any indication, the call is placed and a fire engine lights up immediately, with firefighters rushing into it to go fight the blaze. Well, Hollywood exaggerates on most everything else, so my curiosity, as usual, won out. I spoke with an on-duty supervisor at my local dispatch agency to understand what goes on when someone calls 911 for smoke or flames.

Erin has worked at my local dispatch agency for a while, and in the short time I spoke with her, I could tell she was a woman who was adept at gathering details quickly and who didn’t miss a beat.

She explained that there are three general steps to her side of the call:

  1. The first thing she’ll ask for is an address. If the caller is calling from a land line, then her technology will gather that information automatically, but most people are calling from cell phones these days. If the caller is calling from a cell phone, they’ll need to give her an address or the nearest cross streets.
  2. She’ll then find out what help is needed. If the emergency is a fire, she’ll ask which type. This part is crucial as the answer will determine what kind of help Erin will order. If it’s a wildland fire, she’ll ask for brush trucks; if it’s a house or building fire she’ll request structure vehicles. The right type of help needs to be ordered right off the bat, as having the wrong type of help arrive to the emergency would waste precious time and could be ineffective to fight the blaze.
  3. After she has this information, she’ll set to work entering it into her computer. The National Fire Protection Association says that a dispatcher has to enter the information in the computer within 30 seconds of the call being placed. The fire dispatcher on duty has another 30 seconds to take that information and send it to the fire department.

Erin assured me that dispatchers can usually make this time frame; occasionally a nervous caller who doesn’t have the information ready will cause that time to increase. Dispatchers understand that callers can feel nervous or anxious but their cooperation is paramount. As such, dispatchers are trained to help a caller by asking their questions quickly and directly.

Aside from having their location or the location of where they see smoke coming from ready when they call, callers should let their dispatcher know if there are any potentially hazardous materials inside a structure that’s near or is on fire. They should also be prepared to describe the size of the fire, and if it’s a wildfire, tell how far it is from neighboring structures. Dispatchers will also take down the description of an arsonist right away and a caller should be prepared to give that information.  

After my conversation with Erin, I feel like I know what goes on behind the scenes when someone reports a fire. My biggest takeaway? Location. I’ll make sure to have an address ready if I ever need to report a fire. The Living With Fire Program actually talks about the importance of having your address visible for help when it arrives, and recommends that lettering be four inches high. Read about it in their Fire Adapted Communities publication.

 

Until next time, 

Natalie Newcomer

The 4th of July and a local fireworks show has always been a fixture of my upbringing in Nevada. My family would always pack cold drinks and desserts in a cooler and find a cozy patch of grass or a great spot to set up camping chairs in a parking lot to watch one of the area’s professional firework shows. As a new homeowner living at the base of a mountain range dotted with burn scars, I’m still looking forward to my favorite professional fireworks display, but am also concerned about the potential fire hazard illegal fireworks could cause my community.

A local news story recently confirmed my concern. Their message: leave firework shows in the hands of professionals. The interview showed footage of a partially-burned house where a bottle rocket landed in a nearby juniper bush and ignited the structure. What happened to this home isn’t an isolated incident. According to the City of Sparks Fire Marshal, Bob King, 4th of July fireworks cause more fires in the United States than all other fire causes combined in a typical year. The interview cautions that anyone caught with fireworks in Washoe County can be charged with a misdemeanor, receive jail time and can be fined. If a fire is started by fireworks, they could have to pay for fire suppression costs and for damages caused by the fire. The City of Sparks Fire Department will accept fireworks voluntarily handed in with a “no questions asked” kind of policy. Watch the interview here.

Aside from creating a fire hazard, many people who are lighting fireworks or are nearby as they’re shot off have been gravely injured. I was surprised to learn that a sparkler can generate enough heat to really hurt someone. A fact sheet from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) shows that the average level of heat a sparkler puts off when lit is 1200 degrees Fahrenheit at its tip; that’s hot enough to melt glass, burn wood, bake a cake, boil water and cause third-degree burns. NFPA makes a similar caution to King’s: if people want to see fireworks, they should attend a show put on by experts.

I was happy to discover that there is something I can do if I see or hear illegal fireworks nearby… call 911! The City of Reno provided this information along with some safety tips on grilling and campfires.  Read it here. It’s a good idea to check with your local fire marshal for the regulations in your area.

I can’t wait to celebrate the fourth with my loved ones while enjoying the sights and sounds of the local professional fireworks show. I’m also grateful to my local fire services and other community members who want to keep the holiday a safe one, and keep any fires from ruining the Independence Day fun.

Happy 4th of July!

Natalie Newcomer

 

Late spring is a precarious time for weather in Nevada. Temperatures can drop and soar, the sun can be shining one moment and rain can be pounding the roof of a car the next. So I wasn’t surprised when this week’s weather forecast called for highs that meant shorts and sandals. With summer just around the corner, Nevadans are getting ready to enjoy trips to the lake, frozen treats, nighttime temperatures that are perfect for stargazing and red flag warnings.

I know, you’re thinking I must have lost a couple of marbles along the way, but red flag warnings are part of the package for living in Nevada. As a new homeowner living in the WUI, I want to know what a red flag warning means for my neighborhood and my home.

A YouTube search turned up a video by the National Weather Service, Reno office. This video discusses how forecasters decide if the weather conditions warrant a red flag warning. Local fire agencies determine when the vegetation is dry enough to carry fire. The fire agencies then notify the National Weather Service to begin issuing Red Flag Warnings when the critical fire weather conditions occur. Using weather, topography and fuels – all that great smelling brush around my yard that gives me allergies this time of year – the National Weather Service Team determines if the conditions are right for extreme fire behavior or numerous fire starts. These are the kinds of conditions in which a wildfire could explode out of control before first responders could arrive. The video also discusses what conditions are right for a red flag warning in two scenarios: the first would occur when relative humidity would be lower than 15% and wind gusts would be at least 30 miles per hour; the second would occur during a forecast of dry lightning and winds from thunderstorms. Watch it here and check out the National Weather Service’s fire weather map for the current conditions for your area.

Like your local National Weather Service office’s Facebook page and you’ll be in the know about red flag alerts. The National Weather Service, Reno office shows a graphic for Tuesday’s red flag warning, with a reminder of the kinds of things people need to avoid to be sure they don’t start a fire:

  • Don’t use fireworks or start a campfire.
  • Stow trailer chains properly.
  • Don’t drive over dry grass.
  • Postpone target shooting.
  • Avoid yard work or welding near dry vegetation.

Noted. I’ll avoid these activities and will be sure to encourage my neighbors and friends to do the same on red flag warning days. Looking at the sagebrush around my community, knowing that today’s conditions will continue to repeat throughout the year, I feel encouraged to evaluate my home as well. My yard is clear of weeds and debris but according to the Living With Fire website, I can do more. There are plenty of activities I can do around my home, so that it will have a better chance of surviving if a wildfire starts in the hills next to my house. I’ll add them to my list of summer projects for sure!

Stay safe and enjoy that late-spring weather,

Natalie Newcomer