Northern California wildfires may not be of concern to many in Prince George’s County, but they are on communications specialist Jim White’s radar.
On a recent shadowing trip, White planned to spend a week in an office learning about fires and observing response crews from a distance, but a staffing shortage landed him in the mountains, helping firefighters communicate as they battled a then-4,000-acre blaze nearing a residential community.
The Public Safety Communications manager for the county’s Mobile Technology Center became the Communication Unit Leader for the wildfire in the Klamath National Forest in Happy Camp, Calif., that has since been contained and extinguished.
The seven-day trip that began Aug. 25 was designed to be a shadowing experience for he and a group of seven other incident response personnel from the National Capital Region Incident Management Team, of which White is a member.
NCR-IMT, which comprises 120 representatives from public safety agencies throughout the region, sought a small group to travel west to shadow emergency responders battling the wildfires and gain in-the-field experience. White was the only volunteer from Prince George’s County.
White spent his time hiking up mountains, sleeping in tents, repairing radios, building antennas and connecting firefighters with incident commanders throughout the 16-hour days he worked with other communications technicians.
“It was tough, but it’s what was needed in order to get the job done,” he said. “These were remote areas. It’s not somewhere where you can just pick anywhere [to set up radio systems]. I had to find out what communication requirements the branches and divisions needed and look at the plan and decide what communications need to be changed.”
While not knowing of his role until arriving in California, White said he had been previously trained on wildland fire communications, but had never actually dealt with a wildfire. He has spent the past 11 years handling communications for public safety and law enforcement agencies throughout the county. At the Mobile Technology Center in Lanham, which is part of the county’s Public Safety Communications, he troubleshoots malfunctioning radio equipment in public safety vehicles and oversees the functionality of the county’s radio systems.
He said working with the county’s public safety agencies helped prepare him to handle the wildfire.
“Radio communications is so important to police officers and firefighters now, and it’s very high-paced here, which definitely helped prepare me for the real world wildfire incident.”
Wildfires and brush fires are rare in Prince George’s County, but White said he has aided in communications work for the few that have been in the area.
Dan Kleinman, incident commander for Fort Complex in California, said he was initially worried about bringing the National Capital Region group out to shadow, as he was worried about distractions.
“But all the folks really jumped into place and took an opportunity where they best fit,” Kleinman said. “Everybody was just top notch. They were not only energetic but highly knowledgeable.”
Kleinman said establishing communications for emergencies such as wildfires is critical and said White was quickly able to understand what the command team’s needs were to become operational.
White said when he was told they needed a communication unit leader he was excited and eager to fill the key role in containing the fire, which was extinguished Sept. 8 and took more than 15 days to put out.
“When you actually get to go out to an environment like that to work communications, there’s nothing better,” White said. “It’s the best feeling.”