By: Lt. Ryan G. Christen
Disasters can strike anytime, anywhere. Some may
be predictable while otherscan occur without any warning.
Often these events affecting so many lives that it is
beyond the capability of local resources to handle. As
members of Fire Department Task Forces, Wild land Firefighter
Teams, Urban Search and Rescue Teams, Disaster Medical
Assistance Teams, or any other of a number of special
teams we are the ones called upon to assist with incident
stabilization, or recovery efforts.
While attending EMT school early in my career I had the
privilege of responding to Flagler County, Florida for
the 1998 wildfires as a student and observer of Florida
One Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT). This was
my introduction to major event deployments. The
team quickly set up a care station for thousands of firefighters
operating in and around the camp. In the few days that
I was with Fl-1 DMAT I watched as they treated the firefighters
working the lines. The food was bad, the climate was unbearably
hot, and we slept on government cots with no air conditioning.
I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be a part of something
like that in my career.
Several years later in my career I got my “Red Card”
for wild land fire fighting. In 2002 I got my first “wild
land” deployment with 20 other firefighters from
around Florida. We were called to work in Colorado on
the Hayman Fire. Our team spent twenty days out west and
I learned volumes about the deployment world.
In total I have deployed on Two Wild Land Fire Details,
Three Hurricane Deployments as a Logistics Co-ordinator
for a Disaster Team, one Hurricane Deployment as an Engine
Company Officer, and countless short term out of district
deployments with a wild land task force.
Although the three hurricane deployments were very
different incidents, the
Task Force a different mission, and all different from
the wild fire deployment to
Colorado, I did find several similarities. Things I learned
at each deployment made the next less stressful. In the
event that you may find yourself being deployed to a major
event there are certain things you should know before
departure, during the mission, and returning home that
will ensure a more successful experience.
Planning and preparation will have a tremendous impact
on the success of your deployment. It is difficult to
be entirely prepared and packed since the experience can
differ dramatically depending on the type of incident,
team, mission, and geographic region. However there are
certain steps you can take that are universal.
The first step towards readiness is your bag and gear.
I recommend that once you commit yourself to any team
or organization to prep your bag. Some of the items you
need will vary depending upon the variables of your deployment.
The best way to determine these items is to talk to others
who have “been there”. Call your team members
with deployment experience, and ask what items you may
need to take. If you’re newly red carded for wild
land firefighting, you can call your local division of
forestry for assistance with pre-deployment preparations.
Ask who has been on a fire deployment. The “veterans”
in your field are one of your best sources of information.
Once you know what items to pack, its time to start making
checklists. Trust me, without a checklist, you will forget
something. I have four checklists in a folder in the top
of my bag: one summer and winter checklist for DMAT, and
a summer and winter checklist for wildland deployments.
These checklists include specific items you will need
that you cannot keep in your bag at all times. It is important
to note there are weight restrictions when flying. 65lbs.
for summer, and 55lbs for winter (winter is a relative
term to geographic regions).
There are items that can be kept in your bag at all times
to minimize your workload when you are called. These items
include socks, underwear, and t-shirts. I also have a
separate shaving kit that stays in my bag that includes
a razor, toothpaste, hand soap, and shampoo. Soap and
shampoo may not be available where you are going so be
sure to take them with you. You can get small travel sizes
at Wal-Mart for around a dollar each. Pack as many
items as possible in advance so that you only need the
few remaining things on your checklist.
Make a separate checklist for tasks that you must handle
before leaving. You may need someone to pick up your paycheck
or drop off a bill. If you have a pet, list several people
that may be able to care for it or phone numbers for grooming
houses in your area. Some additional items I have include
raising or lowering my thermostat, checking all locks,
vacation food for my fish, and unplugging computers and
the cable. It may sound silly to put such things on a
list, but when you’re cutting fire lines on the
side of a mountain or treating a patient that lost their
home in a hurricane, you don’t want to be wondering
whether you locked the back door. Checklists make deployments
easier, and take a little stress from of an already difficult
A final item of importance is what I call my “trip
bag”. This is a very small bag that can be carried
with you on a flight. The items in this bag are immediate
My ‘trip bag’ includes the following: a book,
a small notebook and pens, a small headlamp or flashlight,
spare batteries, one change of clothes, several snack
bars or snack food, a disposable camera, a toothbrush,
toothpaste, and deodorant. These are items that will prove
necessary in the event that your main bag is lost or inaccessible
upon arrival. On my wild land deployment we arrived late
at night and set up our tents on a dark mountainside.
This relatively simple task would have been much easier
for me with a flashlight or headlamp.
When you find yourself on a deployment you may not know
the other members of your team. When I went out for western
fire detail, I met up with 20 other firefighters from
Florida whom I had never met. During DMAT missions, the
roster of members can differ dramatically, and although
we train together on a regular basis there are always
new members. The point is, get to know your teammates.
You will be living in close proximity to these people
for several weeks. Use your travel time with the team
to learn their names, and backgrounds. This is a great
chance for you to get an idea of what your mission may
entail. The members that have experience will be eager
to answer your questions. A first deployment will make
anyone a little nervous. This is your time to set your
mind at ease regarding your mission, before your feet
hit the ground.
Another important item regarding deployments is patience.
On my first wildland deployment I was energized, and ready
to hit the fire lines. While traveling, we were reassigned
to different fires several times. In fact we began calling
ourselves the wanderers. Finally on the third day
of travel we made it to our new destination, and set up
camp. By this point my excitement and energy was greatly
diminished. Frustration was quickly taking its place.
When I responded to Hurricane Charley our DMAT team spent
one night in a hotel staging for a mission assignment.
Again, we were ready to work, and frustrated that we were
not. We knew there were places we were needed, and did
not want to be staging. There is always a tremendous amount
of confusion following, and during disaster events. Countless
resources are brought in and staged in the best possible
locations. But, these teams cannot just be dropped in
anywhere. It is critical that they are placed in a location
to provide the greatest good for the greatest numbers.
This takes time. Overhead teams, and command members must
assess the entire situation which often changes before
their eyes. It is infinitely better to wait a day or two
for a mission that will help hundreds or thousands rather
than putting a team to work just for the sake of it. Be
prepared to “hurry up and wait”,
don’t let it frustrate you. Be patient waiting for
a mission where you can make a difference.
Once on your mission you could be working anywhere from
twelve to sixteen hours a day, often for days at a time
with very little “down time”. For this reason
it is absolutely critical you allow time for yourself
when you can. When hiking through the mountains around
Pikes Peak on the wildfires we would take lunch breaks
on burned out hillsides. My crew boss told us all to rest
up and gave us around an hour each day. On the first day,
I looked around and saw several of the veterans finding
shady trees, pulling their helmets over their eyes, and
grabbing a quick power nap. In my own foolishness I did
not follow their lead. After several days I was entirely
exhausted, and as a result beginning to burn out. The
naps were not because they were tired; it was to keep
them from becoming so. Equally important is to take yourself
away from the mission when allowed. If you are given a
night off from whatever the assignment, take it. Go hit
your bunk and read. If possible go for a walk. Do anything
that does not involve the work. I have been on deployments
with DMAT where we worked in shifts. I found myself hanging
out at our operations site and helping even though our
team commander had given me and others the night off.
Although dedication is good, it is very easy to burn out
when surrounded by disaster. Take time to step back, and
let your mind relax.
In most cases of being called for a deployment you will
know how long you are expected to be gone. DMATs are assigned
missions for fourteen days. Wildland firefighting deployments
are twenty-one days. These are the maximum lengths of
time without being asked to extend. Always plan to be
gone the full length of time. Often several days into
a mission teams may be advised that they will be going
home early. I have seen members become excited about that
prospect, and immediately start making plans back home.
Then, as the incident changes or new needs arise the team
is re-assigned to a new mission, and the early departure
cancelled. When you are on a mission do not allow yourself
to start making plans back home for an early return until
you are on the way home. It is easy to become very
excited about going home early, only to be disappointed
when re-assigned or extended. This kind of disappointment
has a big impact on team morale. Always expect to
be there the full length of time.
Finally, while on a mission I highly recommend keeping
a journal with you. Use this to write down contact information
of team members and other people you meet. Deployments
are a tremendous opportunity to make contacts with people
you would have otherwise not met. You will want to keep
in touch with these folks to trade pictures, etc. A notebook
is also a great way to log your experience. Write down
things you do and lessons you learn. This notebook will
be a great asset when you return home.
As your mission is brought to a close and you begin the
demobilization process you may or may not be ready to
go home. You may feel that there is still work left for
you and your team. It is however entirely out of your
control. Be proud of the work you and your team have done,
and look forward to getting back to “your life”.
There will however be an adjustment phase upon your return.
For weeks after returning from Colorado I was waking up
at four in the morning, and could not fall asleep until
late at night. I was restless and found myself looking
for things to keep as busy as possible during the day.
When returning from Hurricane Charley I caught myself
driving down the road and “filling in the blanks”
so to speak. I had become so accustomed to seeing the
devastation that I would look at neighborhoods and shopping
centers and imagine what they would like after a hurricane
hit (unfortunately shortly after return I did not find
myself doing this since we were hit from Ivan). It was
strange to see people mowing their lawns and washing their
cars, oblivious to what was occurring elsewhere in Florida.
Other members told me stories about looking for bottled
water around their houses to brush their teeth for days
following their return home.
While on a deployment you are surrounded by devastation
and quickly become accustomed to it. As emergency workers
we are very capable of these adjustments. However we are
not as good at taking ourselves out of the situation when
it’s over. When you return, take a day or two off.
Give your mind a chance to step out of the “disaster
mode” you have to put yourself into. Take time to
rest, and do everything you can to get back to normal.
Go to a movie, take your kids to the mall, or go out on
a date. Step back, and let yourself “come
out of it”.
After a few days of relaxing and getting back on track,
take a little while to re-supply your travel bags. Re-pack
the items that you can. Throw away shampoo, soap, and
toothpaste that you used. At a dollar or so each, these
items are easily replaceable, and having new un-opened
supplies in your bag helps maintain your ready status.
Also, take a few minutes to review your journal. Go over
the lessons that you learned. Inevitably there will be
something you would have liked to have had with you on
the deployment, but did not. This notebook will
help you remember that, and allow you to make adjustments
to your pre-deployment checklists so that your next deployment
will be much easier.
My first deployment to Colorado was a wonderful learning
experience. However it was tremendously stressful. I did
not know what I needed for preparation, or what the work
would be like. I spent most of my travel time worrying
about the items I packed. I felt a bit like an outsider
because I did not get to know my teammates right off the
bat. While working I became tired and started hoping to
go home early. The lessons that I learned in Colorado
and on following deployments have had a tremendous impact.
My latest deployment was a smooth and successful deployment.
I was ready. I used my travel time to relax and get ready
for the mission. While working I was able to focus clearly
on the tasks without stress or becoming tired.
Deploying to major events is exciting. It teaches lessons
that you won’t learn turning wheels on an engine,
or truck company. These lessons and experiences make you
a stronger, more experienced, and all around better professional
in your field. These events can be stressful, but with
a little help and preparation you can experience a successful
deployment. Take the time to prep your gear, and learn
your mission. Get to know your team. Work hard, but take
time for yourself. Finally, utilize a day or two for yourself
upon return. These few simple things will make a tremendous
difference in the overall success of your deployment.
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