Back to the Jan-Feb 2021 issue

MN Firefighters Answer Oregon’s Call for Help

By Andrew Tellijohn

Firefighter battling a fireFisher Fire Chief Joshua Mailhot doubles as principal of the Fisher Elementary School, and he’s also pursuing a doctorate degree. But last fall, when the state of Oregon sought assistance fighting wildfires, he eagerly signed up.

The high school principal and the school superintendent in Fisher agreed to fill Mailhot’s role at school for a couple weeks, and his wife and six kids were “super supportive.” So, he and a colleague hopped in the city’s brush truck and went to Fergus Falls, where they and 27 other Minnesota firefighters received training. Then they embarked on the long drive out west.

“We had never talked about the possibility of something like this,” Mailhot says. “[But] people’s livelihoods were in danger, and that’s what we do. We were just answering the call.”

Minnesota firefighters approach the fire line in Oregon
Minnesota firefighters approach the fire line in Oregon. PHOTO COURTESY MN DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY

The group, which included firefighters from seven Minnesota departments, were in Oregon for two weeks last September. Oregon had requested the assistance through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), a nationwide state-to-state aid system designed to allow for efficiently sharing resources across state lines during emergencies and disasters.

Advance preparation is key

Mailhot was impressed with how organized Oregon officials were in overseeing their battle with the wildfires and how nimbly they were able to shift volunteers from other states into different roles throughout each day.

It was the first time since the late 1980s that Minnesota has sent firefighters on an EMAC-based emergency request. And, while the leaders who sent personnel to Oregon said they would do it again, they also had suggestions on how cities can prepare for the possibility of responding to an EMAC request.

Before you respond, it’s important to know your certifications, your equipment, and your limitations, says Charlie Smith, chief of the nonprofit SBM Fire Department that covers Spring Lake Park, Blaine, and Mounds View. That will help you get through a mound of paperwork that must be filed for the requestor in advance. The paperwork allows states to specify the equipment they are seeking and for those providing assistance to be reimbursed for their costs.

“These wildfires cost massive dollars,” says Smith, who sent two firefighters to Oregon. “They don’t want any surprises financially.”

The department declined to respond to another recent EMAC request made by California because it couldn’t provide what the state was seeking. Investigating that opportunity prepared the department to more readily respond to Oregon’s request, Smith says.

Eden Prairie Fire Chief Scott Gerber, whose department sent five firefighters, says the EMAC streamlines the process for states that need assistance. But it also requires significant paperwork to ensure that responding fire departments can provide the specific skillsets needed. So, cities can make the process easier for themselves by planning ahead.

For example, the fire chief should have conversations with city leaders about the possibility of responding to an EMAC request in the future. So, if the call comes, it’s not the first time those city leaders are hearing about it, and they know there’s a plan in place.

Gerber had talked with Eden Prairie City Manager Rick Getschow about the department’s interest in responding to an EMAC call. So, instead of having to discuss details of how the city would be covered while several firefighters are out of town, he could just tell his boss there were people ready to go and get his approval.

Dan Anderson, firefighter with the Spring Lake Park/Blaine/Mounds View Fire Department, speaks at a press conference after Minnesota firefighters returned from Oregon.
Dan Anderson, firefighter with the Spring Lake Park/Blaine/Mounds View Fire Department, speaks at a press conference after Minnesota firefighters returned from Oregon. PHOTO COURTESY MN DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY

“It’s pretty typical that when these types of events happen, it’s always 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon and they want you there as soon as you can get there,” Gerber says.

Once on a mission, make sure everyone understands the importance of good documentation, “so you can bill back the way you need to,” he says. On a more personal level, it’s also important for firefighters who are interested in deployment to do some advance planning. They should have conversations with family members and other employers about how they would handle the firefighter’s absence. “Those are all things you can do in advance,” says Gerber.

Covering the homefront

Gerber and others say it’s vital to ensure your community is still comfortably covered in case of a fire or other large event during the deployment.

Smith says the SBM Fire Department sent one wildland firefighting vehicle to Oregon, but it has other vehicles that can perform the same tasks. The department also has 55 volunteers in the district, supplementing 13 full-time staff. And Blaine has 12 city employees cross-trained as firefighters. So, they had plenty of people to cover for the two who were deployed.

The City of Bemidji provided nine firefighters and four vehicles for the trip out west. With preplanning, they were fine without those resources for two weeks.

“When this was brought forward, knowing the high level of trust we have in our chief and the crew he was assembling, from a city management perspective, we were proud to be able to do it,” says City Manager Nate Mathews.

The plan was tested just as they were preparing to leave on the deployment, which included Chief Dave Hoefer and his top assistant chief. The city learned the day before that President Donald Trump would make a campaign stop at Bemidji Regional Airport.

But Hoefer had met before the deployment with his leadership team, city leaders, and officials from three cities and 15 townships for which Bemidji provides fire service to discuss the trip. He was comfortable, in part, because the department has spent a decade cross-training firefighters to step into roles they don’t play every day.

“It starts way before you even consider going to another community to assist,” Hoefer says.

Hoefer also is part of a network of fire chiefs in Beltrami County and, through a mutual aid agreement, they helped with the campaign event.

The City of Motley sent two firefighters and a tanker truck to Oregon. There were two volunteers who wanted to go and that was the limit.

“If we’d had more volunteers, we would have had to pick and choose,” says Chief Brad Olson.

Broadening experiences

Despite the thinning of the staff for a brief period, Olson says he’s glad the two firefighters went because they might have picked up some pointers that will broaden their abilities.

Brainerd fire truck in Oregon mountains with smoke in the air.
The Brainerd Fire Department was one of seven Minnesota departments to send firefighters on the Oregon mission. PHOTO COURTESY MN DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY

“Both of the firefighters have said they would love to do it again,” he adds. “You get to go out and see the way everybody else does things in different territories.”

While he went to Oregon just to help out, Brainerd Deputy Fire Chief and Fire Marshal Dave Cox says he was impressed with the state’s incident command operation system and picked up some new techniques for wildland firefighting.

“We learned a lot,” says Cox, whose department deployed four firefighters. “We’re in the business of helping people so that’s what we do. It seemed like a great opportunity to do something different, learn some things, experience things.”

It also never hurts to have built up some goodwill around the country.

“Someday we may need the help,” he says. “It looks great for the city and the state to have departments go out and help other areas.”

Great response from cities

City officials from departments that deployed said the state did a good job moving the process along and communicating with cities. And State Fire Marshal Jim Smith says he was happy with the response from fire departments. After Homeland Security and Emergency Management made the initial statewide request, Smith began gathering and coordinating responses from available departments.

Despite a quick turnaround needed on paperwork, plenty of cities responded. In addition to the seven represented in the two task forces that traveled to Oregon, several more “were in the wings,” Fire Marshal Smith says, waiting to go if called.

Within a week, the deployed firefighters were in Fergus Falls for training. They not only did great work, but they enjoyed themselves. “We received no [feedback that they] weren’t prepared for this. They performed phenomenally,” he says.

“There’s been nothing but admiration for these people who donated their time,” Fire Marshal Smith says. “They left their families, their communities, their jobs for two weeks to help out people they don’t know. This was a call to action, and they stepped up to the plate.”

Considering it’d been three decades since Minnesota had responded to an EMAC call related to fires, he says the process went smoothly and has left the state better prepared to respond to future requests.

“It’s like fighting your first house fire,” he says. “You can do a great job, but there’s those little things you pick up, so you build on that knowledge. The next one goes better because you gain a little more knowledge, a little more insight.”

Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer.