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Command and signal: Guardsmen, first responders continue integrated war against High Park fire 
By Air National Guard Master Sgt. Cheresa D. Theiral, Colorado National Guard Public Affairs 
Command and signal 

Lynn Barclay (right), public information officer for Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Management Team, escorts U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar (center) to a press conference during his visit to the incident command post for High Park firefighting operations at the Colorado National Guard's readiness center inFort Collins, Colo., June 14, 2012. (Official Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jessica Barnett)(RELEASED)

Click here or on the photo for a high-resolution image. For more imagery of National Guard forces fighting the High Park fire, visit us on Flickr and YouTube. 

Part 5 in a 5-part series
Current as of 5 p.m. June 25, 2012

Incident Management Team

When a domestic emergency grows too large for local resources to handle independently, and the state's governor declares a disaster emergency, an incident management team assumes operational control.

In the case of the ongoing High Park fire, which started June 9 in northern Colorado, Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Management Team assumed operations in support of the Larimer County Sheriff's Office.

The National Incident Management System mandates this type of systematic and proactive approach to guide departments and agencies at the various levels within the government, and their nongovernmental organizations and private sector partners, in order to work seamlessly reduce the potential for loss of life and property.

As such, an IMT consists of trained professionals who are experienced and certified in their specialties.

An IMT is also able to tap into federal, state and local land and emergency management agencies. Through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, the IMT can also tap resources available in other states but that aren't readily available in the local area.   

On June 9, when the High Park fire exceeded manageable levels, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper put in effect the State Emergency Operations Plan, which further mandates actions by state departments and agencies to provide support required and requested by the Colorado Division of Emergency Management or the Colorado State Forest Service, including the appropriate staff and equipment to provide the necessary support.

And that's when the Colorado National Guard began to mobilize.

On June 10, Soldiers made one of their facilities, the Fort Collins Readiness Center, available for use as the incident command post. That same day, Guard aviators also began water bucket operations from UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

In short order, a communications team arrived to provide an interoperability communications platform and National Guard helicopters from three other states arrived and immediately continued dropping water, approximately 500 gallons at a time.

Within 72 hours, a security element was mobilized to help the Larimer County Sheriff's Office contain evacuated areas and prevent unauthorized access to neighborhoods. Following that, Colorado National Guard firefighters arrived with their tactical firefighting trucks and tenders.

And as of June 25, Wyoming Air National Guard C-130s equipped with the U.S. Forest Service's Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System and their crews arrived to support wildland firefighting efforts in the Rocky Mountain region.

But none of these Guardsmen, or their respective equipment, arrives at an incident site without direction.

Colorado Joint Operations Center

"The capabilities we provide are needs-based in support of the incident management team," said Master Sgt. Michael Simco, operations noncommissioned officer in charge of the Colorado National Guard's Joint Operations Center in Centennial, Colo.

The most visible member of the Colorado National Guard's Joint Task Force is the JTF commander, who also ensures liaison officers are readily available to the incident management team.

Liaison officers -- or LNOs for short -- have both the knowledge of, and the access to, Colorado National Guard resources; provide visibility between the Joint Operations Center and incident commander; work with the JOC to attain assets from other states; and in general, provide nearly a one-stop shop for the incident commander's needs.

LNOs also provide situational awareness to the Colorado National Guard's JTF commander, because they're embedded with the IMT, which is currently based at the CONG's Fort Collins Readiness Center.

"We have LNOs at all the right places --the incident site, the Colorado Division of Emergency Management, and within units themselves," said Lt. Col. Mitch Utterback, Colorado National Guard liaison officer to the incident management team. "One plan for the Colorado National Guard to consider is how to sustain this support, because the incident commander's bottom line is persistence."

Interoperable communications

Yet verbal communication is just one key to a successful mission.

Another is Colorado's own National Guard Communications Element, which is providing internet access for a large portion of the fire camp, located at the Fort Collins Readiness Center and surrounding area.

The Joint Incident Site Communications Capability, or JISCC, as it's more commonly known, is operated by Colorado Air National Guardsmen of the 140th Communications Flight.

The unit is providing incident reach-back communications capability to the incident management team and its subordinate organizations via existing satellite networks. Though the unit is only providing a fraction of its available capabilities, the information exchange is vital to the firefight.

"The organizations and functions within the IMT are using our network to view and update fire maps, order supplies, track funding, coordinate support with outside agencies, and communicate with the public, among other tasks," said Chief Master Sgt. Mark Waibel, noncommissioned officer in charge of the NGCE and unit member since its inception nearly a decade ago.

Waibel oversees a half dozen communications experts working shifts to ensure the network is operational and working at the highest rate possible, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"The circuits have to be available constantly because the rapid flow of information is vital to the success of this firefight," Waibel said.    

All stories in this series:

Part 1: Orders received                

Part 2: Outflanking the flames

Part 3: Conducting terrain flight operations

Part 4: Securing the perimeter

Part 5: Command and signal