(TNS) — When dry conditions blanket the South Plains, the need for fire response teams becomes greater.
The Texas Interstate Fire Mutual Aid System is one of the teams that has been working in the area as wildfires popped up and spread several times recently. What makes TIFMAS unique is the teams don't only respond to fire calls, they are capable of responding to other emergency calls too.
"We make the request for this particular resource through the Texas Department of Emergency Management," says Mary Leathers, resource specialist for Texas A&M Forest Service. "From there, they form these strike teams and send them when we have heightened conditions or need the help."
The teams that are sent out have to meet very specific qualifications, according to Andrea Ferrell, one of the engine bosses from College Station. Ferrell was on one of the teams sent to help crews in the Houston-area when Hurricane Harvey struck last August.
"Hurricane Harvey was all hazards," Ferrell said. "We would get in their fire station and respond to anything, medical calls, alarms, anything that they need. Whether it was helping with water rescues, we could be doing anything."
A requirement for the crew members to handle structural fires is each must be medically trained with jump kits and other basic needs. Their gear is also different than what people may expect. Instead of putting on heavy gear that firefighters would usually wear, the TIFMAS crews wear green Nomex pants and a yellow shirt, which Ferrell says is all they need.
"With structure fires, you would need that thermal protection," says Ferrell. "But with wild land fires, if you need more than what this flame-resistance is, it's not going to protect you because you don't need to be that close. We're fighting from a distance -- we take more of an offensive attack."
Keith Lammons, the task force coordinator for Texas A&M Forest Service, makes assignments for the TIFMAS crews and pulls them together as well. For Lammons, who has been in the fire service for more than 40 years, his biggest priority is making sure his crews are safe. Sometimes that includes having TIFMAS crews be a necessary relief for the people who have been working dangerously long hours.
"It's another tool in our toolbox that we can call at any time," says Lammons. "It gives us some relief, because we're in a bad fire season but we've had worse. But people wear out, I can only work my crew for so many days, so that gives us a back-up."
Richard Gray, the assistant chief regional fire coordinator, says that when there is elevated fire danger, the focus is always on communication.
"Our main priority with our responders and our public is information sharing," says Gray. "With our public, it's a strong prevention message so we don't have unwanted starts. With our firefighters here, it's keeping them briefed on our operations and aware of changing conditions."
To help keeps crews prepared, a predictive services department looks at the weather and conditions and monitors them.
"When we start seeing alignment that can lead to increased fire activity, we communicate that to our operations," says Luke Kanclerz, a fire analyst for the predictive services. "We tell them what we know, what we think could potentially happen, then the rest of the decisions are made from there."
According to Kanclerz, they specifically look for dry to critically dry conditions, storms, and strong winds, what they call high impact weather days. Technology plays a key role in this area because of how much it's improved over time.
"The information, the data, the technology has improved dramatically to help us make better decisions," says Kanclerz. "But even with it, it's a constant moving target. We're always trying to keep up with the day and see what the high risk is."
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