Getting to Know Our Fire Communication Coordinators

Brian Lawatch NO Comments

As part of my effort to learn about all the different agencies at NIFC, I went around the offices, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), interviewing their communications coordinators. My basic question was "how does your communication program coordinate to both the public and to the other agencies concerning your fire program?" The answers were informative, and as you will see, helped me to place fire communication, into the greater context of interagency cooperation.

I first spoke with Don Smurthwaite with the Bureau of Land Management. He informed me that the BLM is the host agency at NIFC. While the BLM has the largest presence here, Don insists that all the agencies back each other, and the BLM helps out a lot because they are the larger agency. Between the public affairs staffs from all agencies at NIFC, Don and others actually rotate as the lead public affairs officer for NIFC. Basically, they take turns answering questions from the public about any number of issues. They also deal with reporters and politicians. Part of the reason the agencies take turns as the public affairs officer for NIFC is because the public does not differentiate between the different agencies when it comes to fire. Fire doesn't differentiate either. The goal, Don told me, was to reflect "our ideals," to the public and to work for the common good.

After learning about the massive effort by the BLM and its fire communications program, I went over to Robyn Broyles' office, the communications specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Fire, and fire communications is vastly different in the BIA Robin told me. First of all, the BIA is not simply a land management agency; it administers federal relations with sovereign Native American tribes, in several fields such as justice, health and many other things. Its goal is to promote Indian self-determination, to help them run their nations as independently as possible--within certain parameters. Wildland fire is therefore a very small part of the BIA.

Robyn and one person in Washington DC make up the BIA's staff for fire communications. Their firefighting role is to provide guidance and assistance, not to take the lead role and tell the tribes what to do. The BIA does not even hire permanent firefighters. They are usually Native Americans at the local level who fight fire seasonally--very different than the other agencies in how they manage the role of firefighting. Robyn's role therefore, is an effort to create awareness of fire issues within the tribes, and to help them be able to manage their own land in a way that promotes responsible fire management.

I last interviewed Karen Gleason, the fire communications coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This bureau is very large and is the only land management organization that has a presence in all 50 states and all US territories. For such a large bureau, its fire program is relatively small. Karen was the first fire communications coordinator for the FWS when they hired her in 2003. Since then, she has been trying to create awareness within the FWS, between the agencies, and to the public about fire issues within the FWS-managed lands. The agency's philosophy on fire helps determine its focus on the issue: fire is seen as just part of the natural process and is therefore not as high of a priority within the organization as other issues. Any efforts at managing fire are focused on prescribed burns, not suppression. It is simply part of an essential cycle of wildlife renewal.

Interviewing these folks has provided me an insight into the communications process at NIFC. It is a massive effort to work together and create awareness. While these organizations want to "back each other" as Don said, I can tell that there is also a need to speak for each individual's primary organization as an integral, indispensable agency in its own right. I can see that it is a balancing act.


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