Haze, blaze and workdays: Life as a dispatcher at the Kamloops Fire Centre

For the next two weeks, KamloopsMatters will be profiling a BC Wildfire Service employee at the Kamloops Fire Centre. KFC coordinates the wildfire response across south-central B.C., from Blue River in the north to the U.S. border in the south, and from Bridge River in the west to Monashee Mountains in the east. The fire centre employs around 50 permanent staff and a large number of seasonal support staff. 

The goal of this 10-part feature is to give our readers a better understanding and a bird's-eye view of what happens at the centre, and to put a face to the people who are behind the scenes and on the frontlines.

At just 24 years old, Madison Smith already has four fire seasons under her belt.

The Thompson Rivers University student got hired as a dispatcher for the Cariboo Fire Centre in Williams Lake, in 2016. She worked there for two summers and eventually transferred to the Kamloops Fire Centre (KFC) in 2018.

"I love the team atmosphere and how rewarding it can be," says Smith. "I love the feeling of being the crew's safety line."

This fire season, Smith worked with around 11 other KFC dispatchers (fun fact: Kamloops has the most dispatchers in all of B.C.). Inside the dispatch room, each team member can be found wearing a headset and looking at four to five computer screens.

When a new wildfire starts, it pops up on the centre's dispatch map. When that happens, Smith or one of her peers advises a wildfire officer.

Madison SmithMadison Smith is a dispatcher at the Kamloops Fire Centre. (via BC Wildfire Service)

"If (the fire) is in the Kamloops zone, then we call the Kamloops zone officer and then they, from there, dispatch crews, who will talk to dispatch and they maintain communication via the radio or on a phone," says Smith.

(There are five fire zones with the Kamloops Fire Centre: Kamloops, Lillooet, Merritt, Penticton and Vernon.)

"Dispatchers are the communication link between all the firefighters and other staff who are out in the field, whether they’re doing project work or working on a wildfire," adds Smith.

Each crew or personnel has to check in with dispatch every two hours, to ensure everyone is safe and to maintain that contact at all times.

Dispatch is also responsible for doing what's known as a "flight follow" on BC Wildfire Service aircraft. That requires checking in every 30 minutes.

"They kind of give us a position check as well as opps (operations), (to let us know) everything is good out there."

Amid the organized chaos, Smith is also monitoring all radio transmissions and phone calls in her assigned fire zone. 

"You're sitting in front of a desk and talking a lot during the day," she says with a laugh, noting, "The public is how we find out about wildfires. And early detection is a great thing."

Smith was inspired to apply to BC Wildfire Service by her family. Her grandfather worked with the service, in many different positions, for a number of years leading up to his retirement. Her sister, meanwhile, got hired shortly after she was out of high school.

"That really got me interested in just seeing the role she was doing," says Smith. "So then I applied. Due to the high activity and the fast-paced environment, I thought that was something that suited me well."

The family ties go even further. Smith's mom Tracy is a dispatch supervisor at the Cariboo Fire Centre (Smith's hometown is Williams Lake).

If anyone is thinking about applying, Smith encourages it.

"We’re really approachable as a whole in BC Wildfire Service. Come down and talk to us, and see the people of BCWS and see what there is to offer for opportunities out there. It’s a big family here. It’s a very rewarding and fun job. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my four years here."

Editor's note: This is the second article in the 10-part feature. Check out part one here.

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