Island chief to battle wildfires

Tottenville resident George Belnavis will participate in federal training program

Saturday, August 02, 2003


Battling forest fires is not usually mentioned in the job description for New York City firefighters, but a handful of FDNY officials are prepared to do just that this week -- and it could save lives here in New York City.

Battalion Chief George Belnavis, a Tottenville resident who heads Battalion 1 in Manhattan, and four other battalion chiefs are off to Montana, where several wildfires have been burning out of control in the northwest corner of the state for more than two weeks.

The five chiefs will be taking part in a federal program to train the city's emergency services and bolster Homeland Security efforts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service is working with the FDNY to develop "Incident Management Teams," which will be a part of the city's first-responder program for terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

"We're not training to put out forest fires but to think in the long term and prepare for extended operations," said Belnavis, a 25-year department veteran. "The logistics here are a little different."

The IMT model is designed to provide a command structure for large-scale incidents and disasters like the blazes now ripping through thousands of acres in Montana. FDNY officials are hoping the establishment of specialized teams will enhance their ability to respond to large-scale crises, like the attacks on the World Trade Center.

In February and early March of this year, 70 members of the Fire Department participated in a two-week training session with U.S. Forest Service experts. The course focused on the organizational functions of operations, planning, logistics and resource management of complex incidents of extended duration.

"The objective is to send these folks out there to shadow a team for a week, to watch a team in progress and study the dynamics of the team," Bob Hartlove, the Forest Service's northeast training coordinator, said of this second phase of training. "They [FDNY] are already career folks, this is just another style of business."

In the days after Sept. 11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent several IMTs from the Forest Service to New York City and Washington D.C. to work with local emergency officials.

"They helped us train our officers in that capacity during 9/11 and assisted in managing the World Trade Center site," said Belnavis, who added he was impressed with how the teams operated under the extreme conditions.

The work the FDNY performed at the World Trade Center provides insight into at least one aspect of the planning department officials can expect to experience at the Montana commander center. The nine-month operation called into effect many of the long-term strategies IMTs used to battle forest fires.

Belnavis expects to be shadowing several different IMTs at the strategic command post throughout next week, closely working on planning and logistic methods for containing and ultimately extinguishing the fire.

"This is something that we need to do," said Belnavis of the program.

The FDNY will send all 70 members of the department who participated in the first phase of IMT training to work with the Forest Service over the next several months and expects to have a 70-person Incident Management Team ready for mobilization by early April.

For most department members who participated in the two-week in-class training sessions, the five-day trip west will be their first experience with forest fires, according to Belnavis.

"It is the logistics of the forest fire that is different from what we usually do," he said. "For example, a two-alarm blaze in the city might take 12 hours to extinguish but a forest fire could burn for months."

The focus of much of the on-site training will involve coordinating equipment, emergency vehicles, oxygen and food. Rotating the crews in and out of the fire will also be a major logistical concern.

As of today, Forest Service officials hadn't decided on which Montana fire Belnavis and the other chiefs would be heading to, but said they expected a decision by tomorrow at the latest.

"We're just waiting on their word," said Belnavis.