New York firefighters visit Montana fire camps

August 20, 2003, 1:34 PM EDT

LIVINGSTON, Mont. -- Two groups of New York City firefighters are in Montana this week to learn more about managing major fires from wildland firefighters.

Five officers from New York Fire Department arrived in Livingston Monday to observe fire camp operations for the team fighting the Rough Draw complex of fires. Two other teams are spending the week at fire camps near Missoula.

A group of wildland firefighters showed up in New York the day after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers to offer help. New York firefighters were impressed with their Western counterparts' planning, mapping and communications expertise.

The wildland firefighters, from the Southwest Area Incident Management Team commanded by Dan Oltrogge, helped the FDNY with everything from a communications network to a distribution point for food for the search dogs.

"They knew how to come in and order the things we needed," said Tony Lanotte, deputy chief of emergency medical services for Division 6 in the Bronx. "It really made a big difference."

The whole set up was an eye-opener, said Jim Manahan, deputy chief for Midtown Manhattan.

"We never even knew what an incident management team was," he said.

Of the nation's 16 Type 1 incident management teams, two were dispatched after 9/11. Oltrogge's team was sent to New York City. Another went to Washington, D.C.

The teams consist of experts from a variety of federal agencies who are pulled together to manage major wildfires. They are also called out to help with hurricanes and other national disasters, said Jerome MacDonald, a U.S. Forest Service employee from Albuquerque, N.M., who serves as the operations chief for the Southwest Area team.

MacDonald and 34 of his fellow team members from the Southwest were called to duty about two hours after the twin towers collapsed. They were in New Jersey the next day and spent a month helping organize rescue and recovery efforts.

Last week, the Southwest Team took over management of the Rough Draw complex, five miles southeast of Livingston. The fire has burned about 2,000 acres.

The incident command post in Livingston resembles a small military base. It includes everything from a medical clinic to a public affairs office. Team managers analyze complicated fire maps, plan the cutting of fire lines and ensure firefighters are fed and rested.

"It's absolutely tremendous," said Kevin O'Keefe, battalion chief of the "Heaven from Harlem" battalion No. 12. "Everybody seems to know the position they have to fulfill."