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Durango and Montrose interagency wildfire dispatch centers could close down

Cutouts hang on the wall above Nathalie Woloszy, initial attack dispatcher, in this 2019 photo of Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center in the Durango Tech Center. The center could close under a proposed consolidation proposal. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)
Proposal recommends consolidation from six dispatch centers to three in Colorado

Under a dispatch consolidation proposal by the Rocky Mountain Coordinating Group, the Durango and Montrose Interagency Dispatch Centers could be closed down.

Colorado has six interagency dispatch centers, which coordinate wildfire response and other emergencies.

To improve efficiencies, the coordinating group released a recommendation Oct. 27 to reduce the centers from six to three, keeping locations in Grand Junction and Fort Collins, and building a new one in Colorado Springs.

Other interagency dispatch centers facing potential closure are in Pueblo and Craig.

The Rocky Mountain Coordinating group is made up of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Colorado and Kansas state agencies, and Rocky Mountain Fire Executive Council.

The proposal was presented Monday to the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners by Lisa Dawson, acting district manager for the BLM Southwest District, and Brandon Lewis, fire management officer of the BLM Southwest Fire and Aviation Management Unit.

Montezuma County officials expressed concern about moving the Durango wildfire dispatch center farther away from Southwest Colorado, and the potential impacts on services to the area.

“How is that going to affect resources for our people down here? It could be more cumbersome,” said Commissioner Jim Candelaria.

Dawson said the goal is to not reduce customer service, and to have a seamless transition. The service might improve over time because of the efficiencies, she said. The three dispatch centers would have improved technology capacity and operating systems that coordinate together better.

For example, the Montrose Center’s BLM system and the Durango Center’s Forest Service system do not necessarily always mesh well when one or the other goes down because of different infrastructure, Lewis said.

“There would be no change in resources on the ground responding to fires, and for county resources that go out. It would be a similar process we have now for national or local fires, just a different phone number,” Lewis said.

Dawson explained the “current dispatching system in Colorado was designed 40 years ago and is not built to accommodate the increased demand for dispatching services due to longer and more intense fire seasons and a changing climate.”

The final dispatch consolidation decision lies with the Rocky Mountain Area Wildfire Coordination Group and Rocky Mountain Area Fire, which identified systematic barriers to high quality and consistent dispatching services in Colorado and sought to address them by reorganizing the dispatching system, according to plan documents.

Identified barriers include understaffing, limited office space for expanded functions, limited technological capabilities and inconsistencies in operating procedures across the different centers. The consolidation study began in 2018, with various options, models and alternatives being considered.

A doll-size smoke jumper hangs from the ceiling in the control room at the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center in the Tech Center in Durango in 2019. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Officials said that under the new plan, dispatch service would stay the same or improve, and the goal is to keep the 38 dispatch positions currently spread out among the six dispatch zones.

Employees at dispatch centers facing closure would be given the option to relocate, Dawson said. The Durango center has six permanent employees, and the Montrose center has two permanent and three seasonal staff members.

Local fire officials have built strong relationships with the Durango Interagency Dispatch Center, said commissioner Kent Lindsay, and they are familiar with our area.

“I would hate for those personal relationships to disappear,” he said. “How to you intend to make this a seamless transition?”

Lewis said arranging dispatchers to visit the area and meet with local officials would help the transition and build relationships. For example, dispatchers could attend preseason wildfire meetings in Southwest Colorado to gain more familiarity with the area and people. Some well-known contacts are expected to remain, officials said.

County emergency manager Jim Spratlen also emphasized the good relationships officials have with the Durango dispatch staff members, and the potential impact of a relocation.

“I spend time over there, go to their Christmas parties, when I call for help, they know who I am,” he said. “We know the dispatchers really know our area. I’ve had a lot of phone calls on this.”

A 30-day public comment period about the consolidation recommendation will end Nov. 27. Comments can be emailed to co.interagency.dispatch@state.co.us.

Montezuma County officials plan to submit comments about the proposal.

Members of the Rocky Mountain Area Wildfire Coordination Group and Rocky Mountain Area Fire Executive Council will make a decision after the comment period. Staffing, available space and office layouts of the centers will take place once boundaries and locations have been finalized. This process could take a minimum of three years.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com