New Plan Adopted in San Jose, Calif., For Better Attack on Wildland Fires

New Plan Adopted in San Jose, Calif., For Better Attack on Wildland Fires


Rear of Patrol Tanker 2 showing separate engine and pump, booster tank and reel.

San Jose F.D. photo.

Smaller vehicles are backed up by big water-carriers like Tanker 2, carrying 2500 gallons with booster line on each side

—photo by Mark Hoeller.

Faced with the need for a better way to handle wildland fires, the fire department of San Jose, Calif., adopted a new response procedure in May of 1980, designed to overcome several disadvantages of its earlier approach. Since then the new “Tier System” has been proven in a dozen major blazes.

San Jose’s population of 620,000 has been one of the nation’s fastest-growing. But the city’s increase in land area was equally rapid. Originally a small flatland community in the Santa Clara Valley, San Jose now occupies 141 square miles extending out into foothills of the Coast Range Mountains, mostly to the east and south. More than 44,000 acres of undeveloped wildland lie within the fire department’s jurisdiction, including 17 square miles of territory outside the city limits but protected under contract.

Homes in the hills

Although most of that land is less rugged than the environs of Los Angeles, with brush growth less dense, the normal lack of rain between June and December leaves the hills covered with dry weeds and grass often several feet high. And as desirable residential building sites dwindle on the valley floor, more and more homes are spreading into those hills.

In such areas, the fire department originally dispatched its normal single or multiple alarm assignments to “grass or brush fires.” Conventional engine and ladder companies were used up to the fifth alarm level. This was unsatisfactory for several reasons:

  1. The vehicles lacked off-road capability, tending to be slower and less maneuverable on some access roads or fire lanes in the hills. Large portions of the territory were already five minutes or more distant in response time from the nearest fire stations.
  2. Pumpers and aerial trucks risked costly damage, plus undue wear and tear, in rural operations.
  3. Some high-value districts in the city were left thinly protected by commitment of apparatus to a wildland fire.

Proposition 13 again

At the same time, lacking the large volume of expensive residential development in hill areas (and the greater overall tax base) that is found in other parts of the state, San Jose could not justify the specialized wildland fire fighting forces that operate in Southern California. Reduced governmental expenditures were being mandated by California citizens through Proposition 13.

During the 1979-80 fiscal year, the San Jose Fire Department handled 1137 grass fires (vs. 1440 structural fires). Some were trivial. Others involved hundreds of acres.

Said Fire Engineer James Kelly, “Standard fire department training has always included wildland fire fighting techniques, but we could see a compelling need for more efficient command and dispatch procedures to best use our available resources.”

Those new procedures include the strategic location of pickup-sized fourwheel-drive vehicles—for quick response on or off the road—backed up by larger tankers plus the pumpers themselves (all equipped with 300 to 1000gallon booster tanks. Other local resources of several kinds, plus help from the California Division of Forestry, add to the fire fighting force as needed. No ladder companies are normally involved.

San Jose Tier System for Wildland Fires

Note 1: a. Search and rescue (SAR) team (volunteer).

  1. Traffic control by sheriff, city police, highway patrol.
  2. News media alert.
  3. Battalion chief to communications center for backup.
  4. Calif. Div. of Forestry (CDF) advised of commitment of most SJFD wildland fire apparatus; no mutual aid by the city to the CDF will be possible until the emergency is abated.

Note 2:

  1. Fire chief and assistant chief.
  2. CDF to respond (usually a command officer with two engines, bulldozer and helicopter).

The small rigs are called “patrol tankers, or PTs.” Each one-ton PT carries back pumps and hand tools plus a 150-gallon tank with separate pump, allowing simultaneous vehicular movement and water flow. Six of these in first-line service are backed up by another six in reserve.

Part of engine company

Each PT is part of a conventional engine company quartered in San Jose’s south and east sides closest to the wildland danger areas. They can move fast in rugged terrain to surround or cut off a spreading fire.

Also in such stations are the department’s three large tankers (plus one in reserve) with water capacities from 1250 to 2500 gallons. Each is equipped with a small pump (typically 100 gpm) for 1 ½-inch or booster lines.

Normal company strength is four men for a unit consisting of a pumper plus either a PT or tanker. Station 2, which houses all three types of rig, has five men per shift. In any event, no vehicle rolls by itself with only one man. Station 2, for example, splits up this way if the entire crew responds: two men on the PT, two on the pumper and one on the tanker. But if the tanker was sent by itself, two men would take it.

Instead of sending assignments like a “first alarm,” “second alarm,” and so on, San Jose’s practice on grass or brush fires is to alert the nearest station to the area. Based on his knowledge of the location where the fire is reported, the company officer in that station selects one of two alternatives. He may send the PT (or tanker in the case of Station 18 or 22) from his company, where the company includes such a vehicle, or he may request what is termed a “Tier I” response. The chart shows what that response would include.

Calling for help

If the single unit is sent, and finds it needs help, it can either request the remainder of its parent engine company or call for a full Tier I, II or III response. If Tier I is called for, the dispatcher will consider any units already on the scene as part of the total response, adding others to fill out the level shown on the chart. Moveups will be ordered as needed to balance pumper coverage for the city’s built-up areas.

Whatever the response level, the officer in charge may special-call, the following:

  1. A California Highway Patrol helicopter for area surveillance.
  2. Return of off-duty personnel.
  3. Activation of reserve PTs or tanker.
San Jose's fire stations involved in the Tier System—10 out of a total of 28 in the city—are shown here. The shaded areas indicate rural or semi-rural surroundings, the hilliest country being along the east and southeast boundaries.
  1. The fire department’s wildland pickup vehicle with additional hand tools.
  2. Inmates from a local California Youth Authority detention camp for help in overhauling.

SAR assistance

The search and rescue (SAR) unit is a unique group of local volunteers, with their own downtown building housing several four-wheel-drive emergency vehicles, one of which has both radio and phone links for use as a fire fighting command post. They operate under the auspices of the State Office of Emergency Services. Accustomed to working in the hills (bringing out injured rock climbers, for example), the SAR group is alerted on any Tier II response, usually supporting the fire department at the scene with three or four vehicles plus a dozen or more volunteers.

Stations 12, 22, 27 and 28 have been most often “first due” in major wildland alarms since the tier system was established. During 1980, there were eight Tier III incidents, all between mid-June and Thanksgiving.

“The basic tenet of this system,” added Kelly, “is an orderly progression of logistical dispatch, avoiding the piecemeal approach. With it, the San Jose Fire Department has complied with the letter and spirit of Proposition 13 by improving the effectiveness of the department at no additional cost to the citizens.”

Nature of foothill grass fire terrain around San Jose is shown in this view of Tanker 2 at a fire.

San Jose F.D. photo.

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