No fire season is normal for the U.S. Forest Service’s emergency response crew. But even by their standards, the last two years have been unprecedented. Relentless wildfires across the American West led to a 131% increase in travel for the scouts, smoke jumpers and firefighters dispatched to get blazes under control.
From May through September 2018, agents for BCD Travel, the federal agency’s travel management company, processed 15,799 travel requests. That was a 12.5% increase compared to the same period in 2017, which previously had been one of the most brutal wildfire seasons on record. Travel demand in 2017 rose 60% over 2016.
Most of the mission-critical travel requests happen during what the Forest Service classifies as a Level 5 response, meaning roughly 1,000 travelers are on the move at the same time. In 2017, BCD agents proved it’s possible to complete the booking process in 30 minutes or less, even amid extraordinary demand. In 2018, they shaved another two minutes off that time.
Their quick, competent work is crucial because the stakes are high when wildfires burn. Lives, natural areas, homes and businesses are under threat. Every second counts, and there’s no room for error.
“We are helping to move people who can save lives—the lives of humans, animals and trees. We have to get them to their destination fast; they are needed on the front lines,” said Andrea Woody Starr, a Cleveland, Ohio-based BCD agent who works on Forest Service bookings.
Agents must complete bookings with speed and accuracy, keep calm in a crisis and get the crews to fire sites on very short notice. They’re often booking travelers in and out of rural airports where planes are small and few seats are available. Creativity and unconventional thinking are essential, and agents have to pay attention to detail and ensure every booking adheres to Forest Service protocol. In 2018 alone, BCD:
- Booked more than 22,000 emergency-response flights for the Forest Service on a 24/7 schedule
- Confirmed each trip complied with more than 80 federal government requirements from the General Services Administration
- Completed every booking process within 28 minutes of being contacted by Forest Service dispatchers
Meeting the agency’s unpredictable travel demands requires dedication and flexibility. When wildfires aren’t happening, the TMC keeps a few agents and a supervisor available 24/7 to serve Forest Service travelers. That small team can ramp up to about 20 people at the first sign of a crisis. Multiple team members get alerts when demand increases, so they can snap into action immediately. BCD’s full-response team can handle more than 1,000 bookings in a 24-hour period—and often does.
After the fires are extinguished, and weary firefighters and support staff return home safely, there’s still work to do. “We continually update our processes and procedures to align with new Forest Service requirements,” said Dan Lakatos, an Operations senior manager for BCD. “And at the end of each wildfire season, we meet with the Forest Service team to plan for the next year.”
Jane Schoettle, BCD vice president of Operations, described the ongoing goal: “We’re always looking for ways to improve how we get firefighters where they need to be.”