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After working as a sub-department of the Rangers organization for several years and as a quasi-independent department in 2002, the Emergency Services Department (ESD) was fully realized as a Burning Man department in its own right in 2003. In 2002, the ESD staff adopted distinctive, bright-yellow uniform shirts with EMERGENCY SERVICES written boldly across their backs, so they stand out on the playa as beacons of safety.

The ESD coordinates all emergency resources on the playa 24 hours a day, including requests to outside agencies via the state-of-the-art ESD 911 dispatch center and responses in the field to reports of fire, medical, or psychiatric emergencies. The ESD's highly trained professionals volunteer long hours to ensure the safety and well-being of Black Rock City. The ESD also provides the primary interface between outside agencies and the Burning Man organization, both on the playa and year-round. The ESD has four branches: Fire, Medical, Communications, and Crisis. These branches employ the integrated fire-service model for command, control, and structure. Nationally recognized standard operating procedures, such as the Incident Command System (ICS), provide a basis for smooth integration with outside and allied agencies to maximize safety and security for participants, volunteers, and Emergency Services personnel. ICS also gives new ESD volunteers a familiar framework and increases our overall operational efficiency. Two of the planned ICS improvements for 2004 are implementation of ICS-defined Logistics and Planning Chiefs. For more information on anything related to Emergency Services, email 911(at)burningman(dot)com.


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The Emergency Medical Services (EMS) branch works closely with the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority (REMSA) and the Fire branch to provide a municipal-style EMS system, much like the systems that serve most other cities in the United States. The Medical branch staffs two 24-hour stations at the 9 and 3 o'clock plazas (called Station 9 and Station 3, respectively) to provide rapid first-response medical care anywhere within Black Rock City. Each station works within the unified ESD concept with an EMS-dedicated quick-response vehicle based there, as well as an ESD fire engine and an ESD mini-fire engine operated by the Fire branch. Unfortunately, the mini-engine designated for Station 9 was out of service mechanically for most of the event. These engines also function in an EMS role, both as first responders, and to provide additional support on hazardous material, technical, and rescue incidents. We faced an additional challenge because the medical staff had to rely on golf carts as transport. We had hoped to eliminate this recognized problem from previous years, but a last-minute failure in vendor service left no other alternative. The golf carts frequently broke down or failed to function as needed, so a vehicle purchase is being considered as a permanent solution.

REMSA provides ambulance service within Black Rock City, staffs the Center Camp clinic, and handles all ground and air transportation to local hospitals. REMSA and the Medical branch are fully integrated operationally during the event.

Emergency Services logged 2,011 patient contacts during the event (107 on the lightest day, and 363 on the heaviest). Most of these (968 cases) were "boo-boos" and minor injuries. Common medical situations included eye problems (204 cases total), patient follow-up (253 cases total), and heat-related injuries (239 cases total). Fifty patients were transported off-site, 28 by ground ambulance and the rest by air. An area of special concern this year was the 19 patients whose chief complaints were related to vehicle accidents, a huge increase from previous years. For the first time ever, the Burning Man community experienced a fatal accident in Black Rock City. This loss was a sad and unfortunate event for all in the extended Burning Man community, but we feel enormous pride in the quick, compassionate, and efficient response of the entire Emergency Services Department

New for this year was the establishment of an EMS theme camp at Station 9. Approximately 30 ESD volunteers lived and ate together here, frequently joining with the ESD volunteers living at the Station 3 Fire camp for meals and socializing. The sense of community that developed was a real plus for the ESD volunteers, and we plan to grow the concept for 2004.

Additional planned improvements for 2004 include better medical supplies and logistics and adding EMS bike teams to the duty mix. To meet the demand for increased professionalism and performance of the ESD, we intend to limit volunteer involvement to medical providers with established emergency experience.

We are also working on having a single resource to be available to appropriately collect and distribute information about participants who are transported to Reno for injuries. There were instances in 2003 when friends of a patient did not have appropriate information to their location which was frustrating. We are in communication with the Rangers, Playa Info and LEAL to find a solution that won't compromise patient confidentiality.

The Communications branch is composed of two sub-departments that provide major services: an emergency services dispatch center and the communications infrastructure for the entire Burning Man organization.

The dispatch center functions as a fully staffed, 24-hour, 911 public-safety answering point. It coordinates all emergency responses within Black Rock City for the ESD and allied agencies, such as REMSA. The dispatch center is modeled as a Unified Command Post providing a direct interface to all outside agencies, such as BLM and law enforcement. The continual flow of information between BLM, law enforcement, and the ESD dispatch center allowed all of the event's public safety agencies to provide improved service and safety to participants. All Burning Man departments depend on reliable two-way communications to make the event happen.

The ESD communications infrastructure provides the means for this function. Utilizing a network of two-way radio repeaters both on-site and remotely, the Communications branch ensures that the system has fail-safe and redundant technologies in order to cope with the harsh conditions of the Black Rock Desert. This critical precaution supports all Project functions, because any department that loses its ability to communicate loses its ability to do its job. A hardy team of about 10 engineers and technicians work year-round to ensure the integrity of the system. These engineers volunteer hundreds of hours of work before the event, and hundreds more on-site every year to make sure the communications system functions as designed.

The major technical challenge in 2003 was the implementation of new, advanced-technology radio equipment. A phased approach was chosen to implement this technology, so that fallback redundancy was provided along with a means to ease the transition for the hundreds of affected end users. Consequently, the system running on the playa incorporated a mix of our old and new technologies, an arrangement consistent with the lessons learned by other agencies and professionals following several large-scale incidents, especially the 9/11 disaster in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, when many advanced communications tools were rendered useless by either overload or infrastructure collapse. The implementation of new technology is not without its challenges, and the system is expected to be improved for 2004 to eliminate some of the problems experienced by some end users, some of which are outlined below.

We faced both expected and unexpected challenges with this new technology. We anticipated a fairly long user learning curve, but by Friday before the burn, those monitoring the channels determined that just about everyone was doing well with the new tools. The system performed as designed, with few periods where capacity was exceeded. We unexpectedly encountered differences in performance between radios with different firmware versions. A sampling of radio models and makes were used during live testing; all functioned well, and the system performed as expected until we began issuing radios on the playa. Apparently, however, a certain group of radios from the rental vendor were not aligned as well as our test radios or the radios that Burning Man already owned. This difference resulted in a small group of radios not functioning as well as others. This defect was noted and mitigated where necessary with spare radios, and the vendor was notified of this quality control issue, which will be addressed for 2004. Additionally, the Communications technical group has asked industry leading experts to lend some assistance and go through our quality assurance procedures with us in early 2004 to make sure that we further improve the system.

As in previous years, the technical staff were asked several times to assist BLM and Pershing County authorities with radio technical issues, power provisioning, and related technical matters. Our cooperation demonstrated the Burning Man staff's willingness and ability to cooperate with our public safety partners and further solidified our relationships within the local community. The effort was greatly appreciated.

Communications lessons learned during the two airplane crash incidents and from these incidents, a debrief led the technical staff to re-evaluate how radio traffic will be handled. With input from the ESD Fire officers, and from the ESD dispatchers who were on duty at the times of the tragic incidents, we have made some changes in procedures and in channel utilization that will improve interoperability in 2004. One of the changes will be the addition of aviation band radios in the ESD dispatch center to better communicate needed information both to private aircraft and to air rescue resources.

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For 2004, technical team members have been researching improvements to our existing system. We plan to upgrade lightning protection and additional grounding for the radio tower, buildings, and power system to prevent personnel injury or equipment failure in the event of a direct lightning strike. Although a direct strike would be extremely unlikely, the tallest structure in the area besides the Man is usually the radio tower. Additional plans call for review and changes to channel allocation to better facilitate interdepartmental communication, especially with the Rangers, and to minimize non-emergency traffic to the ESD 911 dispatch center.

For year round communications, the Communications technical team has a series or radio towers that allows the DPW and year round operations an accessible communications resource. Since cell phones don't work in the area, they are essential both to enable work to happen in an effective manner and for safety of the staff in the event of incidents such as vehicle break downs or injury. Last year the system suffered a loss of one of the systems due to failure of the equipment, and since the FCC has changed its guidelines for systems such as these, we were forced to put a lower power system in replacement. Unfortunately, this made the system less functional and at times useless to the needs of the year round crew. Some technical improvements were made, though there was not enough time to correct the problem entirely. For 2004 we plan to fix this problem by installing a tower at a high altitude location that will mitigate the lower power requirement problem by taking advantage of the range benefits that will result from having a tower at a higher elevation.

The Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) consists of ten highly trained and dedicated psychiatric professionals. Eight were on active duty this year, including the team coordinator. One member was not on the playa this year, and the remaining member provides backup and management support for the team. The CIT responds to psychiatric cases, performs crisis intervention for crime victims, and provides victim advocacy to local agencies, such as law enforcement and local hospitals. The CIT also performs Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) responses to any significant event, much like a municipality would respond to a school shooting or other tragic event.

This year, the CIT responded to twice the number of cases as in the previous year, over two dozen. It is important to note that most CIT calls take at least several hours to resolve, and just a few calls in a 24-hour on-call shift is considered a very busy case load. Full-team CISM activations and interventions related to sexual assaults are especially time-consuming -- they tend to last at least 4 hours. The major incidents fell into the following categories: five psychiatric clients, five domestic-violence related client situations, two sexual-assault related client situations, and about a dozen other calls for service or follow-up. In addition, three separate Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team activations occurred within 48 hours (the two plane crashes and the fatal art-car accident). This level of activity tested the team's ability to handle large and complex responses under extreme conditions. The CIT had never before had to test its full CISM skill, and the idea that three crises would occur within 48 hours was never considered in planning. The CIT managed, and though beaten and bruised through lack of sleep and the emotional intensity of the incidents, members came out the other end like battle-toughened professionals.

In light of these experiences, a number of changes are being implemented for 2004. The most important will be the creation of a dedicated and separate CISM team, planned to consist of ten members, and a CISM team coordinator. Additionally, the CIT will change its name to the Mental Health Branch (MHB) and is seeking to add three more members to its ranks. For more information on joining either the CISM team or the Mental Health Branch, email 911(at)burningman(dot)com..

The ESD Fire branch keeps Black Rock City safe from fires that could endanger life and property. Equally importantly, the Fire branch is one of the key elements in making art burns safe and enjoyable experiences. The Fire branch interfaces and cooperates with the Art department, the Performance Safety Team (PST), the pyrotechnic team, our supporting fire vendors, and the Rangers. The Fire branch plays the key role of providing safety planning and Rapid Intervention teams (RITs) during planned burns. The Fire branch has steadily increased the number of volunteers who work to provide protection to Black Rock City and its residents.

The Fire branch and fire vendors -- Julie's Water Tenders and Lightning Suppressors -- provided fire engines and firefighters to the three 24-hour stations in Black Rock City. Despite the central role that fire plays in the event, fire-related emergencies requiring ESD responses remain infrequent events. The Fire branch response incidents include two technical and rescue incidents, both of them plane crashes. Actual fire responses, other than small nuisance fires or precautionary extinguishment of small, unattended fires, consisted of one car fire and two art pieces that were extinguished in high-wind conditions.

This year, we put a second engine into service, bringing the total count of fire apparatus on duty 24 hours a day in Black Rock City to seven. Four engines are managed and staffed by ESD, and the last three are managed and staffed by our fire vendors. We also established a hazardous materials cleanup resource unit to allow us to handle fuel spills and similar problems.

Given the additional apparatus to staff, the Fire branch experienced a staffing shortage that strained all the firefighter volunteers and officers, as they struggled to maintain 100 percent staffing. While this goal was achieved, it exacted a high cost in stress and limited time for our dedicated volunteers to enjoy the event. Staffing will be a significant priority for 2004. Everything possible will be done to ensure that this sort of staffing problem will remain in the past.

In 2003 for the first time, we formally incorporated the Fire theme camp into the ESD infrastructure and made it a part of Station 3. Fire camp, as it is called, has matured into a fully functional entity at Burning Man, supporting about 60 ESD volunteers with showers, communal kitchen, social area, and our own bar!

New for 2004 will be the staffing of the mini-engines as dedicated, dual-purpose fire and medical response units, providing front-line service for any type of emergency within Black Rock City. This will be accomplished by staffing each unit with one firefighter and one medic, easing the staffing requirements for the Fire branch and taking advantage of the higher number of available medical staff. Also during 2004, we will staff a fire engine one week before the event to provide fire and EMS protection during the construction of the city.

We want participants to know that we "get it..." We are committed to the community that we serve, to the need for us to interact with the city and citizens, to giving our time and effort to maintain a structure that allows the event to move forward and grow, to keeping things safe but not necessarily sane, to presenting a positive presence in the city that we love, to working hard for long hours while having the best time of our lives, to building a theme camp that is open and friendly, to making the world a better place at Burning Man and at home. We participate in the best way we know how to give of ourselves as our gift to you, Black Rock City, and the world.

Written, Edited, and Submitted by:
Joseph Pred,
Emergency Services Operations Chief

Kate Gonnella, Medical Branch, Clinical Chief
Charles Armstrong, Communications Branch, Technical and Logistics Chief
David Barr, Fire Branch Deputy Chief, Planning
Ben Thompson, Fire Branch Deputy Chief, Operations

Additional Editing:
Anna Duffy, Crisis Intervention Team Coordinator
Greg Stramback, Communications Branch, Administrative Chief
Tracy McDowell, Medical Branch, Administrative Chief
Seth Shrenzel, Medical Branch, Logistics and Training Chief End of page

Click here to read the 2002 Emergency Services report.