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Emergency Services

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The Emergency Services department (ESD), once a sub-department of the Rangers, transitioned over 2002 and 2003 into a separate department. To differentiate between the departments, ESD adopted a distinctive uniform of bright yellow shirts to distinguish themselves from the Rangers who wear khaki. This color was picked for a variety of reasons, most importantly like khaki it doesn’t show playa dust much. Also important to the decision was the high visibility of the color. To ensure the distinction between the two departments that are often found working side-by-side, EMERGENCY SERVICES is written boldly on the back to contrast against the Ranger logo.

The ESD coordinates all professional emergency resources on the playa 24 hours a day, including requests to outside agencies via the state-of-the-art emergency dispatch center. Our responsibilities cover all responses in the field to reports of fire, medical, or psychiatric emergencies. ESD's highly trained professionals volunteer long hours to ensure the safety and well-being of Black Rock City. ESD and LEAL (Law Enforcement Agency Liaison) together provide the primary interface between all outside health and safety agencies and the Burning Man organization, both on the playa and year-round.

ESD’s four branches -- Fire, Medical, Communications, and Mental Health -- 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. For more information on anything related to Emergency Services, email
911 (at) burningman (dot) com.

This email address has become an increasingly popular way for the general public to pass emergency messages to staff and participants. While delivery can’t be guaranteed due to rapid changes in the Black Rock City environment, it does offer a way for family and loved ones to reach participants. In previous years, this email address has not been actively monitored every day at the event, but given the increased traffic in 2004, a new process for monitoring this public interface point will be implemented in 2005.

ESD implemented a new missing person resource in 2004, creating a huge learning curve for all involved departments. The program was intended to combine the joint information from ESD, Reno’s Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority (REMSA), Rangers, and law enforcement to create a single point of information at Playa Info for parties who were missing, transported to Reno hospitals, arrested by law enforcement, or evicted by the Rangers. The lessons learned will ensure better implementation for 2005.

Medical Services

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The Emergency Medical Services (EMS) branch of ESD works closely with 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. Personnel from the Medical and Fire Branch staff two 24-hour stations at the 3 and 9 o'clock plazas (called Station 3 and Station 9, respectively) to provide rapid first-response medical care anywhere within Black Rock City. Each station houses a quick-response vehicle (QRV) dedicated to EMS work for operations within the unified ESD concept. An ESD fire engine and mini-fire engine also reside at each station. The Mini’s, as they are called, are cross-staffed by one fire fighter and one medic, so these engines can also function in a first-responder EMS role and provide additional support on hazardous material, technical, and rescue incidents. Problems from previous years with unreliable golf carts returned, but the EMS QRV (a Polaris Ranger) proved to be a reliable vehicle. For 2005, ESD plans to rent additional EMS Minis to serve in the QRV function and forever banish the golf carts from ESD service, since they have proved too failure prone to play their critical role. Plans for ESD bike teams were not implemented in 2004 due to staffing priorities that mandated filling all other shifts before sending these units into service. Some shifts did not reach 100% coverage, although all were adequately staffed, these shifts went unfilled.

REMSA provides advanced life support ambulances service within Black Rock City, staffs the Center Camp clinic, and handles all ground and air transportation to Reno hospitals. REMSA and the ESD Medical Branch are fully integrated operationally during the event.

A larger than average number of complaints arose in 2004 about REMSA’s customer service and bedside manner. In response to that feedback, ESD and REMSA set out to address this issue in 2005. Improved training for REMSA medical volunteers, commitment from REMSA’s mangers to work on the issue, feedback forms to be available on-playa, and increased community oversight will help ensure that participants who become our patients have a positive experience with the medical volunteers. Questions, comments, or concerns can be directed to 911 (at) burningman (dot) com.

EMS logged approximately 2,592 patient contacts this year, with over 213 transports within Black Rock City. That number is equivalent to one EMS response every 48 minutes during the event. Approximately 50% of the total patient volume was for minor injuries. Common medical categories included eye problems (10% of total patients), patient follow-up (8% of total patients), and heat-related injuries (12% of total patients). Of the 38 patients transported to Reno hospitals for additional care, 23 were transported by ground ambulance and 15 by air. Thanks to the huge success of the Ranger Intercept team, vehicle accidents dropped back to their normal average, with a total of six patients suffering injuries related to vehicle accidents.

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Additional planned improvements for 2005 include better medical supplies and logistics. The changes will address issues with shipping and theft, as well as improved feedback on uses of and need for supplies.

Post-event the ePlaya bulletin board turned into a valuable feedback tool, when an ESD volunteer found a discussion thread about crutches while monitoring message traffic for ESD-related threads. Contacts with several of the people who posted and some basic follow-up showed that neither ESD or REMSA provided patients with crutches, which would have been helpful to people who sustained moderate injuries to their legs. The community discussion turned up a great idea, a crutch drive. Participants will be invited to give old crutches to the medical stations, for redistribution to patients who need them. We will urge participants who borrow crutches and return them when healing allows them to get around on their own again, so the crutches continue to be available to those who may need them in the future. We will post announcements in the Jackrabbit Speaks internet newsletter over the summer of 2005 on how to participate in the crutch drive.


The ESD Communications Branch provides the Emergency Services dispatch center and establishes the on-playa communications infrastructure for the entire Burning Man organization.

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The dispatch center functions as a fully staffed, 24-hour, public safety answering point. It operates as a Unified Command Post, coordinating all emergency responses within Black Rock City for the ESD and allied agencies, such as REMSA, 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. Similarly, 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 at remote locations, 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 functions of the Burning Man Project, 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.

In 2003 new, advanced-technology radio equipment was introduced into the communications system. A phased approach was chosen to implement this technology, maintaining fallback redundancy 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 this new technology suffered some initial tuning challenges in 2003, but major problems were eliminated in 2004. A new bug was found in solving the problems from 2003: a low-audio condition required users to speak louder than in a normal conversational tone. Retuning will resolve that issue for 2005.

Otherwise, the new system has performed as designed, with few periods where traffic exceeded capacity.

In 2004, ESD tested an automatic vehicle location system based on global positioning system (GPS) technology. Nick-named by the vendor 'Blue Bugs' due to their blue ladybug-like appearance, the system provided real-time location of a vehicle regardless of weather conditions anywhere around the playa, the Black Rock Station work ranch, or Gerlach. The system displays this information via an easy-to-use aerial photographic map of the surrounding geography overlaid on a Black Rock City waypoint street map including other features such as the perimeter fence. Although the system functioned well, some logistical problems during implementation and general unfamiliarity with the system caused it to be underutilized. The vendor has made corrections in their deployment methodology, as well as some hardware changes suggested by us to accommodate our unique operational requirements, and is planning to provide this service again in 2005.

An unfortunate problem was noted before the event began with a small batch of 15 incorrectly programmed radios. These radios, in use by the Department of Public Works (DPW), appeared to be functioning normally and the fault appeared to be failure of the entire repeater system. This confusion resulted in increased inefficiency during the DPW’s most critical work time and understandably resulted in some very frustrated staff. Only with determined effort by ESD communications technicians was the malfunction revealed to be in the radios, not the entire repeater system. The error was quickly corrected. The source of this problem was found to be an outside vendor, and measures have been taken to prevent this problem in the future.

Another problem related to the DPW radio system was discovered this year. Due to the ever-increasing number of radios and volume of radio traffic, a new interference source was discovered which interacted with the increasingly active DPW dispatch channel. ESD communications technicians were able to locate the source and cause of this interference problem, and we have made changes in the radio system to alleviate this problem for the future. In addition, the interaction between the members of the DPW dispatch team and the ESD Communications technicians allowed several additional improvements and suggestions that will be implemented in 2005.

As in previous years, technical communications 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.

Lessons learned from the two airplane crashes of 2003 determined that ESD dispatch needed a resource to directly communicate with civilian planes and incoming air rescue resources. The addition of aviation band radios allowed ESD dispatch to also monitor frequencies at night to advise incoming planes that landing was safe only during daylight hours, thus freeing the airport staff from standing watch at night. No aircraft crashes or incidents occurred in 2004.

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For year-round communications for DPW and other staff use, the Communications Branch maintains a series of radio towers. Since cell phones don't work in the area, the towers 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 breakdowns or injuries. A new tower installation in 2004 extends coverage to parts of the playa and also provides significant coverage to the 447 corridor outside cell phone coverage. This tower temporarily replaces an installation in Gerlach that was taken out of service due to technical failure. The Gerlach tower is expected to be replaced by a new tower being built by a communications contractor in 2005. Additionally, a new 100-foot tower is being constructed on the Black Rock Station property to replace the 60-foot tower currently in place. The higher tower and the improved equipment will allow for better communications over the ridge where Solider Meadows road bisects the Hualapai and Black Rock playas. Additionally, ESD expects to install an additional repeater on a high peak in the area to provide better wide-area coverage. Government red tape and other hurdles are proving to be very time-consuming obstacles, and while implementation in 2005 is our hope, we do not expect to finish this work until 2006.

Finally, the implementation of a new, custom-built, alphanumeric paging and computer-aided dispatch system for use in the dispatch center was hailed as an absolute success. Integrated into this new system is the capacity for remote paging terminals. In 2004, a paging terminal was added at the Gate, which in previous years has had a higher than average need for paging service. This innovation ultimately freed up the emergency dispatchers on urgent issues and allowed the Gate and Box Office staff to page as needed. They reported this resource to be an invaluable convenience, and ESD plans on expanding this system in 2005.

Mental Health

The Mental Health Branch (MHB), formerly the ESD Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), consists of ten highly trained and dedicated psychiatric and mental health professionals. The MHB responds to needs for psychiatric services on the playa, performs crisis intervention for sexual assault and domestic violence victims, and provides victim advocacy to local agencies, such as law enforcement and local hospitals. The team responded to a high number of critical incidents in 2003, and in response, the MHB formed a separate team to perform Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM). The CISM team responds to any significant event, much like local mental health resources would respond to a school shooting or other tragic event. For 2005, the team will be renamed the Mental Health Support Team, reflecting a change in its focus from strict incident management to a broader supportive role, while still including CISM methods as an available tool.

All MHB team members carry pagers and are on call 24/7 during the event in case of a critical incident or unexpectedly high call volume. They also work 24-hour shifts paired up for initial on-call response. Team members rotate shift duty during the event. During the peak of the event, two teams are available to ensure service to participants who are in need.

The Mental Health Branch responded to 27 calls in 2004, which is in the average range for total calls for service in any given year. Most MHB calls take at least several hours to resolve, and just a few calls in a 24-hour shift constitute 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. This year, the CISM team was not deployed to any critical events.

The statistics for 2004 are as follows: nine psychiatric clients, three domestic-violence related clients, three sexual-assault related clients, and nine other calls for service or follow-up. In addition, three more sexual assaults were reported to ESD and followed up on post-event, after information was posted on the eplaya or

For more information on joining either the Mental Health Branch or the Mental Health Support Team, email 911 (at) burningman (dot) com.


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The ESD Fire Branch works to keep 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 for participants. The Fire Branch interfaces and cooperates with the Art department, the Performance Safety Team (PST), the pyrotechnics team, the event's 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 two fire-suppression vendors -- Julie's Water Tenders and Lightning Suppressors -- collectively provide fire engines and fire fighters to three 24-hour fire stations in Black Rock City. Despite the central role that fire plays in the event, fire-related emergencies requiring ESD responses remain infrequent events.

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Eight pieces of fire-fighting apparatus stand on duty 24 hours a day in Black Rock City. Four engines are managed and staffed by ESD, and the last three are managed and staffed by our fire vendors. All function seamlessly in the ESD command structure, and ESD is recognized as the leading authority on fire-suppression and tactics within Black Rock City. Additionally, a small hazardous materials cleanup unit remains available to allow us to handle fuel spills and similar problems. New for 2004 was the addition of heavy rescue tools, in case rescue is ever needed for a car, structure, or airplane.

Staffing was considerably smoother in 2004, with less burnout and stress than in 2003. This improvement was achieved by a combination of additional officer promotions, increased staffing, and better planning.

Out of the 32 ESD Fire Branch responses in 2004, two incidents were RV fires, one caused by a minor electrical problem and the second detailed below. With the exception of a minor tent fire and a HAZMAT response outlined below, all additional fire responses were small nuisance fires or precautionary extinguishment of small, unattended fires, or investigations of possible propane leaks with gas meters.

The HAZMAT response took the ESD crew to the Texaco gas station in Gerlach to provide community assistance by transferring gasoline contaminated diesel fuel from a bus to a 55-gallon drum. The fuel was disposed of by using it as accelerant for the burning of the Man.

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Early on Saturday morning during the event, ESD Fire Branch responded to the first major "residential" fire in the history of Burning Man. An older Airstream motor home suffered an interior fire that resulted in approximately 75% destruction of the interior and 25% destruction of the structure and exterior. ESD Engine 9 and ESD Engine Mini 9 made an aggressive interior attack, both units draining their water tanks. They successfully extinguished the interior fire, leaving only a burning roof-mount air conditioner and overhaul for follow up units. Engine 5 and Water Tender 5, provided by Lightning Suppressors, assisted overhaul, and Water Tenders 51 and 52, provided by Julie's Water Tenders, assisted with standby water while we verified interior extinguishment. The fire source was determined to be low down in the shower stall, which was being used for storage, with extension into the adjoining bathroom and the back bedroom.

A significant tactical and safety improvement in 2004 was the implementation of dedicated self-contained breathing apparatus on ESD initial attack fire engines. This equipment allowed ESD to meet the technical requirements of NFPA 1710 and 1720 requirements for "2 in, 2 out" safety compliance.

The fire fighter theme camp was incorporated in 2003 into the ESD infrastructure, making it a part of Station 3. This camp has continued to be a success, supporting about 60 ESD volunteers with showers, communal kitchen, social area, and our own bar! This camp has several years headstart has over the ESD Medical theme camp, so for 2005 the branches will combine the efforts into making the theme camp at Station 3 the best it can be. Camping space at Station 9 will be open to volunteers who desire a more separate living arrangement.

New for 2005 will be increased 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 improvement 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.

Service to Black Rock City

We want participants to know that we "get it." The volunteers of ESD 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

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

Supportive editing or content contributions:
Anna Duffy, Mental Health Branch Chief
Tracy McDowell, Medical Branch, Administrative Chief
Hugh Kane, Fire Branch Deputy Chief of Technical Operations, Training, & Logistics End of page

Click here to read the 2003 Emergency Services report.