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Meeting the People that Manage the Withlacoochee State Forest: The Voice on the Radio

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As a continuation of the series of articles on Meeting the People that Manage the Withlacoochee State Forest, I would like to introduce you to Sarah Stewart who is currently a Duty Officer with the Florida Forest Service. 

“I am a fire dispatcher. We handle all the burn authorizations for the five-county area. We also respond crews out to wildfires in that area, and any properties state, federal or private,” Stewart explained.

Her shift consists of working a 10 hour day, and surprisingly the Withlacoochee Forestry Center is the only 24-hour dispatching operation in the state of Florida. 

“We cover all phone calls for the entire state of Florida after 7 pm and to 7 am. Other districts send in their on-call Dispatcher’s and Supervisor’s names each night just in case we need them to go back in service. But for the most part, Withlacoochee Fire Dispatch is the key to getting crews dispatched to all kinds of incidents from Pensacola all the way down to Key West at night,” Stewart added. 

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Her shift begins as follows.

  • Briefing from previous shift
  • Collecting weather status
  • Broadcast Fire weather forecast information for the forest rangers
  • Weather
  • Status on fires
  • Burn authorizations
  • Radio Checks
  • Checking radios working and fire equipment 
  • Tractors
  • Transports
  • Engines
  • Burn Authorization Permits
  • Call-ins
  • Recreation calls
  • Smoke Complaints

This position is like the central communication hub of the forest.  She stays informed on aircraft traffic for the state’s air operations fleet. 

Stewart remarked, “There are some of the calls we receive that can get us pulled in to assist with Law Enforcement issues on our state forest: such as missing or lost persons, vandalism, and any other illegal activity, etc.”

Stewart’s main priority is to keep that communication open while crews are performing their duties in Citrus, Sumter, Pasco, Hernando, and Lake counties. 

“Keeping my crews safe,” Stewart said. “Making sure they have the resources that they need in order to get their job done safely.”

While the forest is going through a seasonal transition from dry to rainy, the chance of lightning-caused wildfires may be forecasted. 

“Because we are getting the rains now, we have opened up our burning. So now we are issuing more prescribed burns (permits), which is needed in Florida,” Stewart said. “Of course, if we didn’t (conduct) prescribed burns all those fuels will keep mounting up and when the lightning season comes around, puts a lighting strike in those fuels that we haven’t managed, then we have a lot of problems with fires being a lot more intense.”

Stewart knows first hand about working on the line during wildfires because she is also a trained wildland firefighter. Her experience on the line enables her to make that connection between being on the line and how important her role is now as a fire dispatcher. 

There are many areas dispatchers must keep track of, from weather updates to ensuring the safety of their co-workers who are out in the field. 

 “One thing you learn in Fire Control is Duty, Respect, and Integrity. Those are leadership qualities that we try to nurture in our firefighters, and I am trying to bring that into all aspects of our area,”  Stewart said.

Working as a part of the Florida Forest Service, Stewart believes that everyone is connected to being good stewards of the Withlacoochee State Forest. It is an area that grows both personally and professionally. It’s in the heart.

 “It has given me a family,”  Stewart said. “The people are what keeps me here.”

Lisa MacNeil
Lisa MacNeil
Lisa MacNeil is a reporter for the Hernando Sun as well as a business technology developer, specializing in website development, content management systems, and data analysis.
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