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6.8 Coordination

6.8.1 Unified Incident Command

Initially, federal crews responded to the fire. Once homes started to burn, a unified incident command system was used for Old Fire, and Big Bear Valley was part of the incident command.

6.8.2 San Bernardino County Mountain Area Safety Taskforce (MAST)

Eighteen months prior to the incident, MAST was created to deal with a catastrophic fire and evacuation. “MAST is a county organization made up of local, state, and federal government agencies, private companies, and volunteer organizations. One of the responsibilities of the MAST is assuring public safety through development of evacuation plans, vegetation management through hazard tree and fuel removal, preplanning, and public information. The MAST program was identified as a direct contributor to the success in the mountain communities. The San Bernardino County Fire Chief’s Association agrees that the MAST effort, including training and planning, saved a large number of lives and homes, as well as reduced the time required to establish an effective multi-agency, unified command,” as reported in the San Bernardino County Fire Chief’s Association Lessons Learned ReportFire Storm 2003“Old Fire.”

MAST helped establish better lines of communication and allowed entities to interact in a new way. In the case of Old Fire, a Federal National Team took over command of the fire. In the past, “feathers were ruffled” with this type of transition, from local to federal. However, MAST helped establish relationships between local, state, and federal officials for the transition process. With MAST, relationships are established regionally, and it is known that once a transition takes place, there is to be a respect of local conditions.

The consensus was there was good cooperation between all parties and everyone knew their roles and responsibilities. Overall, everyone tried to cooperate and communicate.

6.8.3 Transit Agencies

Two public transit agencies cooperated and coordinated services to evacuate people without transportation from the valley, down the mountain, and into public shelters.

Mountain Area Regional Transit Authority (MARTA)

MARTA participates in the mountain mutual-aid agreement and was informed when the need to evacuate residents was established. MARTA had a seat at the unified command center and received information at the same time as the other participants. MARTA was represented 24/7 and used its radio system to contact its base and operators.

MARTA vehicles and manpower were staged at the command post to allow for the evacuation of residents off the mountain. Initially, six vehicles were used, but through creation of 12-hour shifts, three vehicles were used to evacuate approximately 1,200 residents.

MARTA provided evacuation services for 2 weeks with the use of cutaway vehicles. MARTA normally uses 30-foot buses, but due to the nature of the roadways (winding and narrow), decided to use the cutaways with a shorter wheelbase. The vehicles could hold approximately 11 to 18 passengers.

Some residents decided to remain after the mandatory evacuation order was given, and therefore MARTA was transporting people after the mandatory evacuation order.


During the start of the evacuation, the focus was on getting bus operators to work. Approximately half of the bus operators did not report to work.

During the evacuation, the focus changed to reentry of the vehicles back into the evacuation area. MARTA sent buses down the mountain with evacuees. When they returned to the evacuation area, local law enforcement had a “hard lock on the mountain” and would not allow the buses to enter the evacuation zone. There were discussions to allow the vehicles to return. Since that time, a placard system is in effect that is signed by local law enforcement to allow for the return of MARTA vehicles back into an evacuation area.

Also during the evacuation, MARTA re-thought its transportation of pets. People did not want to evacuate without their pets, and therefore MARTA relaxed its requirements to have pets in carriers and allowed pets to ride with the evacuees.

After the evacuation, the focus of MARTA was on the reentry of residents back into the valley. When people were evacuated off the mountain, MARTA did not necessarily know where the evacuees were. Some of the evacuation shelters had to be moved due to the fire situation. Up to 2 weeks after the incident, MARTA was receiving calls from evacuees to pick them up and return them home.

One issue with the return of evacuees is the transportation of luggage and “freebies.” When people are evacuated to public shelters, evacuees tend to receive “freebies” to help them compensate for their experience. MARTA found out that for every bus of people, there needed to have a bus for luggage and “freebies.” Five cutaways were used for the transportation of luggage.

Lessons Learned
There are several lessons that were learned from the Old Fire incident:
  • Communicate with family members and have preplanning for family members of all staff to inform them of their loved ones activities and possible need to be away for some time.
  • Keep accurate records for reimbursement purposes.
  • Plan for the transportation of “stuff.”
  • Provide a backup generator for the phone system and communication system for when the electricity shuts down.
  • Provide alternative communication systems such as satellite phones when cell and land lines are disrupted.
  • Provide supplies (food and water) and a place to take a nap for the first 12 to 24 hours. At that time, “you are on your own,” until the mobile canteens/kitchens are set up. Have enough supplies on hand to take care of the staff.

Why a Success

MARTA participates in the mountain mutual-aid agreement and was part of the coordinated effort when the need to evacuate residents was determined. Public transit participated in the 2 years of preplanning for an evacuation of the valley, and MARTA understood its role and responsibilities.


Omnitrans of San Bernardino assisted in the evacuation by meeting MARTA buses at the bottom of the mountain at evacuation centers and transporting the people on to public shelters established in San Bernardino County. Eventually, the public shelters were merged into one super-shelter at the San Bernardino International Airport. Omnitrans provided transportation to that location.

Omnitrans used standard 40-foot buses that could move a larger volume of people. Approximately 200 people were evacuated, along with some pets with the MARTA/Omnitrans transportation. Most people leaving the valley did so with their own transportation.

MARTA and Omnitrans had never practiced this scenario before nor contemplated the need for this service; the idea for it grew spontaneously. The Omnitrans staff have working relationships with the MARTA staff, and out of the initial contact, a plan was made to assist MARTA. Omnitrans had some service near the affected area and therefore had buses that could not be used for normal transit service; instead, the idea was to turn the buses into evacuation service units.

It took Omnitrans approximately 24 hours to assist in the evacuation of valley evacuees.

Lessons Learned
There are several lessons that were learned from the Old Fire incident:
  • Key staff at Omnitrans are trained in emergency management. Omnitrans is in the process of conducting training for mid-managers and first-line supervisors in emergency management. Key staff may not always be available in times of crisis; in the Old Fire incident, almost all key staff was not available. By training mid-managers and first-line supervisory staff, Omnitrans has increased its staff knowledge in emergency management and its ability to respond to a crisis.
  • Provide provisions for 24-hour dispatch. 
  • Set up accounting procedures to allow for possible reimbursement of expenses.
  • Set up a mechanism to count the number of evacuees transported.
  • Take photos of the event.
Why a Success

Omnitrans has working relationships with emergency management officials in the San Bernardino and southern California area. Staff have also been trained in emergency management and are extending this training to middle management and first-line supervisors. During the Big Bear Valley evacuation, planning and staff intelligence contributed to the success of the evacuation.

February 6, 2006
Publication #FHWA-HOP-08-014