BLM dispatch center spreads its wings

Beth Ipsen

Life was easy in 2009 when the Anchorage Interagency Dispatch Center tracked, at most, a daily aviation schedule of four flights written on a whiteboard. At the time, the two-person center scheduled and tracked flights for the BLM Alaska State Office. The BLM Alaska Fire Service dispatch centers handled flights for other BLM district and field offices on top of all fire-related aviation for the Department of the Interior (DOI) in Alaska.

Fast forward 10 years and at the peak of flying season last July, the dispatch center tracked 575 flights for an average of 18.5 flights a day that month. That’s a 400 percent increase after the center gradually expanded its flight scheduling and aircraft tracking to cover all non-fire aviation for BLM Alaska and many other Interior bureaus statewide plus the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) in the Lower 48.

Man standing in empty room holding plans
Anchorage Interagency Dispatch Center Manager Jerrid Palmatier holds plans for the room showing what it will look like when finished. Last July, the dispatch center tracked 575 flights for an average of 18.5 flights a day that month. 

The physical side of the Anchorage dispatch center transformed along with the mission. Center Manager Jerrid Palmatier utilized the Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture Service First Fund program to build the concept for an interagency dispatch center. These funds were first used to install a natural gas generator at the Campbell Tracts facility a few years ago that kept the phones and power running after a 7.1 earthquake struck Anchorage on Nov. 30, 2018. While most of Anchorage was without power during the chaotic aftermath, dispatcher Robyn Linzner was able to communicate with FWS flight personnel in the Lower 48 despite having to take cover under her desk when the building started rocking.

Despite all the changes, the dispatch center’s main focus has always been safety while it strives to be a model of efficiency and cost savings for DOI.

“This builds efficiency and it improves safety for all the bureaus that don’t have flight following,” said Palmatier. He was one of the two dispatchers in 2009, and now as center manager has spearheaded many of the center’s changes over the years. “This also saves the government money. It’s a big deal.”

Alaska covers 663,300 square miles, but only has an estimated 15,718 miles of public roads, according to the Alaska Department of Public Transportation and Public Facilities. With a landmass equivalent to about one-fifth of the entire contiguous U.S., air travel is the norm and aviation safety is critical when conducting business. As the Anchorage dispatch center’s workload increased incrementally over the years, staff went from two to 10 as they prepare for another busy summer.

“The core crew at the AIDC is pretty solid. We all know a team that works well together is vital to the health of any dispatch center,” said Nan Voorheers, dispatcher at the AIDC since 2016 after spending six years as a wildfire dispatcher for the State of Alaska. “I truly believe we work cohesively as a team and help each other out when called upon.”

Dispatchers schedule and track flights for FWS law enforcement aircraft and flights surveying migratory birds in the Lower 48 which sometimes start as early as 4 a.m. Alaska time. The center does this in Alaska for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the Senior Advisor to the Secretary for Alaskan Affairs and other DOI bureaus in Alaska – specifically the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the FWS. During the summer, daylight increases to 24 hours in some parts of Alaska, enabling aircraft to fly at all hours as long as pilot flight time limits allow. The BLM Alaska Fire Service controls the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center which oversees three dispatch centers to track wildland fire aircraft – as well as AIDC.

The AIDC also meets the travel needs of DOI employees from participating agencies by scheduling requested flights with charter aircraft already inspected and approved to fly DOI employees or with other Interior fleet aircraft.

“It’s one-stop shopping,” Palmatier said.

Personnel can submit a flight request with information such as dates, destination, aircraft type, and number of passengers through an online program called the eFRSS Flight Request System. Dispatchers will use the information and do the legwork of hiring an aircraft to fit the requestors’ needs. Before, personnel, such as biologist and project managers, would go through the extensive process that, among many things, includes compiling a best value determination by comparing three different aircraft vendors. Now the process is channeled to the dispatch center which already has a lot of this information on hand, streamlining the process.

“We have a mechanism to acquire chartered aircraft through a dispatch center and get the best bang for the buck,” Palmatier said. “Not only can we look for the cheapest option with all of the (DOI) carded vendors out there, we can also reach out to our fleet operations because we have that connectivity.”

That includes allowing other DOI partners to utilize agency aircraft including the approximately 90 FWS has in Alaska.

The center, which has moved locations a few times, also replaced all its computers and monitors to aid in flight following. The dispatch center recently moved to a newly remodeled section on the scenic BLM Alaska Campbell Tract in eastern Anchorage. The office space overlooks an airstrip, allowing dispatchers to see many of the aircraft they are tracking.

Palmatier said with the successes of the past, he anticipates more expansion in the future.

“I think we have a lot more room for growth,” he said. “I’m excited to see how it develops and see who our new customers are for the next year.”

Fortunately, the sky’s the limit.