Meet REMS (Rapid Extraction Module) Supervisor Kat Dougherty as she walks us through becoming a member of the high-caliber rescue team.
Welcome to the Women of Wildland Fire Series! Follow along as we interview women who have carved out an exciting outdoors career for themselves in the fire industry.
Safety third? Not for Kat Dougherty, Rapid Extraction Module (REMS) Supervisor. Equipped with an UTV, high-angle rescue gear, and medical supplies for Advanced Life Support, the REMS team is an essential part of safety in wildland fire. In this position, firefighter’s lives are on the time and earning a spot is not taken lightly. Read about Kat’s experience on REMS so far, as well as the expectations and qualifications needed to join a team.
Before working on a REMS team, what was your work background?
I’ve been involved in some aspects of medicine, rescue, and fire for fifteen years. In 2007, I took my first WFR class and fell in love with emergency medicine. It was the first time I really saw a future that combined passion and purpose and I knew then that I never wanted to stop exploring this career field. This discovery led me to my undergrad university, where I joined a volunteer fire department and spent four years responding to emergencies in rural Ohio. While maintaining my studies at college, I also made time to earn my structure firefighter I and II through state academies and earned my EMT and paramedic certifications at a separate technical college. After graduating, I moved to Oregon and spent the next four years working as a structure firefighter/paramedic.
In 2020, I spent my first summer working as a line medic in the wildland division. I fell in love with wildland fire and applied to join our REMS program. After a competitive selection process, I joined our REMS team in 2021. My counterpart, Koeby Bennett, and I will each lead our own team during the 2022 season as REMS supervisors.
What originally drew you into working REMS?
Once I learned about the REMS program…I was hooked. REMS represents the culmination of 15 years in this career field for me. It requires excellent medical skills to manage emergencies in an austere setting. Our rope rescue aspect requires each technician to be skilled in every avenue of rope rescue and infinitely creative – no other teams work in such remote settings with such limited personnel. When I was younger, the greatest dream for my career was to join the technical rescue team for a structure fire department. Now I get to do all of the infinitely cool aspects of technical rescue – from rappelling off cliffs to cutting open cars – all while spending every night sleeping outside in the summer. This job even combines my love of the fire/rescue/medical career path with my love of the outdoors – climbing, hiking, and camping. Finally, with such an expanded scope of responsibility, there are never-ending opportunities to keep learning and improving. Our REMS teams are paid to train 40 hr/week every day we’re not deployed on fire. I honestly can’t think of a better job.
What are the qualifications needed to work REMS?
At the bare minimum, members of a REMS team need to have a FFT2 certification (Red Card), an EMS license, and a Rope Rescue Technician certification.
How would you describe the responsibilities of a REMS team on a wildland fire?
A REMS team is responsible for responding to and managing medical and rescue emergencies that occur on a wildland fire. Depending on the size of the incident and the resources assigned, there may be only one REMS team covering an entire fire, or there might be multiple teams that are individually assigned to different divisions of the fire. REMS teams are required to have UTVs with patient transport capabilities. This means that, even if there isn’t a technical aspect to the emergency, we are often still the best resource to be able to quickly access, treat, and evacuate the patient.
Calls on fire can be few and far between. This means that REMS teams often have plenty of "down time” during the 2-3 weeks of 16-hour shifts. During this time, my team fills the hours by scouting our division. It’s important to have an understanding of where all your crews are working, the fastest ways to get there, and the best ways to transport them to an ambulance or helicopter. It’s also the most effective way to understand the terrain we’ll be working in. If we have a crew working down in a canyon, we’ll hike in and pre-plan rescue routes – sizing up whether it’ll be a low, steep, or high angle extrication, if we could cut a path for ATV access, if a SKED or wheeled stokes would be a better choice. Outside of scouting, there’s always time for training. Although it might sound macabre, I make each member of my team run through a Medical Incident Report each shift, using real crews and GPS coordinates to create our fake scenarios. This keeps each team member engaged and critically thinking about our resources and how we could most efficiently handle any incident that came our way.
What have been the more challenging aspects of this role?
Every year this job brings new challenges. Last year, my team deployed immediately after two weeks of Rope Rescue and Vehicle Extrication classes. We rolled from one fire to the next, without a moment to breathe. Spending that many days away from home can be draining. During that time, it’s also incredibly difficult to maintain skills. While on fire, we are limited to verbal scenarios and small-scale operations that can be disconnected and left within 60 seconds of a call. Verbal training is great, but there’s no replacement for the real thing. When your job requires you to be an expert in technical rope rescue, vehicle extrication, wildland fire, and medicine…there is so much to learn, maintain, and practice.
This year has been completely different. After an early season trip down the Calf Canyon Fire in New Mexico, both teams returned to Bend, OR for a mandatory month-long training stand down. We expected to deploy immediately after that month, but in July there were no deployments. Our skills have never been sharper, and we’ve had opportunities to train on scenarios we’ve only dreamed about, but it’s been difficult to maintain morale while everyone is eager to deploy. During the summer, both teams are expected to be “wheels rolling” to a fire within 3hr of deployment. That means - never being outside cell service and no big adventures in the mountains.
Ultimately, fire is unpredictable, and it’s impossible to know what’s coming. Emergencies are like that too. We can go an entire season without having our skills challenged on the line. It’s easy for complacency to set in. But that sense of security can be shattered in an instant. And once that happens, there are no excuses. We need to be absolutely proficient in every discipline of our job. Unlike any other rescue career, we know the patients we are going to rescue. Those are our firefighters, which means any deviation from perfect is unacceptable.
What would you recommend for anyone who wants to become part of a REMS team?
Do your research! There are a huge variety of REMS teams out there, and each one of them does things very differently. Ask questions about how much training will be provided. Ask questions about the systems they use, instructors they contract with, and the equipment they provide. All medical companies should have protocols, medical direction, and liability insurance. If yours does not, this should be a giant red flag. For my 2 cents, it is better to work as a line EMT/medic for a reputable company than to work on a REMS team for a company that has questionable practices. In terms of work experience, I can speak for what I am looking for during the hiring period. In one word: real world experience. It’s almost impossible to find a candidate who is experienced in every category (EMS, wildland fire, rope rescue, and vehicle extrication), but I look for candidates who have a strong amount of experience in at least one category. On occasion, we have had candidates who have certifications in all of these categories, but no real world experience to back them up. I would rather hire the former mountain guide/SAR member who does not have his Rope Rescue Technician, but does routinely train with his Mountain Rescue Unit, rather than a candidate who has the cert, but has never practiced outside of the five-day class. Our current roster includes a former hotshot/helitack crew member, a mountain guide, a SAR volunteer on the mountain rescue unit, a former structure firefighter with several years on a contract hand crew, a paramedic and volunteer firefighter, and an advanced EMT with four years transport experience in Las Vegas. My co-supervisor and I both come from a structure fire and 911 ambulance background and have each spent three seasons on wildland fire with multiple years on REMS teams. Beyond skills, I look for someone with a growth mindset, a positive attitude, and a good team player. I’ve always believed that if you bring me the heart, I can teach the hands and the head. Our company believes in the importance of training, and has supported this mission by granting us a month of pre-season training. During this time, we can teach many of the skills you’ll be expected to learn. Come physically fit and ready to learn, and the rest will fall into place. Finally, at least at my company, we really look for the right personality fit. Spending 100+ days in a pick-up truck with anyone is challenging. We look for the people who will make that fun and who will fit into our family.