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Caterers with traveling kitchens keep food line going for firefighters

September 24, 2018

Much has been written about the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires since they first ignited. Many groups and individuals have been given praise for their efforts, however one group that is sorely needed around-the-clock and which gets little media attention by design are the people that keep the firefighters healthy — the caterers.

The nature of these professionals makes it so they have little time or opportunity to speak with the media about their responsibilities. Photographs are held to a minimum.

Michael Davis, the public information officer representing the Type 1 Incident Management Team caterers, shed some light on just what kind of job they were up against with these two joined fires and the sheer numbers of fire responders they needed to serve.

According to Davis, these food handlers are with the Type 1 fire team and come fully equipped to feed large numbers. He said that an average fire would have around 400 firefighters to provide for. The Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires had 1,248 people to feed.

“A typical Type 1 national caterer arrives with a full commercial kitchen,” Davis said. “They bring up to six full-size semitrailers including a kitchen, refrigerated storage, prep areas, dry food storage, etc.”

Additionally, large tents are erected for the salad bar and beverage area as well as the dining hall. They also bring a hand-wash station with multiple sinks, so that firefighters have soap and hot water to wash with before entering the serving area.

“A staff member monitors the hand-wash station to ensure compliance,” Davis said.

The usual crew for this type of operation includes 20-plus persons, Davis said. The crew complement includes cooks, prep staff, servers and clean-up people. Most on the crew fill multiple roles as needed.

“The crews start work at 3 a.m. and begin serving breakfast at 5:30 a.m.,” he said. “At 9 a.m., they stop serving and begin clean up. At about 11 a.m., they go to their tents and sleep until 4 p.m. They rise and begin cooking dinner. They begin serving at 6 p.m. and stop at 10 p.m. They clean up and get to bed sometime around midnight.”

Davis said the caterers not only follow fires, but they go wherever there is a disaster.

“National caterers are deployed to any disaster, wildfire, hurricane, flood, etc.,” he said. “If no emergency exists, they take time off.”

So, just what do these firefighters eat and how much do they consume? According to the numbers Davis shared, they do just fine.

“Each meal contains between 1,800 and 2,600 calories,” he said. “The daily total is between 6,000 and 8,000 calories. All meals have high carbohydrate and high protein content.”

Breakfast and dinner are served in camp. They include meat, potatoes, vegetables and bread. Lunches are sacked. They include large sandwiches, snacks and fruit.

Vegetarian options are available for all meals, Davis added.

The caterer also have a highly trained food unit leader, a member of the Incident Command Team, that monitors all the caterer’s activities.

“The nutritional specifications for all meals are established in the caterer’s contract. The specifications for quality of food is carefully spelled out,” Davis said.

The food unit leader and an assistant supervise every step of meal preparation, serving and clean up. The caterer must be fully qualified and federally certified in order to enter the system, according to Davis.

“The local health inspector may visit the caterer’s operation at any time, whereas restaurants are usually inspected once per year,” Davis said. “The food unit leader is an inspector and scrutinizes the operation on an ongoing basis.”

When it comes specialty care, Davis said the caterers are prepared to help with special needs.

“The caterer works to accommodate all reasonable requests for special diets and allergies,” Davis said. “On the Pole Creek Fire, there are several firefighters with gluten allergies. Special meals are prepared for these persons, and when they arrive at the serving window, the serving staff changes their gloves before handling the gluten-free meal.”

Other food allergies, peanuts, mushrooms, etc., will also be accommodated, Davis added.

There is also plenty of liquid for firefighters on the fire lines. Each morning, crews load ice chests and take cases of water and Gatorade to the firefighters, according to Davis.

These professional firefighters are not like soldiers on rations, but Davis said that military-styles meals ready to eat, or MREs, are used in remote areas, when a caterer is not available.

So with all those mouths to feed and with the Incident Management Team usually on a scene for 14 to 21 days, that’s a lot of food to heft around. Another team usually relieves the current on-duty group and stays until the incident is over, or it is downsized so that a Type 1 Caterer is no longer needed, Davis said.

“Caterers have been on site for months at a time on larger incidents,” Davis said.

Davis said the caterer buys in bulk from the nearest distributor. Food is delivered by semitrailer loads. Incidentals may be purchased locally, such as items needed for the gluten-free menu.

While most local restaurants are donating their goods and services to care for those who are evacuated or with the local help organizations, when a federal Type 1 crew is called in, part of the team will be the crews of caterers to keep professional crews healthy and in good nutritional shape to fight.Daily Herald reporter Genelle Pugmire can be contacted at gpugmire@heraldextra.com, (801) 344-2910, Twitter @gpugmire

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