Perimeter Solutions introduced the virtual PHOS-CHEK® 60th Anniversary Museum earlier this year to celebrate six decades of PHOS-CHEK being approved for use in aerial firefighting by the US Forest Service. Since its introduction, PHOS-CHEK has protected thousands of properties from destruction and saved countless lives, and its success was made possible by individuals who left their mark on the fire safety industry by contributing to its innovation, promoting its benefits and teaching others how to use it effectively to prevent the spread of wildfires. As part of the PHOS-CHEK Museum, Perimeter Solutions has created the Heroes of PHOS-CHEK exhibit to honor some of the individuals who had a significant impact on the growth and evolution of the life-saving technology.
This month’s Hero of PHOS-CHEK is Tory Henderson, who started her career in firefighting in the late 1970s. A veteran of the US Forest Service, Henderson played an active role in helping Perimeter Solutions to update the PHOS-CHEK formula. In the following first-person narrative, she shares her industry insight and discusses how the role of women in fire safety has changed for the better over the last two decades.
Tory Henderson Leaves Mark on Evolving Fire Safety Industry
After earning my bachelor’s degree in Natural Resource Management from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo in 1979, I started my career as a temporary employee for the US Forest Service, working in timber. That evolved into land management planning, and then I began to get involved with fires out of necessity, serving as a firefighter in the late 1980s.
I went to fire camp school and started down the path of gaining knowledge and capability in the area of firefighting. My first major test was the Malheur National Forest in 1989. That was a dry summer, and lightning storms in late July started more than 50 wildfires. Some fires were left to burn, simply because we didn’t have crews available to fight them. Eventually, the Army was called to help us in extinguishing the many fires around the Forest.
Later during another Oregon fire, I was on an assignment at an Indian reservation and had to tell a family that they had lost everything. It was a terrible experience, but it gave me great empathy for people in the path of a fire, and an understanding of why they want you to do anything you can to put it out, even though in some cases it is better for the environment to let those fires burn.
To advance in my career, I moved to Idaho to work for the USFS at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). I started getting involved in fire contracts and establishing agreements with other countries to pool firefighting resources. NIFC had already established a working partnership with Canada, which has the same fire season as the US, and it made sense to expand that program and work with other countries whose peak fire seasons took place during different months. In 1995, we had a terrible fire season here in the US. It was winter in New Zealand and Australia, and I worked with a contact from the Bureau of Land Management and their counterpart in New Zealand and Australia to develop an agreement with each country for us to exchange resources. Both countries were able to provide overhead personnel that was desperately needed that year. These programs have expanded, going beyond wildland firefighting to include training as well.
In 2003, I became the Branch Chief for Equipment and Chemicals, and learned a lot about the chemical side of the business. I started meeting with the companies involved in firefighting, like PHOS-CHEK, and worked with them to update their fire retardant formula to make it more environmentally friendly. I retired from the Forest Service in 2013 but continued working on a contract basis.
Reflecting on my career, I witnessed the fire safety industry change for the better. From a perspective as a woman in the fire service, over the past 20 years, our position has improved, and there’s now a better path for women to pursue a career with the US Forest Service, whether they are a firefighter on the ground, a smoke jumper, fire management officer or regional fire director. It’s hard work—for a man or a woman—and people must understand that when they start their career to be successful.
Looking at it from a fire safety aspect, personnel training is much more intensive now than when I started in 1980. The quality control that the Agency has in place to educate firefighters, the curriculum, the hours of course work that have to be completed has all improved. On the equipment side, helicopters, engines, water tenders, air bases, mobile plants are more effective, and fire management agencies have expanded their capabilities along with it, greatly improving initial attack.
I have also seen great improvement on the chemical side, watching Perimeter Solutions work cooperatively with the USFS and other agencies to develop better, more effective formulas for application and delivery. Another development, which may be surprising to some, is how much better agencies are in preserving their resources. Data is used much more effectively today, and one of the benefits of that is that aircraft are able to support fire operations through expanded technology improving the delivery of water and fire retardant where needed and most effective.
There were so many memorable things from my career. The camaraderie with my overhead team, the new people that come in and working with contractors who really care and believe in what they do – seeing that they genuinely want to help. It is almost like a jigsaw puzzle for wildland agencies. You have to put the pieces together and make them fit, and to do it successfully, it just takes common sense. Dealing with the equipment and chemical side, it was common sense that helped me to understand how to make the right decision, and how to suggest and implement changes in policy.
Working with the PHOS-CHEK team, I was impressed by their professionalism. It was always a cooperative effort, and it was clear that people involved with PHOS-CHEK always wanted to do better and meet their customers’ needs. Any time we had an issue at an air base, their response was always to ask how they can fix it and make it better. They were always strong with communications, and as the chemistry of retardant used in wildland firefighting continues to evolve, maintaining that strong, cooperative relationship will be critically important.
Perimeter Solutions will recognize a new Hero of PHOS-CHEK each month during 2023 in the PHOS-CHEK 60th Anniversary Museum, which includes numerous exhibits that tell the history of PHOS-CHEK. To tour the Museum, visit https://www.perimeter-solutions.com/en/phos-chek-60-years/.