By Travis Verdegan
Black River Falls Area Staff Specialist
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
A few months ago, I found myself wondering a few things related to aptitude assessment and decided to check with the LLC to see if they’d done anything with the topic that I might have missed. They got back to me that they hadn’t, but they wanted to take the bones of my email and turn it into a blog. I immediately set to work on it. But, like many things, I got sidetracked along the way, like by a few months. The upside of this sidetrack was that it allowed me time to consider things I hadn’t formed into complete thoughts.
There has been a lot of good discussion lately on risk management. The thing that continuously strikes me is that much of this talk circles around new processes or taking a fresh look at how decisions are made. I kept getting this feeling that we in many instances were overlooking the individual(s) making decisions in real time. Example: The “green” firefighter(s) seeing a rapidly evolving situation during initial attack without the benefit of an IAP or supervisor to bail them out in the moment.
I’m a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers. Recent events for that team have sparked a new rendition of the old debate: players vs. plays. In other words, what is more important: good coaching or talented players?
Ultimately, I believe in football and in wildland fire, both are important. I would classify a lot of the recent discussion related to risk as being focused on the plays. My following blog post is what I came up with to focus the conversation onto the players.
Aptitude — Why Don’t We Test for It?
Why don’t we assess aptitude for fire positions both in day-to-day hiring and in the qualifications management process?
I’ve often thought we could borrow a few more things from the military. Namely, the way we recruit/hire and compensate the workforce (a little tuition assistance commensurate to the risks we were exposed to as seasonals could have changed a lot for many of us), as well as setting an initial benchmark for an individual’s propensity toward certain aptitudes (specifically risk recognition and assessment).
To Build on the Latter
The military uses the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) to gauge the potential for future success in various aspects of service. If there was a component of aptitude assessment that helped predict ability to assess risk, then there may be a better way to place those people with the highest ability in vital positions and better promote them through the qualifications management process.
I know we have the Position Task Book (PTB) process sponsored by NWCG to provide a subjective analysis of an individual’s behaviors and competencies related to a qualification. As a person who plays a significant role in the qualifications management process in my home state, I have a love/hate relationship with PTBs. I love the intent, but I don’t know that we collectively work within it.
Case in point, survey a western hotshot crew to see if they have any bias, unconscious or otherwise, related to having a DIVS from east of the Mississippi. As with many biases, while there may be merit to this line of thinking, it should not be universally applied. What I’m saying here is: I’ve seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other for what it means to be a qualified DIVS—or any other position for that matter.
. . . we struggle when agencies start to feel the effect of retirement bubbles bursting. Almost overnight, innumerable years of knowledge, skills, and abilities walk happily out the door and those who remain are left to quickly fill the void.
Collectively, I’d say we do a decent job subjectively analyzing behaviors and competencies, you might think of the results like a bell curve. Within any bell curve there is going to be variability, and some of that variability is going to be statistically significant. On one end of the curve lives the effect of “elitism” and on the other, “fast tracking”.
In some instances, we struggle when we start to try to incorporate objectively quantifiable measurements into the process (i.e., fire size class, operational periods, number of babies, puppies, or kittens saved). In other instances, we struggle when agencies start to feel the effect of retirement bubbles bursting. Almost overnight, innumerable years of knowledge, skills, and abilities walk happily out the door and those who remain are left to quickly fill the void.
Use of some sort of aptitude-based testing would by no means paint the entire picture when it comes to individual performance assessment, but it might help curb some of the variability on either end of the curve.
On Hiring and Recruitment within Government Agencies
My own experiences with hiring include being ruled out for that elusive permanent position with the U.S. Forest Service at the last minute by HR because I was short by a week or two on time in grade. Hardly an assessment of anything other than the time I was able to work during the summer as a seasonal before having to go back to school each year. I’ve heard of plenty of other situations similar to this across a number of governmental agencies and know of a lot of good people who have moved on from the fire scene for various reasons.
My own experiences with hiring include being ruled out for that elusive permanent position with the U.S. Forest Service at the last minute by HR because I was short by a week or two on time in grade.
Like myself, I’m sure any one of you could list off professions of folks who used to be part of the fire scene. Doctors, lawyers, mechanics, and electricians to name a few. For many of these folks, if the traits they exhibited as a seasonal firefighter were any kind of indication, then they are now masters of their craft. We lose a lot of good firefighters and thankfully most of them are not lost in tragedy.
No doubt the realm of HR law within government is fraught with well-intentioned policies and procedures aimed at fair hiring processes. Using a component of aptitude assessment in hiring might bring a valuable element into hiring within the fire community. Beyond that, an innovative approach to recruitment/retention could go a long way toward keeping some of the ones lost to other professions.
Tying in Risk
I would be willing to bet that innate early risk recognition ability—the kind that could be applied intuitively without the use of complex computer models, ICS forms, or policy—could be found in those people with a strong aptitude for pattern recognition, regardless of their geographic location or what agency they work for. I’m guessing the military and others already have proven this. We have taken the approach of putting together our best and brightest minds to come up with the rules and policies to make the risk assessment easy for folks (i.e., the 10 and 18). Follow these and everything will be OK, the Big Lie.
What if there is a better way to put the right people in the right places to make the right decisions? What if some of those folks use that ability to assess their way right out of the “risks” associated with a career in government? What could a newly adapted recruitment process do for the wildland fire community?
I’m all in with the concept that we can never eliminate risk, but I do believe we can tip the needle closer to zero, even if just by one half of one percent.