This article is from our 2019 Summer edition of Two More Chains.
Thoughts from Three Focused Fire Folks
By Alex Viktora and Travis Dotson
Eric Graff is the Helicopter Program Manager for Grand Canyon National Park. With a positive shout-out to interagency collaboration, he is currently on detail as the National Assistant Helicopter Operations Specialist for the U.S. Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise.
Why Do We Standardize?
“I think that standardization is the key for everyone playing on the same page,” says Eric. “And it starts with communication.”
He explains the importance of having a standard language in which “everything is defined and everyone has their boundaries of what a word actually means in the proper context.” Eric believes without such boundaries that a standard language provides us “then you can’t really move forward.”
What Do We Gain with Standardization?
Eric believes a positive aspect of standardization is that it lets everyone know the boundaries of what you’re discussing or doing. “Standardization provides people their lane and where they should operate,” he says.
“For example, we know that at the Squad Boss level, what that standard should be. It may change a little bit, depending on what type of crew you’re on and what task you get associated with. But overall, in our community, such standardization gives us a fairly good understanding of what that person can and can’t do—and what they should and shouldn’t do. I think that’s a good thing—to have your identified and understood lane of operation.”
Eric continues, “And I think that starts with people, and with their language. Then it obviously moves into equipment. And, as far as I’m concerned, that can be a good—and bad thing.”
What are Some of the Downsides of Standardization?
“I don’t think standardization needs to be ‘identical-ization.’ A quick example is the equipment we accept for short-haul in the Park Service. The tethers and harnesses and carabiners that are rated to a certain specific manufacturing standard,” Eric says. “This can lead to identical-ization. Meaning the exact same carabiners, the exact same tether, the exact same harness. And there’s nothing wrong with that, for the most part. However, it doesn’t allow for much flexibility.”
Eric continues, “So if that one brand and style of carabiner you selected as the standard all of a sudden ends up with some kind of manufacturing flaw or some kind of recall notice, then you could technically stand down a whole program because your program wasn’t as resilient as it could be. Because you’ve built for identical-ization and not standardization.
“Part of standardization also takes out the thought process,” Eric further explains. “I don’t care for that.”
He believes it can be dangerous if we don’t allow our people the flexibility to use their own brain and to ask the very intelligent—and sometimes difficult—questions, such as: “Why are we using this piece of equipment?”
The Medical Incident Report
Eric has insights on the Medical Incident Report. “When you’re building that kind of form or product your standard has to be fairly wide open and allow people some flexibility. And I do think the medical incident form—the 9-Line or the 8-Line, whatever version or whatever name you would like to call it—provides people a template to work from. I think that’s a good standard,” Eric says.
“However, if something isn’t in the form or on the standard, I want people to be able to adapt to the new environment, especially in the medical field, and just go right back to ‘plain text.’ Paint us the picture of what is going on out there and how can we help you.”
Eric says he knows that there will always be exceptions to the rule. He explains that is why it’s important to ensure that your standard isn’t too strict or “your personnel are so regimented to only follow the standard every single time for every single event.”
Elden Alexander, the National Fire Equipment Program (NFEP) Manager for the Bureau of Land Management, has important insights regarding standardization.
“If you suddenly have to move another vehicle in an emergency situation, if you have to start somebody’s pump in an emergency and this equipment went through standardization, there is some familiarity with a vehicle no matter where you’re located in the country,” Elden says.
He points out how the uniformity of training, design, and maintenance improves efficiency. “We can develop a maintenance training course for our vehicles and because we’re standardized it’s applicable in Southern California and Northern Montana, the East Coast, wherever.”
What is the Downside of Standardization?
“The downside is that sometimes you lose creativity with design or you don’t cater to the special geographic personalization of an area that might need a specialty type apparatus,” Elden explains. “For instance, the swamp buggies of the Southeast or the brush busters of Minnesota and Michigan in which they build the big road cages on the outside of the vehicle.”
“Sometimes with standardization we lose the ability to reach out to that individual firefighter who might have a great idea or innovation,” points out Elden. “We lose that voice of the individual firefighter and innovation that they have from being around the equipment every day.”
Elden continues, “We still try to encourage and incorporate outside ideas into the designs. If someone has a good idea, we have an improvement process through state or regional engine committees that enables people to submit their improvement ideas to us. If we think it’s a valid improvement to the apparatus, we’ll send it to the Fire Operations Group and get national buy-in and then that becomes part of our standard package.”
Elden recalls how a firefighter came up with an idea for adding a remote drain to the oil pan on a Type 4 Engine “It was ingenious,” he says. “It was simple. It was cheap and it was very safe to put it on there. That became an innovation that we quickly adapted to all the trucks.”
A ‘Holy Cow’ Revelation with an Engine Captain
Elden Alexander has a great story from when he was working as a Type 3 IC outside Casper, Wyoming.
They were busy bringing in severity resources, including a new Type 6 Engine from New Mexico. Elden walks up and introduces himself to the Engine Captain.
“I say, ‘Hey, this is a brand new truck’,” Elden recalls.
“Yes, I love this truck,” the Engine Captain replies.
The Engine Captain proceeds to walk Elden around his engine, providing him a thorough briefing. “It was great,” Elden says. “He’s very enthusiastic. I could tell that he’d really taken the time to go over the truck and understand it.”
This particular new Type 6 Engine model had front discharges located up behind the cab. “Through our discussions there on our shop floor, we just thought the front discharge needed to stick out just a little bit,” Elden explains. “With a gloved hand, we’d reach up there in a hurry and take the cap off.”
So Elden asks the Engine Captain what he thinks about those front discharges sticking out a bit.
The Engine Captain tells him how they’ve been hitting them with tree branches. “If one of them was to break or get damaged, I have no way of isolating the front end to the truck, to shut the valve so water doesn’t leak out, to still be able to use the rest of the discharges on my truck.”
“Holy cow,” Elden responds, “you’re right.”
“I’m like, ‘that’s incredible’,” Elden says. “I couldn’t believe that we didn’t think about that.” He asks this Engine Captain where he’d locate the shut off. “He says to put it right about here so he could reach it.”
Elden grabs his cell phone and calls the NFEP Production Manager in charge of that vehicle.
The curious Engine Captain says: “What are you doing?”
“Well,” Elden responds, “I’m in charge of this. And you are absolutely right. We need to make that change.”
Elden tells the production manager to get 15 of those trucks that were waiting to be put into service retrofitted with this improved design.
Smart Folks in the Field
Looking back at this interaction and revelation with that Engine Captain, Elden says that his team includes some “sharp guys” who try to catch everything. “But, obviously, we can’t think of everything. And the smart folks out in the field often have great input for us.”
Elden continues, “I was extremely grateful for being able to chat with this Captain and get this problem taken care of.” He remembers how the Engine Captain was amazed at how that production change could happen that easily.
“Because we have standardization and centralized ordering, we’re able to make changes that affect everybody in the Department of Interior—not just a certain district, or state, or region,” Elden informs. “We’re able to take that change and incorporate it nationally because we have standardization.
Mike Krupski knows a thing or two about standards, he has been the Superintendent of The Sawtooth Interagency Hotshot Crew the past eight years.
“At the crew level, standardization takes the form of SOPs. They shouldn’t be a list of things we can’t do. If developed right they set the foundation for how we operate and are not something people resist,” Mike says.
He explains that SOPs set a baseline for performance on the crew.
“This is how we sharpen tools; this is how we load the tools; this is how we maintain the saws; etc. All that stuff matters. It sets a tone of professionalism and order.” Mike laughs, “We’re hotshots—we have a process for everything!”
This Hotshot Superintendent says his crew standards are often lessons in action. “It’s the cumulative wisdom of those who have come before.” He also points out how standardization is a form of risk management. “In an environment where we will encounter so much risk we can’t control, it’s good to invest in controlling what we can. When we are dealing with more challenging assignments, we know we have prepared everything we could to reduce the holes in the Swiss cheese. Little stuff matters. It sets us up and helps us prepare for the big stuff.”
The Air Attack World, Too
In addition to his role as Hotshot Superintendent, Mike also spends time as Air Attack. He therefore knows about the benefits of standardization in that world as well.
“We have set communication scripts. We use the script for all the repetitive operations like when we are off the airport and entering or exiting the airspace. The standardization allows the sender and receiver to anticipate what is coming next. If something out of the ordinary is communicated, it’s like a record scratch—it really gets your attention. And in such a dynamic environment, that is really helpful.”
The Drawbacks and Dangers of Standardization
On the not-so-helpful front, using standards as a tool to limit growth of individuals or crews is definitely a drawback. Written standards can be weaponized by those controlling budgets. Mike points out that some managers use logic that goes something like this: if an individual or crew meets the written qualification, staffing, or equipment standard, why invest any more development dollars on them? Not cool.
Mike says another danger is how standards can be used to hinder efficiency. One example he provides is related to vehicles.
“There is a standard configuration, two buggies and a supt. truck. Lots of crews operate with a fourth vehicle, a chase truck. Crews do this for very valid reasons. But when it comes time for management to make tough fleet decisions, that fourth vehicle is not supported by the standard and there is not much ground to stand on for keeping it around.”
Mike zeroes-in on the solution to the dark side of standardization: “We need to be able to articulate and discuss the intent of the standard—why was it created?” He says written standards don’t typically come with an intent statement. And knowing and understanding the intent would help in situations that call for deviation.
“This gives us the room to flex, and flex is important,” Mike explains. “We should always have room to maneuver. This is all stuff we learned in relation to leadership. Why do we use Task, Purpose, End-State? Because Purpose and End-State provide context and room to adjust the task to meet the intent. Standards are the same. If you get into ‘letter of the law’ rigidity, you lose flexibility—which is key to mission success.”
Imagine that—the pursuit of balance.