Our COVID-19 Fire Season: What’s Prepared You for Leading in It? What are Your Fears?

[This is the “One of Our Own” feature highlighted in the Spring 2020 Issue of Two More Chains.]

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Alex Plascencia

By Alex Viktora and Paul Keller

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Alex Plascencia on a burnout operation on the 2018 Klondike Fire in Oregon.

We thought it would be good to check in with a new engine captain to explore his thoughts and see how he is preparing for leading in our new, unprecedented coronavirus pandemic environment.

This is Alex Plascencia’s first season as SFEO (Supervisory Fire Engine Operator) for Engine 652 on the Chiloquin Ranger District on the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Oregon. His first day on the job was March 16—right about when the COVID-19 national health emergency began to disrupt and challenge our previous reality.

“I started my fire career on the Chiloquin Ranger District, so this has been a ‘full circle’ thing for me,” Alex informs. “In 2006 I got a job there as dozer swamper. I did two seasons on the dozer crew and filled-in on some engines and hand crews—including filling-in with the Winema Hotshots.”

Next, Alex became an Apprentice, working: one year on the nearby Klamath Ranger District on a Type 4 Engine, one year as a crewmember on the Winema Interagency Hotshot Crew, and one year on the Malheur Rappel Crew. At the end of the 2010 fire season he converted to a Senior Firefighter position on the Winema Hotshots.

“Up until this year, I’ve been on Winema ever since. I spent four years as a Senior Firefighter and five years as a Squad Leader,” Alex says. “Then, last fall, I decided to apply for this captain job.”

What made you decide to apply for this captain position?

“There were a number of important factors. I’m a father of two and husband to a wife who’s dealt with a lot of me being gone the past 14 years. That’s a lot of summers of me being way from my wife and two kids. So I was faced with the dilemma that many fire folks must deal with. Do you stay on the crew or do you find a job that gets you a little closer to home? So I looked for opportunities that allowed that. Luckily, there was one right here in Chiloquin, Oregon. As difficult as it was to leave one family on my crew, I was gaining more time with my family, with my children and my wife.

Another important consideration were some of the opportunities for my career development such as time as an “official” supervisor. I could see myself applying back to the Winema Hotshot Crew at some point when the time is right. But, for right now, it felt like the time was right for me to try something new.”

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Alex with his two boys, Hudson (on left), and Alex.

Who is Alex Plascencia? What defines you?

“Some key principles I try to hold myself to are Poise, Confidence, and Class. Those three things have helped shape who I am today in all aspects of my life, both professional and personal. They were first introduced to me by a mentor, Doug Wilson, who was my high school football coach and one of the best leaders I’ve had the pleasure of being around.

And I think if you ask anybody who has spent much time with me, they might say that one of my main attributes is that I’m competitive. It doesn’t matter what the game is. I just love to compete! I like to play pick-up basketball, softball, and my all-time favorite, Ultimate Frisbee. Yes, anything competitive is kind of fun for me. Just hanging out with friends.

My older son is almost nine. He’s getting to the age where he thinks he can take dad on in whatever. You know, we have these little competitions for everything. So that’s been great. We go shoot hoops or go out for walks or runs or whatever.”

Alex says he also likes to take his family on trips to see the different parts of this country, as well traveling down to Mexico. When he was nine he spent almost an entire school year in a little town known as San Pancho, located north of the Puerto Vallarta area.

“At first, I didn’t know a lick of Spanish. That experience provided me a good foundation and perspective regarding what life can be like outside the norm of American life.

I wanted my own kids to see that. Getting them down there to visit family and see what it’s like in a different part of the world is important.”

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Alex (on left) with his partner Joel Stack for what was called the 2nd Annual Disc Slam Tournament. Alex and Joel were the event’s Disc Slam Champions. “It was something to keep folks’ spirits up and engaged while we were pre-positioned in Pocatello, Idaho last August,” Alex explains. “We had nine teams of two in a double elimination bracket. All teams were made up of crewmembers.”

What has prepared you for the challenge of a new leadership position during the coronavirus pandemic?

“A few things come to mind. One is the amount of time that I spent on Winema with the different superintendents, squad leaders and other seniors and crew members that I’ve interacted with and all the different situations that we’ve experienced.

It’s not often where the crew is called in, everything’s hunky-dory and we’re just rolling up to a fire and there’s no stress and everything’s cool.

More often than not we’re rolling up to a fire where things are all chaotic. There’s all kinds of different operations happening. People are going all over the place. At first, early on in my career, that chaos tended to be overwhelming. I was often like, ‘Whoa, I’m not sure what to do. I’m just going to sit here and let somebody tell me what to do’.

And the more I was on the crew, the more I saw and realized the importance of a slowdown—to think about what’s going on and don’t let other people’s level of stress or anxiety impact you. You have control over your own actions and the way that you take in the information or react to the situation. And so, seeing that over time, and then as I progressed in my movement up the chain in the crew, the more important that slowdown process became. I started to become that same model for the people around me as well as up and down the chain-of-command.”

Alex explains how he has been fortunate to be mentored by many leaders who helped shape his current leadership style, which is to remain calm, cool, and collected during those stressful, up-tempo situations.

“Sure, sometimes you need to be a little more assertive. But knowing how to balance that and creating that sense of calm around you so the people around you witness that and don’t get hyped-up is important. Through your example, they can also have that sense of calm and take things in, rather than just reacting to the next thing somebody’s asking them to do.”

Can you share some thoughts on how we can all slow things down a little bit?

“I think, personally, for me it comes down to prioritizing the key things that I want and need to do. If it’s on an incident, if I’m responding in my current position, my job is to establish a chain-of-command and provide good Leader’s Intent and clear objectives for all the personnel around me in a high-stress environment.

So things that I try to do—especially responding to a fire—is just breathe, do some breathing exercises, and take everything in. I’ll also try to make a list of what I don’t know. This way, when I first show up on the incident, I feel like I’m in a more calm, collected mood and mode.”

What are your fears this season?

“Oh, man. I suppose the obvious thing is how people are currently reacting and how they will react once we really get into this fire season during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the fears I have is the stress that could be put onto interpersonal relationships. We already have the stress of the fire environment and all the normal stresses we had prior to this. And now we add this into the mix.

I’ve seen it already just within my local District where some people are super comfortable. For them, it’s not that big of a deal. They can just show up to work and follow these new COVID-19 guidelines—but they’re still going to accomplish this or that other non-COVID-19 activities. And then there’s the other people who might have their own health concerns. The possibility of contracting COVID-19 could severely impact them to the point where they’re in the hospital. So, right now, these folks might be feeling severely distraught.

I also worry about these people when they’ll be interacting with other resources who might take a more nonchalant attitude toward COVID-19 precautions. Then, if they do end up with a COVID-19 related illness, I worry about how these people are going to be able to navigate the process through the Department of Labor and Workers’ Comp.

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Alex and his wife, Jessica, and their two boys, Hudson (on left), and Alex.

I’m afraid that if somebody is severely impacted by this, what that kind of impact it will have on them and their family. So, yes, there’s just a lot of things that involve COVID-19 that I worry about.

On the other hand, I’m not super worried about how I’ll react on a fire with my people. I plan on doing a lot of open talk as far as how people are feeling, how we’re reacting to the different situations, and what my expectations are for how we’re going to be doing the daily guidance on COVID-19 prevention type checks and activities.

But I do fear the things that other people might be dealing with and reacting to outside of fire that will be distracting them from the normal hazards that we already have in our business.

Therefore, one of my biggest priorities is to promote communication. I can’t make you tell me stuff but I can be open with the things I’m comfortable with. And hopefully, together, we can create an environment in which people are willing to share the things that might affect other people.”

Looking back on your first six weeks that you’ve been in your current new leadership position, is there anything that jumps out to you as a particular lesson that’s already been made available or you’ve already learned?

Alex explains how in his current position, when the initial COVID-19 information and directives were being dispersed, there was a lot of communications—such as group texts—between many different people. He says, for him, this seemed a bit overwhelming. Often times, he believed the original intent of the texts were being lost.

“There was an abundance of different group messages that were making it difficult to ensure that we were adhering to the proper channels of communicating up and down the chain-of-command.

So I had a phone conversation with our detailed AFMO. I was like: ‘Hey, can we just boil this down a little bit and tighten these communications up to prevent us from being so overwhelmed?’ I explained how if we could just establish a better standard for how we’re going to communicate, everything would operate a lot smoother.

Thankfully, this input was listened to. Now our communications are much less stressful. I don’t have to see my phone buzzing from 20 different people replying to the same thing—while I’m trying to become familiar with and navigate my new supervisory duties and responsibilities. Now myself and the two other captains can successfully communicate this info to our subordinates instead of three different group texts with the same information.

I think we did a good job of clearing that up. We did a good job instituting a standard for folks to know how they were going to receive information and a proper avenue to voice concerns that they may have. We started to recognize this wasn’t going to be a two-week thing. This was going to be something that will require us to adjust how we work together and how we’re going to communicate with each other.”

Alex says another dilemma became the necessity to telecommute and using computers for meetings.

“So we just started to document what it was specifically that we were we all having trouble with. We set up a “Microsoft Teams” Captains’ Group Meeting every Tuesday. This enabled us to discuss all the various topics that needed attention. We were able to line everybody out for the coming week. Using this specific communication platform technology, things just seemed to roll a lot better for us.”

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Alex with his fellow Winema Hotshot crewmember, his father, Richard “Wally” Ochoa, Jr, on a fire in Alaska in 2013. Wally was featured as the “One of Our Own” in the Fall 2017 Two More Chains.

What do you think about not having big fire camps this season?

“This is how I plan on preparing my engine. If we do get on a big fire, I want my engine to be able to get the radio briefing—or however they’re going to do that—then go to work and be able to self-sustain ourselves for three days. I want us to have enough supplies we carry with us that will allow us to do our own thing and minimize the need to be in camp unnecessarily.

Maybe we go into camp one night or go into town or whatever to resupply and just kind of function as our own little spike camp. Just like you do in Alaska or if you’re a jumper or a rappeller or whatever.

Like I was telling one of the other captains the other day, wouldn’t it be cool if on our own District we had these three-day kits. I don’t know. I was just thinking outside of the box. Nothing that we’re implementing now. Just a continuing conversation that we’ll be having.

I don’t mind not being in fire camp at all. In fact, I prefer that. Spiking out always seems better. Better sleep, not having to miss out on that much needed rest. Yes. I’m a huge fan.”

What other areas of the way we “normally do business” do you think we have opportunity to modify or even improve during this unusual COVID-19 fire season?

“For one, this need for people to telework has created more extensive methods for communicating and being aware of how to utilize the available technology. In the past, people have gotten away with letting somebody else on their module or unit be responsible for that.

Therefore, I think our current situation has pushed people to take a hard look at what their deficiencies are in terms of how knowledgeable they are with technology. I can do a fair amount of things on the computer. But prior to this year, I’d never used Collector or InForm, the new method for submitting fire reports and other things associated with it, or Microsoft Teams. I’d never used Adobe Connect. Never used Zoom.

Now, you get an email that says: ‘Hey, Zoom meeting at 2 o’clock . . .’ And it’s like, okay. And, of course, it’s a blessing and a curse.

Obviously you don’t want to have to learn in this kind of environment with all the challenging negative COVID-19 impacts. But at the same time, it’s kind of a blessing to have to be thrown into all this to learn these things that we’re going to have to know how to do to continue to function going down the road. Because this isn’t going away.

More than likely, at some point things might ease. Modern medicine might figure some things out. But this is going to be something that we’re dealing with for quite some time. We’re going to have to find ways to continue to get things done and operate safely and get the messages we want out to people in efficient ways.

Technology is a huge asset to do that. And yes, it’s definitely helped me become a better supervisor just even in the last six weeks.”



One thought on “Our COVID-19 Fire Season: What’s Prepared You for Leading in It? What are Your Fears?

  1. Great interview. I was happy to hear Alex taking on this new challenge. He’s a solid leader and fantastic human, and I’m excited to see him excel.

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