By Sara Sweeney
As a Hotshot Superintendent in Region 3, I was among the first wave of firefighters in the nation trying to navigate the challenges of standing my crew up while also dealing with constantly evolving information about COVID-19.
Our crew opted for completely virtual critical training, which worked well for us. Our squaddies did a great job setting up the Google Classroom and stuffing it with training that we normally would not get a chance to cover (articles, videos, food for thought, other informational training). However, it takes away a lot of the blood, sweat, and tears that really make crew bonding what it is.
In attempting to find workable solutions we came up with the idea of “mini-mods,” a concept I adapted from the small IA modules I’ve used in the past. Each buggy squad (8-10 people) was split into two mini-mods (4-5 people) and consisted of either a squad leader or senior, a saw team, and at least one digger. We’ve got the luxury of having 6 EMTs, so we tried to include one with each group. We requested two NERVs (national emergency rental vehicles) to allow a little more space in the trucks, which effectively gave each buggy its own “chase” vehicle. We also had the project truck with two, and then the supt. truck with myself and the assistant.
This worked great in the beginning. It helped give us some separation particularly in the first few weeks when we were working mostly virtually, staggering mods coming into the station, spreading out work groups for projects, etc.
I also think that smaller groups helped with the new folks getting to know each other in a less intimidating group. Then again, crew cohesion is difficult when you aren’t together as a crew. The mini-mods PT’d together, and then as squads, so they had some familiarity. But we just did our first all-crew PT hike (in late May) and the crew has been assembled since April 13.
Because of the original set-up, I have noticed that the squads have gotten used to operating as squads and not as a crew. While this did not affect our morale or work ethic (the fellas have been killing it on the few fires we have gotten), I noticed they tend to stick to their squads as social groups rather than as a crew.
Using the mini-mod concept meant using extra rigs, and they are a pain in the ass. Our normal configuration consists of the supt. truck, project truck with UTV trailer, and the two buggies. Even this at times is cumbersome but allows some flexibility for taking training assignments, shuttling supplies, getting someone home if necessary, etc. But the addition of two extra pick-ups complicates everything from basic parking, to fueling, to communicating which exit we’re taking. It also necessitates extra cleaning supplies and presents gear storage problems (without toppers that lock, there is virtually no way to secure anything in the back, and the Joboxes provide only limited storage).
We decided to get rid of them at the end of the first roll. It was a good idea to start, but I think the situation has evolved and we are more comfortable operating together as a group or within our “module-as-one”.
When we had our readiness review, we were asked if we had any concerns, given that we hadn’t been training together–in person–as a full crew. I feel that we were lucky with both our overhead complement and our seasonal line-up this year. The seasonals are new, happy, and eager to learn, and do not have preconceptions about how a season or a crew is “supposed” to be. The overhead understands the intent and has acted accordingly to execute direction. This is a really good example, I think, of being lucky AND good. In a different year, with different overhead in place, it may have been a little more challenging.
The main difficulty at this point, as we have completed our first assignment and have some station time on our hands, is how to reintegrate without normalizing the risk of exposure. I believe this is an ongoing problem in the agency, on our forest, and in society as a whole, which all of my guys are exposed to on a daily basis, particularly as things open up again. I am also concerned about the distractions presented by protests, rioting, and curfews, as well as considerable turnover in our district fire program right now. All of these things could play into the overall well-being of the crew.
Moving forward, I have been faced with questions about whether I would continue to stagger the squads on workdays. This seems almost redundant now that we have been operating as a crew on an assignment, but I must also recognize that comfort levels vary even within the immediate circle of the crew. Like every other superintendent, I suddenly found myself at the point where I choose whether to continue to aggressively mitigate for COVID-19 or to bring in the whole crew, separate them for PT and projects, and continue to emphasize our COVID-19 protocols regarding cleaning, sanitizing, and hand-washing.
Ultimately, I opted to bring in the crew. However, how do we do this without making it seem like everything is fine, and what we have done to this point is an overreaction?
The conclusion I have come to is that this—in so many ways—is like being on the fireline, where you are continually engaged in an “OODA loop”: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act, making the best decision you can with the information you have as the situation evolves.