COVID-19 Era Lessons and Observations from an IHC Superintendent

 IndependantActionAfter multiple incident assignments so far during this special COVID-19 year, Brendan O’Reilly, Superintendent of the Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew, has compiled several helpful lessons and observations from his perspective and that of his peers.

COVID-19 Era

Lessons and Observations

from an IHC Superintendent

By Brendan O’Reilly, Superintendent, Prinveville Interagency Hotshot Crew


Brendan O’Reilly

Online Check-In

Excellent. No need to ever go back to in-person check-in.

Red Cards

With IROC, do we really need to email copies of Red Cards for agency crews? This seems redundant.


Radio briefings are preferred and are very helpful to maintain social distance. If at all possible, avoid large groups. For group briefings, do it by Division—and it is necessary to stress social distance and proper mask use. For radio clones, have the Com Techs travel to spike camp locations, or post the Com Plan online or email to resources directly.

[For insights from a Com Tech on a more expedient method for getting briefings to spike camps, see this recent RLS: Radio Briefing Technique.]

IHC_blog photo 1

Operations briefing on the July Complex on the Modoc National Forest this July 24.

Online IAP

Password protect or email online IAPs to resources, but figure out a way to increase the distribution so resources have them for the morning radio briefing. If you’re using paper IAPs, get them out as early as possible. The fire maps on the FTP site are working well.


Fuel tenders that travel to spike camp locations on a rotation keep resources out of town or ICP and limit extra driving. Also, plan on extra logistical orders for pump, saw, and burn fuel if resources are spiked out.


The individual meals for breakfast and dinner have been great overall and well appreciated. The main issues are with packaging and logistics. The best set up (at least for crews) is to have the kitchen package the meals in boxes of 10 labeled with the contents and taped shut.

If the kitchen is able, boxes with the correct number for each resource and well labeled are even better. It is also helpful if the silverware is included in the meal box rather than in a separate box of just silverware. This way there is very little handling of the actual meal contents and the silverware can’t be lost or forgotten.

Odd numbers per box or boxes that are not taped and labeled encourage more handling. In addition, several times we’ve had the box of silverware missing. Crews have utensils, but engines and tenders maybe not so much.

IHC_blog photo 2

Food pick up location on the July Complex
on the Modoc National Forest this July.

We have been using masks and gloves for anyone participating in food distribution, but that is not universal. I would recommend that masks and gloves be the standard for drivers handling meals.


It also works best if there are multiple resources at a spike location to get a Spike Camp Manager or at least use a TFLD or EMT—or someone—to organize the meals. It may be hard to get a full Spike Camp Manager for each location, but a consistent point of contact is helpful.

While old habits and fire culture would historically mean more hands to help unload a truck, in this case that is counterproductive for handling meals.

Trash, Hand Wash Stations, and Outhouses

Daily backhaul of trash is necessary. Hand wash stations are much appreciated. Outhouses are necessary anywhere large groups will camp for multiple nights. One crew spiked for a night is fine without an outhouse. But with multiple resources in one area, outhouses are a huge plus for sanitation.


I don’t know how it will work once we get into west side fires with poison oak, but for the east side, I personally prefer “bath in a bag”. The whole mobile shower with lines and intermix of resources seems like a horrible idea with COVID. We have not been to a shower yet this season.

Maybe schedule times for specific crews to go in and close the showers to other resources at those times to preserve separation?

Laundry for poison oak will be necessary, but I don’t know how best to accomplish this. Maybe labeled bags brought in to ICP by one member of each crew? This might be important soon.

IHC_blog_brendan rigs

The Prineville IHC’s buggies. When Brendan wrote this blog in late August his crew had yet to take showers on an incident. He personally prefers “bath in a bag”.

Supply Orders

If crews don’t go to ICP, we will have to place more orders for small items we would have historically taken care of ourselves. Divisions and Supply must expect line orders for gloves, flagging, Nomex clothing, etc. that we might not have done previously. Cleaning supplies like paper towels (the blue shop towels are preferred), extra gloves, hand sanitizer, etc. should be available at spike camps.

Electronic CTR

Electronic CTR does work. But people have to have Adobe and it can be a time suck for the Divisions. Good service is required and the data management on a phone is time consuming. Photos of paper CTRs is much faster.

Having a process to leave time for the Division to sign and then pick up eliminates much of the close contact for paper signatures.

Phones and Email

We are providing our phone and email information during the check-in, but it does not seem to go to Finance or the Divisions. Stress to Divisions that getting contact info and email for resources—and also giving theirs out—is helpful for the admin process like time.

Online Forms

General message and evals are available as PDFs if folks are willing to use them. Certainly preferable to handing paper copies back and forth.


This can be done remotely for most of the process for agency resources. As little time in ICP as possible is preferred. If there is good phone service, we can review and email time without going into ICP.


Ensure section numbers are legible or provide an exterior letter/number grid to facilitate discussion of locations remotely instead of gathering over the hood of a truck to point at a physical map. Common reference points make these remote conversations much easier.


Wear one. Please. Have more than one readily available. Encourage all firefighters to have a clean spare mask in a ziplock in their pocket for medical emergencies. If it’s not in a ziplock, it will get dirty quickly. If it’s your daily use mask, it’s nasty to carry that one in a dirty, sweaty pocket.

OK, it’s your turn. Do you have any follow-up thoughts on any of Brendan’s observations? Or what about your own COVID observations/insights/lessons from fires you’ve been on this year that you can share? Please do!

3 thoughts on “COVID-19 Era Lessons and Observations from an IHC Superintendent

  1. Check out the TurboScan App (~ $5.00) for transferring CTR’s and other documents as PDF’s. It’s like having FAX capabilities on your phone. I’ve used TurboScan as needed to email completed shift tickets and hand off hard copies at the end of the assignment when demobing. Works well and minimizes unnecessary daily contact.

  2. Concerning electronic CTRs there should be a way to electronically sign for supervisors and then forward to finance with cc back to crew. Or, If it comes from Supervisor’s secured email it should be as good as if he signed it with a pen. That email would also be a part of the record.

  3. I appreciate Brendan’s comments. I think if there is a light at the end of the tunnel it’s we’ve learned new ways of doing business that should be carried forward. I tried a few things this years as a type 3 IC that were an epic fail, all electronic IAPs, alternate briefing ideas. But COVID protocols have illuminated our very static way of doing business, hard copies, signatures, etc that don’t look a lot different than when I started in the mid 90s. We’ve ingrained the bureaucratic rules to such a degree that folks are challenged to think outside the box and often put up road blocks, whether it’s finance, plans, logistics, or the old engine boss who can’t wrap their mind around digital check in. If we are to exist into the future as a functioning wildland fire group, flexibility, adaptability, and the embrace of technology are critical. It’s also imperative our governing rules established predominantly by federal land management agencies must reflect this adaptability. Folks are so worried about breaking the “rules” that they don’t see the forest for the trees.

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