Fatigue Management

What are You Doing to Proactively Manage Fatigue?

Agency Administrators and Fire Staffs have the ability to encourage modules and individuals to manage fatigue. To set it as an expectation and then to support it.

By Riva Duncan, Fire Staff Officer, Umpqua National Forest

Large fires on the Umpqua National Forest burn long into the season, often up until a season-ending event. It’s not uncommon to get a complex of fires that start in July or August and last until mid- or late-October.

Riva Duncan

We’ve been proactive for the last few years with trying to manage fatigue. In 2017 and 2018 we had very demanding and arduous fire seasons. We instituted a “7 and 2” (seven days on, two days off) work schedule for our own resources working locally who weren’t assigned to an IMT. This included those people working in Dispatch; Fire Management (FMOs/AFMOs); Agency Administrators; Resource Advisors (READ); Resource Advisors, Fireline (REAF); and incident business personnel—the list goes on and on.

Local resources who were assigned to IMTs could request additional days off after their assignment, but it was left up to each Agency Administrator. We encouraged Module Leaders to manage fatigue early and not hesitate to ask for more rest if they felt the need. Who better to gauge the physical and mental health of their folks?

Requesting Additional Leave

This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic changed our world, we began to notice a different kind of fatigue setting in. It was noted in the Rocky Mountain Research Station’s Human Performance and Innovation Organizational (HP&IOL) reports as people talking about it “feeling like Preparedness Level 4 or 5” back in June. It felt like the end of fire season instead of the beginning. Talking to a lot of my own staff, we were all pretty tired.

As Fire Modules began to leave our area for Region 3 and other areas experiencing fires, their leaders began to ask for extra days off when they returned. “Hey, we’re going to take our two days off and then some additional Annual Leave if that’s okay,” were the kinds of requests we started hearing.

In July, our Hotshot Superintendent—this crew always being the first resource out the door—started letting us know the Hotshot Crew would take their two mandatory days off and then an additional one or two as Annual Leave or—if their stars aligned—into their regularly scheduled days off. This was unusual for the crew so early in the season. Typically, they would take their mandatory and want to be “back on the board.” But then other Modules began asking the same.

In early July, our FMO group had a conference call. Both Zone DFMOs started talking about how their folks were tired. How it felt like the end of “Dirty August” instead of the beginning of July. How Mods were requesting additional days off. We agreed to ask the Forest Supervisor to approve three mandatory days off after coming home from an assignment.

Even though we knew that District Rangers can approve additional days off, we wanted it to come from the Forest Supervisor to ensure this was universal across the Forest for all resources. As the Fire Staff Officer, I also took it to the Forest Leadership Team where it was unanimously agreed upon. The Forest Supervisor approved it, and an email went out to the entire Forest that same day.

One Extra Day: Feels Like a Gift

The Umpqua National Forest had a quiet season, and we thought we dodged the large, complex, team-fire bullet. Then on September 8, that all changed with the historic wind event that roared through western Oregon and Washington. Nearly every employee pitched-in to support the two large fires we have (not to mention evacuating two Ranger Districts, one a large compound where many employees live full time). We reminded everyone of our three-days off policy.

As I approach my 21st day, that extra gem of a day off looming out on the horizon feels like a gift.

Agency Administrators and Fire Staffs have the ability to encourage modules and individuals to manage fatigue. To set it as an expectation and then to support it. We shouldn’t wait until September when everyone is already ragged, because by then it’s too late. One extra day can make a huge difference both physically and mentally.

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Supporting Policy Reference

From the NWCG Standards for Incident Business Management:

“Days Off–After completion of a 14-day assignment and return to the home unit, 2 mandatory days off will be provided (2 after 14) (state regulations may preclude authorizing this for State employees). Days off must occur on the calendar days immediately following the return travel in order to be charged to the incident (5 USC 6104, 5 CFR 610.301-306, and 56 Comp. Gen. Decision 393 (1977). If the next day(s) upon return from an incident is/are a regular work day(s), a paid day(s) off will be authorized. Pay entitlement, including administrative leave, for a paid day(s) off cannot be authorized on the individual’s regular day(s) off at their home unit.

Home unit AA may authorize additional day(s) off with compensation to further mitigate fatigue. If authorized, home unit program funds will be used [emphasis added].

Management Directed Days Off at Home Unit

Supervisors must manage work schedules for initial attack, dispatch, and incident support personnel during extended incident situations. During periods of non-routine or extended activity, these employees will have a minimum of 1 day off in any 21 day period . . . Indicators of the need for a day off include long shifts, but equally important, the actual observation of the physical and mental condition of the employee. This is a critical responsibility of every manager and supervisor [emphasis added].”

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How Do You Handle Fatigue?

To continue the conversation surrounding fatigue, here are three key questions that might prompt beneficial—and enlightening—discussion:

  • How do you recognize fatigue in yourself?
  • How do you recognize fatigue in the folks you work with?
  • What do you do when you see fatigue in Day 2 of a 14-Day assignment?

2 thoughts on “Fatigue Management

  1. Excellent blog post. I have been a Fatigue Management advocate for over a decade. We have to keep talking about it and recognize how it plays into everything we do. Remember, fatigue does not keep you from making decisions; it makes it hard to make good decisions.

  2. Good topic. In general, many employees push the boundaries of fatigue by seeking out as many hours of overtime as they can get. Home unit employees can work 21 straight days with 1 day off. Depending on the circumstances, that may be too long. Working 12/2 or 6/1 is probably more desirable since it maintains normal days off without the appearance of government employees seeking unnecessary paid days off. Not all administrators would approve a 7/2 schedule. It is probably better to follow standard government-wide and/or NWCG schedules that don’t perpetuate a continual paid-day off routine for long periods of time that most of the taxpayers would never have the opportunity to get in the real world that funds our operations.

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