Where Do We Go From Here?

[This is the featured article in the 2020 Fall Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Bre Orcasitas

2020. What a doozie, huh?

What started out in the beginning as a global pandemic actually turned into something much more than that. Somewhere along the way the year 2020 turned into its own thing. A span of time that feels akin to spending 12 rounds in the ring with Muhammad Ali all while having your hands tied behind your back. Yes, the year 2020 seems to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

Highlighting the universal hardships of 2020 is important because it added overarching complexities and layers of stress for all of us while we were just trying to do our jobs, which was challenging in and of itself due to the pandemic.

What made it challenging? Let’s take a brief look in the rearview mirror.

For many of our folks “fire season” 2020 began way back in the winter, with a constant cycle of firefighters headed to the Southern Hemisphere to work in Australia. (Doesn’t that seem like a million years ago?) Once the pandemic gripped our nation, trainings were canceled, work capacity tests were waived, technology swooped into every fire program, crews desperately attempted to train their folks from a distance while still ensuring that they were physically prepared to fight fire. There was also a mad scramble to find and purchase PPE.

Telework was now the rule rather than the exception, protocols were developed then altered and tweaked seemingly every other day at every level of the organization as people started to figure out what works and what doesn’t; all before we even made it to June.

Needless to say, folks were already feeling fatigued as the western fire season was just starting to pick up steam.

Once we actually got into the height of fire season it was all about “Module as One”, staying away from ICP, learning that the COVID protocols for every county/state health department are different and adjusting accordingly, using COVID screening questions and thermometers and pulse-oximeters with regularity, navigating challenges regarding pay when firefighters ended up in quarantine or isolation, finding ways to maintain some semblance of hygiene in the field, figuring out remote Check-in and Demob as well as dealing with virtual CTRs and learning what a FOB (Forward Operating Base) is and is not.

Beyond new implementations, this year also left us with heavy hearts, as the fire community was hit especially hard by the loss of nine of our aviators in the line of duty among others in the greater fire community. There were entrapments and shelter deployments, militia-guarded fires, several communities were lost, and we had our formal introduction to the first “Gigafire.” What else? Let’s see, lightning struck a fence and ended up burning down a fire camp and the bubonic plague even managed to make a guest appearance in Colorado. Seriously. 2020 is in a league all its own. Much has been thrown our way, and much has been endured.

COVID Mitigations — Incident personnel wear protective face masks and adhere to social distancing on the 2020 Williams Fork Fire in Colorado. Photo by Kari Greer.

Distilling things down, the pandemic provided a general disheveling of our standard operating procedures. It hasn’t been all good and it hasn’t been all bad. But good or bad, some of our entrenched habits surfaced due to the circumstances we found ourselves in. They are now worth taking a harder look at.

So let’s dive in, shall we?

We are Built to Organize Chaos

Our workforce thrives in dynamic and ever-evolving work environments, mainly because our work environment is dynamic and ever evolving. Luckily, utilizing the ICS system is second nature and we collectively excel when given the direction to “just make it work.” Essentially, we had solid experience in dealing with mayhem prior to the pandemic coming along. Aren’t we so lucky?

However, even with a solid starting point, times were tough. Something that really ate our lunch was that we couldn’t rely on all our tried and true SOPs. We quickly realized that much of the playbook we have turned to for so long had become obsolete overnight.

Good thing we are built to organize chaos! I mean, the fire community is nothing if not adaptive, right? Right. We can shift plans and innovate our way out of just about any sticky situation. But here’s the funny thing about being adaptive. It is entirely possible to be an expert in adaptability while also being completely averse to change. This is the fire community in a nutshell.

We’ve always done it this way. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. This is our tradition!

In this regard, we are truly at odds with ourselves. Yes, we are adaptive and will flex our tactics in a millisecond to make it work when we are in the midst of an escalating incident. But just as soon as the sense of urgency is removed, we go from being Gumby to the Tin Man in two seconds flat. What’s our deal?

Of course, as with all things, there’s more to it than that. So, let’s explore a little.

We have an incredible workforce with such a deep operational knowledge and understanding that most of our problems have essentially already been solved by somebody, somewhere, at some level of the fire organization. The hinderance to our collective advancement isn’t problem solving or absence of vision, it’s a lack of implementation. In some industries a solution to a problem is revolutionary and taken to the top of the chain at lightning speed. In our industry it’s a little more like: “Yep, add your solution to that mountain of solutions over there, we’ll get to it at some point.”

Let’s take technology for example. The fire world has slowly folded digital technology into its operations over the past couple of decades. Then this year we moved into it with warp speed. Do you think that there haven’t been countless folks urging the progression of this technology into fire operations?

Remote Check-in and Demob on fires, IMT members working remotely . . . these ideas and concepts are not new—but our willingness to accept them? That is new. Why? The answer seems to be, because we had no other choice.

Tradition Impedes Innovation

Precautionary mask and gloves are worn on the 2020 North Complex Fire in California.
Photo by Kari Greer.

The fire community is steeped in its traditions. Some have served us very well and will continue to do so for as long as humans engage with wildfire. Others are old hat and are clung to because it is familiar and comfortable—whether or not they make any good sense. Want some examples? Dirty yellows, staying quiet when you’re injured or sick, not labeling fuel canisters because your crew doesn’t do it that way, etc.

Have you ever been the person in your crew or organization who dared to offer up a new idea or concept only to have it immediately dismissed for the sheer fact that it bucked tradition?

This is again where we are at odds with ourselves. There’s a portion of the fire community that consistently pushes for change and innovation, while another portion clings to tradition and familiarity. Just as with any community, it takes all kinds to make things work. We need the traditionalists as much as we need the visionaries. But how do we weed out the “old hat” traditions from the worthwhile traditions in order to keep in step with the times? How can we all evolve to be a hybrid of visionary and traditionalist?

Take It with You When You Go

With the insanity that accompanied 2020 was also an amazing opportunity to compare and contrast our original SOPs with something different. There have been simple, yet revolutionary takeaways from this season; like say, making “the crud” nearly extinct! Does the crud still exist? Of course, it does. But the frequency and scale at which people got sick this season seemed to be drastically lower. One would assume that this had everything to do with our newfound focus on the health and hygiene of our people and an active mission not to spread illness.

Before this year the general demeanor regarding the crud was: “Gibbons has the crud. It’s only a matter of time before we all get it. Oh well, what ya gonna do.” And no one seemed to give it a second thought. Gaining control over the crud this year is not a small thing. It was a small tweak to long-standing practices which ended up providing huge benefit to firefighters far and wide. And it all started with a shift in our collective mindset. Suddenly, preventative measures were put into place (as well as they could be out in the field) to keep our workforce healthy. It worked because everybody was on board.

Dampening down “the crud” was but one of many unintended outcomes from this year. Some fall on the positive side, some on the negative, and others were a bit of both.

The Good and the Bad

Air resources also follow COVID mitigations in 2020. Photo by Kari Greer.

The catapult into technology was one that resulted in both positive and negative results. The rapid advancement in comprehension across many platforms (especially regarding video conferencing and file-sharing systems) is certainly a positive. But an absolute reliance on virtual Check-in/Demob/Time submission proved problematic for folks who did not have a capable device, as well as for people in areas without cell coverage/Wi-Fi.

Another factor to the overall wellness piece had to do with smaller fire camps and line spiking. The latter being a formerly utilized function which fell out of use more and more over the last decade or so. Obviously, smaller camps or spiking out reduces the exposure to germs outside of each crew’s “Module as One”, but it also provides better rest and recovery with less camp noise, diesel fumes, and travel time to and from the fire. Of course, this was all well and good for the firefighters, but it surely placed a significant strain on logistics.

Shifting gears a little, fatigue management is a consistent thorn in the side of every fire program and always has been. But with a new mindset heading into this year came a desire for some fire program managers to take proactive steps for their folks by putting protocols in place with the hope of providing relief before burnout ensued.

Some implementations will have long lasting negative effects, such as the environmental impact left in the wake of individually packaged and/or single-use everything along with items triple-wrapped in plastic.

So, the ultimate question for us in the collective fire organization is: What do we want to take with us moving forward and what should we leave behind?

As a community, are we able to embrace being adaptive while also welcoming change? Can we support the innovative ideas brought forward by our workforce rather than waiting for a moment of desperation before we’ll try something new? If nothing else, 2020 has shown us that whether we like it or not, “normal” can be wiped away in an instant. On the upside, the fire community relies on learning from unintended outcomes and we’ve had plenty of those this year. Therefore, it might be worth grabbing a moment for reflection and asking ourselves: “Where do we go from here?” before attempting to revert back to the way things were.

One thought on “Where Do We Go From Here?

  1. We learned a lot this season, some good, some bad. We have talked for years about letting our crews be more remote, but logistics and control dictated the creation of the larger fire camps to serve as a hub for equipment, briefings, food and distribution of information. Hot Shot crews have been asking for years to be allowed to be remote, Finally this year the Pandemic mandated minimizing exposure and keeping separate. We have the technology to brief remotely when we have cell service, lets keep that for the future.

    Aviation operations have often been remote, but this year we saw our fixed wing and rotary wing resources being used far more than in the past, and occasionally far more than necessary. Many teams relied on these resources as a stop gap while they got other resources online and moving. The question that this raises is are we transferring our risk from one resource to another? Given the aviation fatalities we saw this year, this is something that needs to be looked at.

    We finally seem to have a grasp on utilizing medical resources and equipment on fires. Contractors and cooperators are now being ordered up on even the smaller fires as a risk mitigation tool where in the past we had no such resources on scene. The concern is that some resources are fireline qualified, some are not and some have more experience than others. With the use of these contractors and cooperators, we may be ignoring our own in house resources; our emt’s and crews with equipment and training. Lets hope that we can support our own personnel with training and equipment. Before resources can be ordered for a fire, during project work, and travel too and from an incident or work site, all we have is our own people.

    Some personnel, even later in the season, still did not grasp the need to consistently and correctly wear a mask. Cooperators, Contractors and even our own people. While some of it can be chalked up to Covid fatigue, it is a wonder that more did not come down with the virus.

    This seasons pre and post season training was a bust on a number of levels. Extensions were granted for some certifications and other online or virtual training was conducted for other classes. But the reality is that the majority of upper level training did not take place. This will effect us further down the road as this stalled many in their efforts to complete or even start Position Task Books. Many positions are in critical need and this next year will require that we rely on a limited pool or AD workers to fill these. Some of our AD militia are in need of additional re-training to be brought up to speed on recent changes.

    Lastly, many of our S courses are so out of date as to be nearly useless. The whole point is to have consistent training across the fire organization. Whether you work for the BLM, USFS, NPS, BIA, USFWS, etc., having training that is the same is essential. Many crews are filling in the gaps by making their own updates, changing the course work to be more up to date and useful. Many programs such as schools, academies, fire programs, volunteer fire departments, are learning out of date or incorrect information. They simply do not know any better. Either way, we have a large number of courses that are giving out bad information and there is no consistency of training across the fire world. Some classes, like S-270 Basic Air Operations, are a decade out of date and have been removed from Position Task Books. This takes away much needed information for single resource bosses and Operations folks with no aviation background. If anything, we need to update these courses and we need to do it quickly.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.