‘And Then What?’

And Other Pearls of Wisdom from this Logistics Section Chief

[This article originally appeared as the “One of Our Own” feature in the 2020 Fall Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Alex Viktora and Paul Keller

Meet Stu Rodeffer.

A noteworthy journey led this man to his current post, the Logistics Section Chief on the Portland National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Team. Stu acknowledges that his background is, indeed, “eclectic”.

He started his professional career in the U.S. Marines. Unfortunately, he injured his left knee and left hip which would eventually lead to his medical discharge from the Marines. Not to worry, prior to his discharge, resilient Stu became a military police officer at California’s Camp Pendleton. During this assignment, Stu was working that night in January 1993 when the Santa Margarita Flood swept across and inundated Camp Pendleton.

“I spent a large amount of time in those flood waters working with the Camp Pendleton Fire Department doing swift water rescues and things of that nature,” Stu points out. This experience convinced him to join this fire department, becoming an EMT and, later, a Paramedic.

U.S. Marine Police Officer Stu Rodeffer (on left) on duty at Camp Pendleton.

Next, Stu’s career path took him to Tucson, Arizona, where he worked two years for two local fire departments, then joined the larger Northwest Fire District there.

In January 2011, Stu was the first Chief Officer to arrive on the scene of the tragic shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords as she spoke at a constituent meeting in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson. Giffords was shot in the head and survived. Six others were killed, including nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. Eighteen other people were shot and survived.

“I was assigned as the Medical Group Supervisor, coordinating triage, treatment, and transport of the injured for the shooting of the 19 folks, and sadly, the six fatalities,” Stu informs.

Stu eventually worked his way up to be the Foreman of the Northwest Fire District’s Type 2 Initial Attack Crew. Stu also helped support this crew to transition into the fully-certified (non-federal and non-state) Ironwood Interagency Hotshot Crew in 2008. “Sadly,” says Stu, “after the Yarnell Hill tragedy, the fire district decided that a hotshot crew was a liability. In November of 2013 they were disbanded.”

Back in 2005, Stu realized that his knees and his weight weren’t going to let him continue to undergo the operational rigors of a wildland fire crew. No problem. Stu started going out on Incident Management Teams in Logistics.

In 2013, Stu was assigned to be the Deputy Incident Commander for the Granite Mountain Memorial Team. “We supported the City of Prescott. All the way through the memorials I filled that role as the Deputy IC, certainly not a traditional logistics role, it was more ‘All- Hazard’.”

After 18 years, Stu retired as a Battalion Chief Paramedic with the Northwest Fire District. During his service he completed his Bachelor’s degree in Occupational Safety and Health with a Fire Service concentration. Next, he worked for the State of Arizona for 15 months as Safety Officer for Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

“In November of 2018, I went to Saipan as part of the All-Hazard Support Team there from the State of Arizona. We spent 16 days supporting post-Super Typhoon Yutu that had devastated Saipan and the Northern Mariana Islands.”

Next Stop: Stu applied for the NIMO Logistics Section Chief position and, of course, got it.

Foreman Stu (center-left on one knee) with his Northwest Fire District’s Type 2 Initial Attack Crew at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in 2003.

Alex: What prompted you to pursue a career in Logistics?

Stu: When I was the Foreman on Northwest Fire’s Type 2 IA Crew, it became apparent that due to my preexisting knee/hip injuries, as well as my weight, I couldn’t physically keep up with my crew. I was never going to be the weakest link. I knew it was time for me to stand back.

My thought was how do I stay engaged? I realized that wildland fire parallels the military in so many facets. If you think about it, there isn’t a ton of difference between the two. We’re taking about taking terrain and holding it. We’re talking about the right place to engage.

In wildland fire we have ground troops, we have heavy equipment support—engines, dozers, etcetera. We have an air force; we even have paratroopers! We take and hold ground, go direct, we flank, and we fall back to indirect just like combat. The difference is the other combatant is fire. I understood the parallels. It was familiar and I wanted to remain a part of that.

And frankly, I don’t have the discipline and attention to detail that’s required of a Plans Chief or a Finance Chief. But what I did understand was what it was like to be on the side of a hill as a young Marine, and as a hand crew member, as well as a member of an engine module, because we also did engines at Northwest. I went out a lot as an Engine Boss.

For me there was always that piece of: “How could we do that better?” And I realized that if I couldn’t be the person on the frontline fighting the fire, how could I best support that effort?

It became the identification that without logistics, it’s only a dream. Logistics is the hub of this simple yet extremely important phrase I use which is: “And Then What?” We’re going to spike out. Logistics then answers the question of “And Then What?” How are we going to set up a coffee kit? How are we going to get them food? How are we going to support their medical needs?

I realize that while it’s certainly not sexy and it’s certainly not the stuff that people are holding those “Thank You Firefighters” signs for, Logistics really and truly can be an important facet of helping people that are helping others. And that to me was the reason that I kind of gravitated toward Logistics.

Alex: Can you explain why “And Then What?” is such a significant guiding principle for you?

Stu: Absolutely. The roots of that phrase actually came from paramedicine. I was a paramedic for 21 years. It dawned on me that we get into the realm of strategy and tactics sometimes, and we go through our P.A.C.E. (Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency) models and all of the things that we’ve really become very good at in Operations.

And in development of that P.A.C.E. model, going all the way back to paramedicine and transposing through the fire service into incident management, came the realization of when you come up with an answer to a problem, the very next question has to be: “And Then What?”

We’re going to burn off from this place in Division Alpha, “And Then What?” If you ask yourself that internal, small, finite question—the burn holds and we go home. Or, the burn doesn’t hold. Now we have to bring in more personnel. Or, the burn doesn’t take, it doesn’t work . . .

Once again, just that very simplistic question of “And Then What?” for any course of action sometimes can force us to stop and realize that I didn’t think much past my initial action.

I’m certainly not smart enough to say that this is a huge “Ah-Ha” moment for me. It was just something that made sense to me that if you ask that internally and you ask it of others when they have a plan, it transposes into Logistics.

Alex: What’s the most dangerous decision a Logistics Chief makes?

Stu (on right) with Crew Medic Mark Graves in 2004 during IA support on lightning strikes on the Modoc National Forest.

Stu: I don’t know that there is one specific thing that would be the most dangerous. I would submit to you that as a Logs Chief every decision has a consequence. But always, the consequences of the decisions that are made by Unit Leaders or by myself from a Logistics perspective ultimately effects the newest, weakest crew member of a brand new crew on their very first fire.

The decisions that I make affect the very boots on the ground.

Therefore, the most dangerous thing in Logistics is indecision, the inability to choose the best option of all the bad options. Because there are times that you don’t have certain things, but you have people on the ground who have showed up on IAs. And in today’s environment, it’s not uncommon for something to go from Type 4/5 to Type 1 in a couple hours.

You end up with 400 people on the ground. The system doesn’t work that fast all the time, but everyone still must be fed and watered. So I/we make decisions sometimes to do things, like we’re going to get water from this vendor and we’re going to go to Walmart. We’re going to use a purchase card.

Of course, some of those things are in the floating “gray areas” we have in our system. But the reality is we must support the boots on the ground. And there are times when the system was not designed for the rapid nature that we encounter.

Therefore, I think the single-most dangerous thing for a Logistics Chief is indecision, the inability to make the uncomfortable decision with limited information, probably very similar to Ops and Plans and Finance and Safety and ICs. Right?

Alex: If you could make one change in our Ops Chiefs’ brains what would it be?

Stu: Bring Logistics in early. What do I mean by that? Don’t sit down and visit with me at the pre-strat meeting. I’m speaking from my perspectives. I don’t want to speak for all Logs Chiefs. But in the world according to Stu, that conversation starts early.

If I could plant one thing into every Ops Chiefs’ brain it would be to ask the Logistics Chiefs “What is the logistical lag time?” Ask this early to ensure that we have a realistic understanding of timetables and what we can support. If we ask that question early, then I think it would really put us in a great position to be able to speak to what “Success” looks like.

Alex: Is there a similar message you might convey to our up-and-coming Type 5 ICs? Even our Squad Leaders? What’s a Logistics-informed perspective you might instill in that segment of our audience?

Stu: Understand that Logistics is here to serve you and the system is fairly robust. But the problem is, particularly in a Type 5 to Type 3 incident, even though everything is happening so fast, you still need to be able to communicate what/where you’re going to be in four hours. So it’s that vision of not what it’s going to look like at noon today. Rather, what’s it going to look like when we’re trying to feed people at 1800? Or, what’s it going to look like in the morning if it burns throughout the night?

If we consider that Logistics has a zero-deficiency baseline: We get it right or we don’t. Taking that as the initial conversation puts a lot of pressure on Operations because what we need mostly from that Type 5 IC all the way up to that Type 1 Ops Chief is: We need information.

We need you to take time to step away from the chaos and engage me and say this is what’s happening, this is where we’re going, this is where I think we’re going to be in four or five hours. If you look at the traditional model, we’ve heard it tossed around a lot, the “24”, “48”, “72”.

In Logistics, I add an additional page for “96” because of logistical lag times, because of the things that need to go on. So my goal is to try and look past their “72-hour” so that by the time it becomes a 72-hour discussion or “24” or “48”—we’ve been ready for it for four days to meet the support need. That’s because we have to factor in logistical lag time from the cache system or a Buying Team just based on availability, personalities—a lot of different things. There’s no finger pointing. Every system is only as good as the humans who are communicating in it.

The most successful thing a Logs Chief can do is surround yourself with really smart Unit Leaders who challenge you and disagree with you. You need to listen to them.

Do not form a culture to agree with you and think you’re the greatest person on the planet. Get Unit Leaders who know their business and challenge you. Finding the people that have a different view that bring forth tough feedback, tough ideas. That’s the way to achieve success.

So, to tie back into that Type 5 IC, having those uncomfortable conversations of: “Look, we understand you’re running this off a pizza box on the hood of your truck. And we know that you’re trying to figure out what it’s going to look like in 10 minutes. Yes, I/we are going to be a distraction for a minute. But tell us exactly what you think and we’ll give you honest feedback as to what we can do. It may not be what you want to hear. But it may be what you need to hear to adjust your planning moving forward.”

Because, believe it or not, Logistics has a huge impact on reaching strategies and objectives—not just tactics.

Battalion Chief Stu (center) on his last structure fire with the Northwest Fire District in 2018.

Alex: What’s your view regarding some of these changes, including the proliferation of spiking out, that the Operations world just loves from 2020?

Stu: Yes, absolutely. There are some vastly different opinions out there among Logistics and Operations folks. As well as Incident Management Teams, right? Because we’re all human.

This all started with the impetus of the discussion of “distributive operations”. In the truest military concept of having a base of operations that we would distribute chow, and we would distribute material at points where folks are going to be operating. And, we’re learning, right? The military has been doing it for 200-plus years, and they don’t have it perfected. We’re therefore not going to get it right in just nine months.

The reality is that in 2020 our first swing at our “distributive operation” turned into something that, I have to admit, if I was on a crew, man, I’d love it, too. And forgive my terminology, but I’m going to be honest. I have said this publicly, so I will own it: Who wouldn’t like camping with room service?

Of course, I know not every fire was that way, not every crew was treated that way. But the overall concept is they get tremendous amounts of sleep now because they’re not driving back to a large base camp that has all the cursory noise and all the traps of a large base, right?

So they work, then they come back to an area in which they control the lighting. An area in which they eat their chow and bed down. And they get quality rest because it’s fairly remote. I mean, it’s all the things that we want. Hell, I want it, man. And I applaud it and I think it’s a great thing.

But here’s where “Risk” raises its ugly head. We’ve taken the risk of COVID and we’ve taken the driving risk away from the crews. Operations is rested and safe and healthy. Nobody’s a bigger fan of that than I am. But now we’ve also taken that risk of them driving back to camp and getting a little less sleep and we’ve put it onto a 65-year-old AD driver in a Penske rental truck at 3 in the morning. Or at 10 in the evening as we deliver those products out there. [See sidebar below to learn about a serious accident that occurred in 2020 to a driver and passenger delivering food in a van to firefighters.]

To read more about this incident and learn its significant lessons: https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/pine-gulch-fire-dry-ice-outgassing.

So part of our discussion with Operations and other Logs folks across the country has been: “Look, this is great, but it’s not sustainable.”

Logistics has been impacted this year greater than ever. And it’s not because we’re serving people in the field. That part we’ve always done to some extent. But now we’re adding COVID mitigation—we’re putting up sneeze shields, we’re getting additional supplies, we’re having to make sure that things are cleaned a certain way, that social distancing exists, as well as these multiple contract modifications for showers and caterers that need to be enforced and verified. And we’re decontaminating everything on a non-stop basis. The regular supply chain is taxed because hiring folks has been difficult during this COVID time. Our AD drivers are being taxed.

Sure, some of these things are great and we’re going to keep them. Not for a second do I think we’ll go back to major bases or major spike camps with hundreds of people. I think those will be slowly but surely relegated to the annals of history as we move forward because this is now an effective way to do things.

If you consider Logistics, Plans, and Finance, a good majority of these folks are AD. They are in the “higher-risk” COVID group. Yet we have put an added work burden on Logistics this year, beyond what these folks traditionally did. And some folks retired. And now some folks are just like: “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Therefore, we have a difficult enough time keeping up our staffing in Logistics, because again, it’s not sexy. Logistics knows two things: we hear complaints or we hear silence. There’s nobody patting us on the back. There’s nobody thanking us for our jobs. It’s either all effed-up or nobody’s saying anything. And when people are quiet, that’s a home run for us.

Stu (on left) in 2004 when he was Foreman of the Northwest Fire District’s Type 2 IA Crew, discussing plans in Division A of the Nuttall Fire with John Bristow, Lassen Interagency Hotshot Superintendent.

Alex: Is there anything from 2020 that was adopted that you would like to see us discontinue?

Stu: I would love us to toss out two concepts, they’re synonymous: The use of the term “the new normal” and the concept of “when things get back to normal”. In my opinion, this is normal. Quit talking about the “new normal”. There’s nothing new about this. It’s just normal.

And if that’s wearing a mask and it’s hand sanitizer, it’s social distancing, putting all these cleaning things in place, dispersing troops in the field—that’s all just normal. COVID is just another risk out there that we’re adjusting for.

Consequently, let’s quit talking about it in terms of this “new normal” and when things “go back to normal”. Let’s accept where we are and let’s thrive and be successful in it. Let’s not wring our hands about “it’s unpredictable” and “it’s new” and “I want things the way they were.”

All those are valid feelings. But if I had to toss out something, that’s what it would be.

Alex: What else do we need to be doing, organizationally, in anticipation of the next curveball?

Stu: Where are the young up-and-coming folks to run Logistics and to run Plans into the future? What are agencies doing to make it attractive and lucrative? Not necessarily in a fiscal sense, but making it understood that you can impact an operation. All the great things that have occurred on the ground wouldn’t have occurred without pump kits and hose and all that was delivered by Logistics.

My point here is, in the world according to Stu, whether it’s an Initial Attack or a Type I incident, the way we fight the fire isn’t really that much different. If you talk about Type I complexity, the things the crews are doing on the ground are the same things they do on an IA. The difference is support. Dealing with the agency administers and those things. And then ensuring the necessary support of these major operations to be able to support them to do what they always do, whether it’s IA or a campaign fire.

The difference in complexity certainly could be the size of the fire and those things. But for the majority of the operators, they fight fire the same way. The difference is what it takes to support. And I think somewhere along the line, we must figure out how to get more folks who are going to support Logistics.

We need to get more bosses willing to free folks up to go into those support roles to go out on these assignments and work Task Books. Because, eventually, if we don’t do this, we will be left with gaps when we’re trying to support the most valuable resource we have.

Once again, like I said at the beginning of this interview, everything I do is based on the newest, weakest crew member on the brand new crew on their very first fire. If I meet that person’s needs, then—by definition—I meet everybody else’s needs.

And so we have to take care of that person, we have to figure that out.

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