NWCG to re-think Incident Management Teams

According to a memo sent out by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group on January 15, 2010, they are going to:

..review and analyze alternatives addressing the appropriate number, type, and configuration of the national IMTs (Type 1, Type 2, and Area Command)

The reasons given in a brief memo include the following:

Our current workforce management and succession planning for wildfire response is not sustainable for the future. We recognize that the increasing fire season length is negatively impacting all of our agencies abilities to meet their missions due to personnel serving on teams and having less time to accomplish their normal job duties. We must update our militia based model to better address future incident management demands. NWCG also needs to ensure line officer expectations are adequately addressed for incident management.

A person might wonder why, other than the vague reasons stated above, they are going to consider “updating the incident management business model”, as the memo says. Perhaps the recent disbanding of California Incident Incident Management Team 3 for the stated reason of the lack of a qualified Incident Commander, and difficulties filling positions on teams in general, could be some of the reasons.

The 2009 Type 1 IMTeam assignment list and rotation has already been replaced with a 2010 version, but I believe there were only a handful of Type 1 team assignments in 2009. In a normal year, a team might get two or three 2-week assignments, making it an inconvenience for a team member who does not normally work in fire management. The home unit can get a severe case of heartburn when a person’s absence for a total of four to six weeks causes targets to be missed.

NIMO teamsOne way to mitigate this would be to create more National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) teams, but with the teams having more than just the seven positions as they are currently structured. When I first heard five years ago that year-round IMTeams were going to be created, I thought it was a great idea until I found out the teams would only consist of seven people each.

From Wikipedia:

A group in itself does not necessarily constitute a team. Teams normally have members with complementary skills and generate synergy through a coordinated effort which allows each member to maximize his or her strengths and minimize his or her weaknesses.

A lot of time in Advanced Incident Management (I-520) is spent on the concept of teams, teamwork, building an effective team, and behavior in a team.  One of the primary reasons IMTeams exist is that the personnel on a team train together and deploy on multiple incidents over a period of years, converting a GROUP into a well-functioning TEAM. But if a team of five is assigned to a major incident, they will have to order, usually blindly, an additional 40-70 additional people and hope for the best. And if they are lucky, near the end of their 2-week assignment some of them may have adapted to become part a team. Then they go home, never to assemble that team again.

Maybe I’m a little slow, but I fail to see what having five seven-person teams does to improve the management of large, complex incidents. Having them show up to look over the shoulders of teams managing Type 1, 2, and 3 fires as they did in 2009 generated complaints.

Am I the only one saying the NIMO emperor is not wearing any clothes? Maybe not. Here are some excerpts from the notes from the California Operations Committee and Incident Commander Meeting, October 27, 2009:

NIMO was mobilized for support to the agency administrator and then the role changed to help the team. NIMO’s role in-between line officer and IC really impacted the relationship/communication between agency administrator and IC and unified command with CalFire added a complication. Would like CWCG direction regarding how NIMO is to be used in CA.

[…]

…team lost effectiveness working under NIMO and communications were an issue. Need to communicate NIMO protocols upon mobilization.

[…]

Often times the intent of mobilizing a NIMO team is to help the situation and in fact, they often times created confusion, blocked communication, and hindered efficiency.

In a perfect world, we would have five, 45-person year-round NIMO teams, but it is unlikely we’ll ever see that happen. Increasing the size of the NIMO teams to at least 25 people could result in them having key positions down to the Unit Leader and Division Supervisor level reliably filled, and would maintain a decent-sized core Team that could, after ordering the additional 15-45 people needed for a large, complex incident, function as a Team. Then they could serve as an Incident Management Team, rather than second-guessing other teams and getting in the way.

I am sure that the NIMO teams do some good work. According to the only *accomplishment report (no longer available) on the NIMO site which covers portions of 2006-2007, the teams get involved in activities other than fire, including “training, quality assurance, fuels management, fuels implementation, fire and resource management support, NWCG projects, cost containment, and leadership development”. They must be too busy to post any recent accomplishment reports.

*UPDATE March 11, 2010:

A new Accomplishment Report covering 2008 (no longer available) has been added to the NIMO web site since we wrote this article on January 22, 2010.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

6 thoughts on “NWCG to re-think Incident Management Teams”

  1. Thanks for the response…..interesting article….I’m rostered on one of four type 1 IMT’s for the BC Forest Service. We too are experiencing “challenges” in fully staffing four Type 1 IMT’s for the Province. “Somewhat” glad to hear that it’s not a problem unique to only our fire organization.

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    1. “AD” stands for Administratively Determined. It is a temporary employee hired for a specific emergency situation, such as a wildfire. They typically work for just the duration of that particular incident, then their employment ends.

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  2. I agree with the statement that the Agencys are getting in a bind in the conflict between their regular jobs and their fire duties. Enter the AD,who is not a agency person but works at the discretion of the Agency they are working with. I think the Ad will will and can carry more of the burden in the future.

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    1. Jim, you are correct. AD’s can carry more of the burden. However, in the south, AD’s are not looked at very favorable by the Regional Forest Service Fire Leadership. Its sad the way FS retirees who are AD’s get treated the way they do in the Southern Region.

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  3. NIMO Teams are a perfect example of someone coming up with a new idea but no one is quite sure how it fits into the existing Homeland Security based incident management situation. We arrived at this twilight zone when FEMA decided that they wanted to play operations section chief and leave the world of pushing paper and writing checks to someone else. Being good wildland firefighters we kept to ourselves and left NIMO to the “experts” at FEMA. Now we have the least experienced agency taking the lead in a world that wildland firefighters perfected- the world of long duration incident management. Wildland firefighting personnel need to form the foundation of these NIMO Teams. If FEMA is going to go down this road-they need to be lead by personnel with a strong background in long duration incident management. Not horse breeders or firefighting hobbyists who never had to manage an incident for longer than an afternoon.
    While the headquarters in Washington, DC is full of brilliant, well educated personnel,
    the disconnect comes when those without a strong real world background try to get operational.

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