The Eastern Geographic Area has released their Wildland Fire Response Plan (WRP) for the COVID-19 pandemic. The 83-page document was written, compiled, and assembled by the Eastern Area Type 2 Incident Management Team led by Steve Goldman, working under Tim Sexton’s Area Command Team. The three Area Command Teams were responsible for WRPs for the rest of the United States.
All of the teams worked directly with each Geographic Area’s Coordinating Group Chair, dispatch/coordination centers, and local units. They also worked under the direction and supervision of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC), through a Team Coordinator (Joe Reinarz) and maintained frequent contact and communication through multiple daily briefings to the NMAC.
The plans were developed using a standardized template and a process for national standardization; but development included attention and inclusion of all specific concerns for the Geographic Area covered by each plan.
In this article we are covering the Eastern Area plan, but based on standardization and the use of a template there may be a significant amount of duplication between plans, which will facilitate inter-Geographic Area responses — if that even occurs under the pandemic.
- Managing fire for resource benefit and using more confine/contain strategy will assist in reducing the number of responders exposed to each other and the public.
- The Eastern Area MAC group has limited the current Type 2 Incident Management Teams and one Interagency Hotshot Crew to assignments within the Eastern Geographic Area due to resource shortages, COVID-19 concerns related to travel and the beginning of the region’s fire season.
- The new Interagency Resource Ordering Capability (IROC) system at the time this is being written is not fully functional, creating challenges.
- Some states aren’t hiring seasonal staff due to current uncertainties and/or office closures
- The “Module as One” concept keeps crews separated to minimize exposure and allow efficient contact tracing. The concept includes minimizing exposure by not mixing personnel and vehicles. Module personnel should be assigned together for the entire season, on the same schedule, same assignments, in same camp, etc. Modules’ vehicles, equipment, work areas, restrooms, etc. should be off limits to anyone outside of the module if possible. Modules should be as self-sufficient, following mitigation measures described in Appendix B to further minimize chances of exposure to coronavirus.
- Federal agencies have travel restrictions in place and are managing wildfire response on a case-by-case basis. This will affect the ability of the GA to fully staff both of the Type 2 IMTs, which started normal rotation on 4/1/2020. Since many state resources are not able to travel out of state, critical overhead with Type 3 or higher qualifications may need to be mobilized using non-traditional transportation methods (agency aircraft) to allow rapid response.
- Because of the severity of the pandemic there are some firefighters and support personnel who are not willing to respond due to personal or family health concerns.
- Ensuring Midewin Interagency Hotshot Crew’s viability is important as all USFS Job Corps crews have been lost due to students being sent home.
- The virus is expected to crest at the same time as the Eastern GA’s peak spring fire season (April-June) which could cause a confluence of peak fire activity with maximum impact from quarantine/isolation cases.
- It is recommended that additional aircraft be contracted by land management agencies to transport fire crews and overhead, and that those contracts allow much greater flexibility to stop at multiple jetports to avoid the travel and co-location of crews at mobilization centers.
- Plan for shifts in wildfire response strategy, ranging from highly prioritized IA to limit numbers to reducing overall firefighter exposure by prioritizing responses.
- [Consider] pursuing opportunities for monitoring of low risk fires.
- [Consider] Exploring opportunities for managed fire, more indirect attack, focused use of heavy equipment, and designation of management action points using natural barriers.
- Implement swift initial response to minimize possibility of large fire occurrence, but do not employ higher risk tactics to keep fires small.
- Within agency protocols and to the degree possible, augment fire response resources with non-fire staff to help sustain fire response capability.
- Consider opportunities for application of aviation and mechanized assets to reduce assigned personnel.
- Prioritize initial attack and focused use of aviation assets.
- Emphasize containment, deemphasize mop up, minimize assignment time.
- Preparing and implementing virtual incident management by IMTs – GAs consider conducting simulated virtual IMT incident management prior to most active fire season periods.
- Identify and obtain necessary technology.
- Designate IMT sections/personnel that can complete work virtually and what minimum requirements are for managing incidents safely.
- Limiting large fire response to when life is imminently threatened.
- Consider existing staffing and action guides and existing dispatching run cards and guidelines and how they will be affected by a 10, 30, or 50% reduction in strength of force of wildland firefighting and management resources.
- Prepare for more remote operations, briefings, sensing, and surveillance.
- Identify technology needs, costs, and proactively implement actions.
- Pursue increased use of UAS (seek waivers).
- Use broadband channels to reach affected communities.
- Greater use of UAS platforms.
- Expedite contracting of UAS equipment.
A one-day drive rule for all resources traveling to an incident by motor vehicle, including the use of vans, busses and aircraft should be considered. If traveling as a group, additional vehicles need to be considered in order to allow for social distancing and to provide transportation in the event someone becomes symptomatic or tests positive and has to return home. Additionally, it is important for the traveler to understand that food, lodging and other commercial services may not be readily available, or if available may not be safe to utilize due to COVID-19 concerns. For that reason, anyone responding to an extended attack or complex incident should be prepared to be self-sufficient while traveling to the incident and for several days after arrival. Agency aircraft may need to be considered for transportation of personnel.
Best practices to prevent exposure:
• Utilize “Am I Fit?” checklist (Appendix C) or other CDC daily self-check.
• Integrate social distancing and daily decontamination protocols into operations.
• Consider initial attack response from dispersed pre-determined locations to limit exposure to large groups.
• Crew should be self-supporting for several shifts for meals and spike camp.
• Consider additional vehicles to allow social distancing, extra gear and extra clothing.
• Maintain a sufficient inventory of decontamination supplies.
• Develop and drill crew/module on COVID-19 response.
• Implement “Module as One” practices; follow COVID-19 Protocols and SOPs.
• Designate a crew/module person as safety monitor for COVID-19 protocols and SOPs.
• Ensure technological capability to participate in a virtual/ remote environment.
Best practices during mobilization/at incident and through demobilization:
• Follow guidance included in All Personnel Safety Guidance Appendix A.
• Follow “Module as One” concept throughout the incident.
• Utilize “Am I Fit?” checklist (Appendix C) or other CDC daily self-check.
• Utilize virtual/remote briefings or brief only key personnel to minimize numbers and maintaining separation distance.
• Include COVID-19 prevention, mitigation and concerns in daily crew briefs.
• Avoid unnecessary contact with incident personnel and public.
• Limit the sharing of apparatus, supplies, and equipment amongst adjoining resources.
• Decontamination is recommended prior to leaving the incident.
• Social distancing, sanitization, cough etiquette, etc. remain a priority on and off the fireline. (i.e. “Module as One” concept, spike camps)
• During mobilization discuss COVID-19 mitigation plans particular to the incident.
• Avoid prolonged smoke exposure if possible; rotate personnel and/or avoid smoke.
• Maintain clean PPE each day to prevent virus spread.
Best practices in the event of a presumptive exposure.
• Personnel should report symptoms or potential COVID-19 exposure to supervisor immediately and initiate onsite self-isolation/self-quarantine. For the good of the crew and all personnel assigned to the incident, do not hesitate to report a suspected exposure or symptoms.
• Supervisor will report through chain of command to IC.
• Incident staff will interview person affected for and determine locations and other personnel that might have been exposed, using COVID-19 approved protocols.
• Decontaminate any equipment and locations before returning to service.
• Person will be demobilized to home unit if possible.
• Follow existing public health orders for transportation arrangements back to unit.
• Incident staff will work to identify and inform others potentially exposed, check for symptoms and determine if there is a need for decontamination or further action.
• Follow agency protocols and regulations regarding use of affected person’s name(s) and information.