How 30-person hotshot crews could help firefighters recuperate between assignments

And allow them more time at home during the fire season

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KNP Complex of fires, Inyo Hotshots,
Inyo Hotshots on the KNP Complex of fires, Sept. 29, 2021. InciWeb.

Guest post
By Tim Swedberg

On September 26, Wildfire Today published an article titled, Survey of Wildland Firefighter Spouses Finds the Job Creates Stress for the Family. The Survey tabulated responses from 1,841 persons including 1,599 from the Forest Service. One of the findings was “78.1 percent of respondents feel stress due to wildland firefighters’ absence.” Respondents also identified the need for “less demanding work schedule that provides for more days off.”

The critical issue is fatigue and its effects

Much of the work/rest research was completed over 20 years ago at the Missoula Technical Development Center (MTDC) and the University of Montana. The Spring 2002 MTDC No. 5 Health and Safety Report provided recommendations focused on: work/rest, assignment length, shift length, and much more.

From this research the National Wildfire Coordinating Group provided a guidance letter dated February 6, 2004, which states, “for fatigue management purposes and in line with credible research recommendations, a 2-day-off-after-14-day assignment standard (exclusive of travel) has been adopted”. 

The 2002 research recommendations were a step forward, but (to the best of my knowledge) there has been little or no new wildland firefighter fatigue research commissioned or developed that could drive revision of the current policy.

Considering the increased deployment tempo, fire intensity, and size of current-day fires, it is both prudent and essential to revisit and validate or update the existing 20-year-old work/rest/fatigue recommendations with new and on-going research information. The Joint Fire Science Program, Forest Service Research Stations, and universities can lead in the development of critical new information to update fire management policy.

Is there a way to address the concerns of 78 percent of families that “feel stress due to wildland firefighters’ absence”? The answer is YES!

Back to the roots of Hot Shot crews

In the late 1940’s El Cariso, Del Rosa, and the Los Prietos Hot Shots were created as 30 person crews. In those early days all 30 firefighters would deploy to an incident.

1970 El Cariso Hot Shots
1970 El Cariso Hot Shots

Today, I suggest a return to the 30-person (3 modules) Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC) strength. Rather than dispatch all 3 modules, only 2 modules would respond. This leaves a 10-person module at home for a week of quality rest exclusive of travel. After 7 days the module left at home would replace one of the modules on the fire and one of the modules on the fire would return home for a week. This weekly rotation would continue throughout the fire season and could be accomplished without exceeding the 14-day assignment standard as no crewmember would work beyond 14 days. The rotation provides certainty for families that once every three weeks the firefighter will be working at their home unit.

Adoption of this suggestion means that Incident Management Teams will always receive a full two-module IHC Type 1 crew as is common practice today. The rotation also provides the IHC crew with 10 fresh replenishments every seven days exclusive of travel.

Clearly existing work/rest policies are detrimental to both firefighters and their families as evidenced by the Wildfire Today reporting of November 4, 2017 Suicide Rate Among Wildland firefighters is “astronomical.” The good news is, a fix could be developed and adopted without legislation. Let’s see if the rotating 30-person crew can diminish stress at home and on the fireline. I look forward to your thoughts.

Tim Swedberg is a retired Palomar Hotshot firefighter and captain, fuels manager on the Mt. Hood National Forest, and during his last 10 years served as Communications Director for the Joint Fire Science Program —  for 40 years of total service.

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43 thoughts on “How 30-person hotshot crews could help firefighters recuperate between assignments”

  1. Whhhuuuuttt? Like the airlines, the 2002 “study” does little to resolve all of these issues that management was to work on and solve. Maybe there needs to be some re-education at the higher GS. GM and SES levels. Things are just not paying off. The idea, like 3-deep, as espoused by the ICS system, might actually work, IF practiced!!

  2. Should be a week of admin pay so they can stay at home and take care of business and the family

  3. Outstanding idea time has touched on several issues that need to be addressed and the need for more research is important. I think the suggestion is worth a try.

  4. This could be a good thing and I’d like to see a pilot program to study the effectiveness. The only problem I see is the lack of people applying to these positions. One way would be to combine the former IHC’s which couldn’t maintain status this past fireseason. Also simply combining crews may make for more effective deployment of crews. Who knows time will tell.

  5. This concept has been discussed locally on my district during workforce transformation discussions. If you have five engines needing staffed with five people, instead of hiring 25 people, hire 40. This would allow consistent staffing, on a rotational basis, and a consistent pay whether you’re on the engine or not. This would be similar to how staffing is done on a city FD.

  6. Maybe I missed it but do the Sup and Foreman rotate out as well? To me this seems like an idea that sounds good on paper but in reality is not great.

  7. This is a great idea but ONLY if base pay is significantly raised (so the need for considerable amounts of overtime is reduced). Because otherwise the mod that would stay “home” would miss out on needed OT/HP. And not just IHCs and handcrews, but for engine crews, helitack, wildland fire mods, etc.

  8. Good point and the superintendent will need to track the OT and HP so that it gets fairly distributed through out the crew

  9. They will have to be. When supt is rotated out the foreman replacing he or she will need to meet the requirements of a supt or the crew becomes a Type two crew. The idea is good but the agency managing the crews will need to get into the weeds of how to make it work. The Supts can come up with how to do it Tim just put it out for all to come up with how to do it

  10. Hi Joe thanks for the note.
    I envision that the Superintendent and Captains would rotate home with their module.
    In my experience Hotshot Captains routinely ran the entire crew when the Superintendent was tasked with another assignment. And Hotshot Captains were usually Division Supervisors. Yes everyone gets home every 3 weeks.
    Hope this helps and the idea needs to be tested. tim

  11. The idea is good. But points made in previous comments need to be addressed.

    1) Admin pay while on time off at home? Can IHC crews afford that amount of time off and still make ends meet?
    2) Do the Sup and Asst Sup rotate also?

  12. That’s my thoughts, as it is people are afraid to even take sick leave during the season because if you miss a roll you’re losing potentially hundreds or thousands in hazard and OT. Most of us on crews barely make ends meet for the year on a 1000 OT hour season, if your missing 1/3 of the time on fires it won’t work.

  13. One of the requirements to be a Hot Shot crew is the entire crew is permanently assigned and work together as unit all season long. If a Hot Shot crew had a different mix of people every week, they would not meet the criteria. It would be little different from marrying 2 different 10 person fuel crews for a fire and calling them a Hot Shot Crew.
    In a busy season, like 2020 and 2021, HS crews were going from assignment to mandatory days off then immediately reassigned to a new incident. If the ‘off’ module was on admin leave, that would mean every person on that 30 person crew would spend 1/3 of the entire season on leave. Obviously an unacceptable situation for management (paying for 30 people but only having 20 available at a time), dispatchers and incident ordering managers (that have a stack of UTF requests and a full 1/3 of the qualification pool unavailable due to mandatory R&R), and the firefighters themselves (they sign up to make money via overtime, and being told they cannot because of R&R rules).

  14. I agree with bother Joe and Riva. Sounds good on paper but let’s visit the Position Description required of the overhead as well as the qualifications needed for the overhead positions. On top of that most crews outside of R5 run a single captain staffing model. At this point in time we already ask too much work/qualifications wise of our overhead for the compensation that is given. On the pay side of things good luck asking people to do the same job for less OT/HP. Novel idea to keep a fire resource available for IMTs though. On another not I wonder how this would impact crew cohesion?

  15. Like Riva said, things need to be in place like pay and benefits before something like this is done. We can not keep reworking how we do things while we are still contained in the broken box we operate in. We need a new system, and then yes, let’s look at new ways. But until then this is another bandaid to a bigger issues. On the outside it looks like it would be good for mental health, but we know the reality, we are understaffed. What will it look like for the ones held back from an assignment? My educated guess is staffing engines and other areas of need. This will not provide the mental health needed to a resource already taxed. My other question is this; we are already crazy under staffed, why are we not trying to fill those jobs instead of building 30 person crews? We can barely hold on to the folks we have now, how are we going to hold on to 30? What does this mean for the overhead now supervising an extra 10 folks? People who have been on crews know that it’s an open family, and one that I love but this adds a lot of extra stress to the overhead and mostly the Supt. Also, Hotshot crews are a National resource, decisions like this should be done with the full support of all crews, first. Not done in silo with a forest. Decisions like this affect a very large community and need to be vetted correctly. I’m open to new ways of doing things but we need top down change first, and we definitely shouldn’t be messing with the most relied on resource we have, that is already doing positive things to creat change in the right ways.

  16. The System has already been broken. Land management agencies take money from fire and aviation so they can survive as an agency.

    Ground resources – contract and agency- make it happen without legislation or the Chiefs in DC.

    Land management agencies should no longer manage the Wildland Firefighting workforce, for they don’t have wildland firefighting experience or understand the Wildland fire fighting workforce.

    Would the military hire somebody with no military experience to mange them???

    Build a new system and make it better for USA.

    No change like this will happen without a USA Wildland Fire Agency.

  17. Great timing for the article. Our crew actually made a briefing paper last fall for a 30 person crew, a few alterations and would love the chance to demo it out! Just been trying to find support for it. Fee free to reach out if you want to discuss anymore.

  18. If I understand the situation correctly, city fire departments already do something like this. For instance if the (fictional) Bay City FD supplies an engine or three for a strike team, the engine stays on the assignment but the crews staffing the engine(s) rotate out after 14 days or so. I suppose they are paid according to their department policies which doubtless vary wildly.
    The notion that a crew would somehow be less effective if part of the crew rotates out every week does not sound reasonable to me. Crews in a wide variety of situations change all the time. Good training and clear expectations make sure everyone is on the same page.
    Clearly, the existing program is not working, this sure sounds like a good idea to try out, modify as necessary, see how it works.

  19. Even the Forest Service/BLM know we are using a model from the 1950s currently. I think Tim’s idea of doubling down on it would be a big mistake.

    It’s time to modernize the workforce. Build a new system from the bottom up and give us a model that promotes true work/life balance, pays a living wage and doesn’t rely on burning everyone out to the point of mental disorder, depression and suicide.

    A lot of the assumptions here are simply deeply held beliefs, unquestioned as to why they exist.

    I could go on about it, but we need to modernize our workforce, not continue old models that have failed.

  20. Hey Tim I have been an advocate for more than 20 for a very long time, whenever I could get the support I would add additional folks so that we could maintain depth when folks took leave, I like the idea of having a 3 mod configuration, however it’s difficult to maintain 20 let alone 30, and the cost of doing business will rise significantly….Who knows, it would be nice to see this idea beta tested……Crew cohesion would not be an issue, the system does not need to be rebuilt from the ground up, maybe tweaked a bit, we need to honor our history and traditions, this is how we evolve.

    Things may start changing for the better, we will see….We have all allowed our hopes to rise only to be let down, we will see….One thing is certain, change or not, the DOI-USFS are not going anywhere……
    I am an old retired FF who still cares and I do hope for the best, it’s kinda like being a parent, you want your kids to have it better than you had it…..Peace…..

  21. Modernize? Why? Some or most Agencies have nothing better to do than base actions on old history…uniforms, top down chain of command, thinkin aviation contracts were based on the DC3 rather than 5-10 yr contracts with current acft, antique OWCP procedures, 1039, intermittent, term …why change? “Thats the way we have always done it” attitude toward line personnel..Granted OPM is some of the thing needing change, too. Why modernize?

  22. This needs to be applied to all facets of the fire management organization. We have the same issues with having people work hundreds of hours of OT, being gone for weeks on end, then they get two days off (three this year). Then the expectations are that folks return to their normal job and function at a high level – with very little acknowledgment from management that people are tired, injured, burned out. Generally all that is heard from management is “Gee you worked a lot of OT – now you need to get all this other stuff done” – like increasing the pace and scale of Rx. Until we truly have an organization that is three deep at all positions of the organization, things won’t change very much.

  23. This concept always sounds great on paper. There are numerous issues.
    Infrastructure- Not many crews can support another 10 people in current facilities or lack of
    Vehicles-More vehicles, more cost. FS is cutting fleet.
    equipment-more equipment, computers, etc.
    People-Has anyone here looked at referral lists lately? retention is an issue, the bigger problem is recruitment.
    Travel- This is not as simple as rotating 10 people every 7 days, travel, exposure, delays. This would be a complex problem. How efficient is it to take 10 from Oregon and swap them out with half the crew in the SW.
    While a week off might be good for some, it doesn’t fit everyone’s life. Its hard to plan time off with your family when you don’t know when it will be. Most people will be like caged animals around the house waiting for the next time they go, they will feel they are missing out on the action, and the pay.
    Its not as simple as just switching half the crew every week. There will need to be a transition time, overlap. Most folks are not going to jump into an ongoing mission and grab a torch without proofing it themselves. We see this all the time on Surge groups. Get a brand new crew hand them the torch, tell them its ready to go and prepped, people get upset when they balk because they want some time to check it out and make themselves comfortable with the plan. They need that time to get comfortable with it.

    30 person crews, more perms, more time off, could very well equal more time on the road and longer seasons. Rx in the east, Rx in the west, fire season, Rx in the fall, California season. Before you know it you have just made folks work longer seasons and are away from home more than they were.

    Not to mention more admin work on the GS-9 to manage all of this motion that has been created by hiring another 10 on the crew, longer season, constant hiring, ER, HR, logistics, etc.

  24. I know that a third paid day off after a 14 day assignment has been adopted and used in places. This seems like a better option (and maybe even a fourth, mid way through the season) to allow folks to catch their breath, or take an extra day at the station to re-group, do time, travel, rehab, etc. Travel home on days 15 (and 16), take 17, 18, and 19 off, catch up at the station on 20, 21, available (or go out again) on 22, allows for better planning, everyone gets paid for 21. Could also work for any function (engines, helitack, etc.) 30-person crew sounds good, but logistically may be a nightmare.

  25. 30 person crew won’t work for an agency that is not designed to be a fire department. It seems like another bandaid that just falls off for all the reasons mentioned above. Most notably pay! IHCs are struggling to maintain staff as it is, ask any Supt.

    If the concern is better rest, then rest should be guaranteed more frequently and paid regardless of what day of the week it is. How about 2 days rest for every 7 days worked. For example, if you work 7 days your guaranteed 2 paid days off. If you work 14 – 4 paid days off. 21? 6 paid off. This model provides incentive for crews to complete 14-21 days on assignment which fits IMTs needs but provides opportunities for Supts to rest their crews and get them home more frequently.

  26. Was just talking about this to my battalion and a captain friend this morning. This, or something like it, is one of the missing pieces that needs to be figured out even after we (presumably) get that pay raise. Even with the 20000/50% pay hike, the operational tempo for an individual firefighter with a kids and partner needs to change.

  27. This is a stupid idea. They can’t even get 20 people to make it through the season but now they’ll be able to find an additional 10 x 100 crews? And where’s the money going to come from? They can’t even find the hotshot programs they have. They can’t get chase trucks for the 20 people they have or saws or fire shelters. But sure add 10 more folks!

  28. Great concept 30 person IHC rotation. Also as others have mentioned rotations on all other crew configurations. I would also suggest rotations to support resources, (training, R&D, fuels , HR etc, ) that would also enhance career development. I went from the district to shots, then helitack, then SMJ ( back filled on the shots). A few of us SMJ’s and shots landed in the Job Corps program, (myself as a clinical social worker/counselor) assisted in all facets of their fire programs took on crew sup assignments (did some of my best counseling/coaching on the fire line) and single resources. I was probably the only red carded FS GS 185 Social Worker running around the fire lines! When I became a manager, I always looked for those with some WFF experience, they are great problem solvers, can do bunch! Only goes to show it is entirely possible to create rotation systems within outfit.

  29. Riva, thank you for your comment. Be assured that I agree 100% that firefighter compensation today is not adequate and needs to be increased as soon as possible.

    However, no matter what a firefighter is paid, the issue of fatigue and the associated problems (i.e. safety, physical, mental and family balance) associated with it, will remain.

    As in all change, all mitigating factors should be studied thoroughly for strengths and weaknesses to determine it’s viability. A pilot program would help determine if the 30-person crew would help with the problem of fatigue and all the issues that come with it.

  30. Maybe they can hire them back from Cal-Fire, SCE and PG&E. Not gonna happen without Rita Duncan and the grassroots organization. Even if you double the pay today, your only half way there.

    Joel A Lane

  31. The situation as it is today is untenable. That doesn’t mean this is a bad idea, it means it shouldn’t be slapped on top of a bunch of stuff that is already broken.

    If you wanted to accomplish this successfully- I think you’d need 40 folks, not 30, per crew. Double staffing, double quals, the whole thing. And then even more personnel, (how crazy is that!) Because even if you successfully filled all of those crew positions, you still would only have enough people to not quite burn everyone out every year… not adequate staffing to sustain operations for the long haul.

    You’d need massively better pay which eliminates a need for OT or hazard so that folks can miss an assignment and not feel it in the winter, better benefits, -adequate- funding, including funding to provide for adequate facilities, rigs and equipment etc. And probably a bunch of other stuff I haven’t mentioned.

    This would probably take decades to accomplish due to the need to train people to fill those roles, and it would require long term vision and oversight which is hard to come by in election cycle politics.

    But I don’t see how else to fix the staffing and burnout issues which currently exist- you simply need more people and more resources to staff fires right now and allow for the people who do the work to have something approximating a life.

  32. As one hotshot supt put it this year, “It’s crabbing season, you don’t take time off during crabbing season.” The idea sounds nice but part of the reason we’re on hotshot crews is to make money. I’d love time off but the opportunity cost of staying home for a week at a time is like throwing away a mortgage payment every time I do it.
    For anyone asking about qualifications, the supt and foreman are both just task force plus crew boss for one and firing for the other. Like someone else stated though, shot crews are meant to work as one cohesive unit not a rotating jumble. I know our crew would be very resistant to the idea. The lack of team cohesion that would accompany it goes against what we believe a hotshot crew is and at that point it would probably be time to leave. It wouldn’t be a hotshot crew anymore.

  33. Agree with the 3 days off. Our crew Supt would often ask for 3 days off especially during busy seasons or later in the season as folks were fatigued. Much more solid R&R!

  34. After reading all the comments and concerns about the topic at hand I personally think we have to look forward to making the industry better. What I mean by better is we can’t say “well this is the way we have done it for a hundred years so lets keep on keeping on”. I have very little fire background. I went to school enjoyed it briefly but my calling wasn’t fire. I can say I have been around my father who has over 40 years in the industry, from fighting fire to the science of it to bringing people together to making some pretty outstanding scientific break throughs. The issue is not pay – we all need paid. The issue is not staffing/ funding because there is always folks that have this calling and if one can prove a need funding will come. So we need to look past titles pay and ego. We need to adapt and figure out how to make a better quality of life for our brothers and sisters on the front lines. We need to look at safety – can we perform our job with the strenuous hours. Is it safe to do so? What will my physical and mental health look like? After the world got hit by covid 19 mental health has been a huge topic. There have been professional athletes being struck by this issue, what is the difference between firefighters and athletes? We just play in a different arena. Physically are we prepared for longer and more intense fire seasons? What do our family life’s look like? I work 12-13 hours a day 5-6 days a week and I have a 9 month old son and I have missed out a ton. I understand what I signed up for but I hope in the future I can see my family more and be more involved with his upbringing. I think the lessons to be learned here is lets make a better quality of life and have a better work and home life balance. I want to thank time for his work even after retirement to being dedicated to his craft. I applaud all of the people who have had there hands in the science of this and are committed to making others better. Old dogs can teach new tricks, with the proper training.

  35. Good points 307. Now we need to convince OPM that their age 57 is outdated also…some of us while not available due to the age limiting Pack Test and Age 57 rule…What’s to say we can’t move into dispatch or hang out on the ramps of airports? I know plenty o folks on ramps refueling draggin hose etc. Yep that’s they we have done it this way for 100 years is still prevalent

  36. I have been around NIFC watching returns warehouse functions and refueling of planes and I think if the rule of 57 applies to FF on the front lines that there should still be a place for people that are fit enough. Its hard to throw that knowledge and time on the front lines aside. Thank you for the reply monitormonkey!

  37. Hey Tim sounds like came up with another good idea. We need significant if not monumental change in all areas of fire management as our current course is obviously not sustainable. Change is finally coming to IMTs let’s look at dispatch too, the next crisis in the making. Hope you and yours are well! T.

  38. Hi Tom, so good to hear from you! Many things need fresh looks and fixing.
    Are you still working in MN?

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