At least eight interagency Incident Management Teams have been deployed to work on issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. These are the teams that usually are assigned on wildfires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, but can adapt to manage many different kinds of planned or unplanned incidents, organized under the Incident Command System.
As we reported earlier, three Area Command Teams were given assignments on March 17 to develop protocols and wildfire response plans for maintaining dispatching, initial attack, and extended attack capability. The plan was for the personnel to work remotely, rather than assemble in one location. The teams will be working on plans for the following geographic areas:
AC Team 1, Tim Sexton: Southern, Great Basin, & Northern Rockies.
AC Team 2, Joe Stutler: Rocky Mountains, Northwest, & Alaska.
AC Team 3, Scott Jalbert: Southwest, and both Northern and Southern California.
Two National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) teams have also received assignments:
Australia has ramped up their requests for firefighting help from the United States. So far during their 2019-2020 southern hemisphere bushfire season Australia has only requested individuals to serve in specific management or specialist positions on bushfires, except for one 20-person crew that left for Australia a few days ago.
But now according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Australia has asked for “several Type 1 Incident Management Teams” (IMTs).
The logistics and determination of which IMTs will go is being worked out now, with an estimated departure date around January 16, 2020. The basic configuration for Type 1 IMTs is 58 members including 14 trainees, while a “short” Type 1 team has 26 including 6 trainees. We have learned that early indications are that instead of multiple 58-person teams going to Australia, three 10-person teams will respond, but this could change before they are actually mobilized. Maybe they will come up with a new term for 10-person teams.
IMTs are organized in advance to staff the overhead or management structure needed for running a planned or unplanned incident. The organization is based on the Incident Command System, with every position on the team having a title and a position description. Specific training is required for each job.
A Type 1 IMT is the highest level team, comprised of individuals with advanced degrees, so to speak, within their particular area of expertise. In the United States rosters are set in the winter or spring for the following summer fire season. There is always some churn between seasons, but many serve for multiple years. The team concept helps to build relationships, trust, and efficiency — the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone understands their role and they know what to expect from their co-workers.
IMTs that are primarily used on fires are rarely needed between January and April, however that can vary depending on the geographic location. Since this is the time of the year when IMTs might be undergoing change, with some ending their appointment to the team and their replacements not yet having been selected, it could be a challenge reconstructing them. Other complicating factors could also play a role, such as the requirement for passports and being available for an unexpected assignment about twice as long as the typical 2-week mobilization on an incident in the U.S.
But if the teams are stripped down to just 10 people each, it simplifies the process.
The U.S., Australia, and New Zealand have been exchanging fire assistance for more than 15 years. Until the December deployments the last time the U.S sent firefighters to Australia was in 2010. In August of 2018, 138 Australian and New Zealand wildfire management personnel were sent to the U.S. for almost 30 days to assist with wildfire suppression efforts in Washington, Oregon, and California. The Australian and New Zealand personnel filled critical needs during the peak of the western fire season for mid-level fireline management, heavy equipment, helicopter operations, and structure protection.
The ability for the U.S. to send firefighters to assist Australia and New Zealand is authorized in a formal agreement under the Emergency Wildfire Suppression Act. According to information from NIFC, “The agreement only permits the United States to send federal employees to Australia, which means that legally, the National Interagency Fire Center cannot mobilize non-federal employees, such as state and local firefighters, to Australia.”
The use of Area Command Teams has been declining in recent years in spite of the trend of more acres burned nationwide and increasing average size.
In two of the last three years, 2016 and 2018, there were no assignments for Area Command Teams. In 2017 there were a total of five: Joe Stutler-2, Tim Sexton-1, and Rowdy Muir-2. The number of ACTs was reduced from four to three in 2015.
The National Multiagency Coordinating Group (NMAC) which manages the ACTs, is concerned that if the teams do not receive assignments some individuals on the teams may lose currency in 2020.
Below is an excerpt from a letter sent by the NMAC on May 17, 2019 to Federal and State Agency Administrators:
NMAC is requesting your support with maintaining currency of the three federally sponsored Area Command Teams (ACT). These teams are a valuable part of our large fire management organization and have been underutilized during some of our most complex incident management situations.
Currently, within federal agencies (excluding Coast Guard), there are only three fully qualified Area Commanders (ACDRs) in the system. While the Area Command course, S-620 has been delivered this year, the lack of assignments may cause loss of currency of the ACTs in 2020.
ACTs provide strategic leadership to large theaters of operation while significantly reducing the workload for agency administrators and fire management staff. Common roles of ACTs typically include facilitating Incident Management Team (IMT) transitions, in-briefings, and closeouts. Additionally, ACTs coordinate with agency administrators, fire staffs, geographic areas, and MAC groups on complexity analysis, implementation of objectives and strategies, setting priorities for the allocation of critical resources, and facilitating the effective use of resources within the area.
We are concerned perceptions exist that ACTs can be barriers to direct communications between agencies and IMTs. As agency administrator, through your delegation of authority communicating your expectations to ACDRs, you have the opportunity to determine the role in which ACTs can best serve your needs. ACTs are committed to ensuring enhanced communications between agency administrators, fire managers, and IMTs.
NMAC request the support of agency administrators to exercise current ACTs in 2019 if and when appropriate.
It is surprising how many large complex incidents do not get a chance to benefit from the help that an ACT can provide. Even in 2016 when there were many large fires burning in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina at the same time, no ACTs were mobilized. You might wonder if any of the fires, including the one that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee, would have turned out differently if there had been a group of highly skilled personnel looking at the big picture, helping to obtain resources, analyzing the weather forecast, and utilizing short and long range fire behavior predictions.
An ACT may be used to oversee the management of large incidents or those to which multiple Incident Management Teams have been assigned. They can take some of the workload off the local administrative unit when they have multiple incidents going at the same time. Your typical Forest or Park is not usually staffed to supervise two or more Incident Management Teams fighting fire in their area. An ACT can provide decision support to Multi-Agency Coordination Groups for allocating scarce resources and help mitigate the span of control for the local Agency Administrator. They also ensure that incidents are properly managed, coordinate team transitions, and evaluate Incident Management Teams.
National ACTs are comprised of the following:
Area Commander (ACDR);
Assistant Area Commander, Planning (AAPC);
Assistant Area Commander, Logistics (AALC);
Area Command Aviation Coordinator (ACAC); and
They usually have an additional 2 to 15 specialists, including Fire Information, Situation Unit Leader, Resource Unit Leader, and sometimes others such as Safety, Long Term Planning, or assistants in Planning, Logistics, or Aviation.
Above: The U.S. Navy assists a victim of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. U.S. Navy Photo.
Eight Incident Management Teams have, or will soon be responding to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to assist in the response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. As of Wednesday evening a total of 353 personnel have been assigned to the FEMA response through the National Interagency Fire Center. This does not include the resources mobilized directly by FEMA.
Here are the details, according to NIFC:
A Type 1 IMT (McGowen) has arrived in Puerto Rico and is coordinating with FEMA regarding establishment of an Incident Support Base for the receipt and distribution of commodities, supplies and resources at Aguadilla Airport.
A Type 2 IMT (Zombro) and 23 two-person saw teams are coordinating with FEMA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency regarding plans and priorities for emergency road clearing. Lack of ground transportation is delaying operations.
A Type 2 IMT from FDNY (Kane) is working with San Juan Fire Department to assess fire protection capabilities and needs.
Two Type 2 IMTs (Bird, Parrish) have arrived in Virgin Islands to establish and manage LSAs [Logistics Staging Areas] in St. Croix and St. Thomas to further distribute commodities and supplies to points of distribution on each island.
A NIMO [National Incident Management Organization] (Quesinberry) is staged in Atlanta, GA, awaiting transportation to the U.S. Virgin Islands to support the Territory’s Emergency Operations Center in St. Thomas.
Nine two-person saw teams and overhead are staged in Harrisburg, PA; they are scheduled to fly to Puerto Rico on September 28.
Two Type 2 IMTs have been ordered to support LSAs and will arrive in Atlanta on September 29 and 30 to await transportation to the Puerto Rico/Virgin Islands region.
I learned in 1992 during our Incident Management Team’s response to South Florida after Hurricane Andrew that the local National Park Service personnel who would normally be rescuers, had become victims and needed the assistance from outside the area.
Waffle House calls them “Jump Teams” but when an area is hit by a hurricane or other disaster they respond from outside the region to keep their local restaurants up and running as much as possible. The concept is not unlike land management agencies sending teams and crews across the country to help the locals deal with a wildfire or other emergency.
Waffle House is known in hurricane-prone areas for being among the last to close and the first to open in area where residents are forced to evacuate. New employees receive training about how to manage the restaurants during difficult circumstances.
Below are excerpts from a Yahoo article published August 25 as the effects of Hurricane Harvey were unfolding on the Texas coast:
A Waffle House jump team consists of a small team of restaurant operators from outside the hurricane zone. These employees swoop in at the first possible moment after a storm to restore service and get things open. Typically after a storm, demand for food is high and functioning restaurants are in low supply, and things get extremely busy.
“There’s a jump team outside of Nashville ready to go on Sunday. Jump teams are [also] ready in Louisiana,” said Warner. “Then we can deploy from the main office some teams that may or may not go depending on severity.”
One of the reasons why these jump teams are the key to the chain’s success is because employees may not be able to work if they’re dealing with their own hurricane damage.
“It does help to bring operators from outside so it relieves [local employees] so they can focus on family,,” said Warner. “They don’t have to worry about their restaurant at the same time.”
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group has been working on efforts to address sustainability issues with wildland fire management succession planning for incident management teams. In other words, to ensure that the wildland fire agencies continue to have an adequate number and the right mix of incident management teams and the personnel to staff them. The NWCG chartered the Incident Management Organization Succession Planning Team (IMOSPT) and the Evolving Incident Management (EIM) project team to develop implementation plans.
Evans Kuo, the Project Lead for Evolving Incident Management, provided an update on the group’s progress, dated May 27, 2015: (I wish I had a dollar for every acronym below.)
“…As you know, last fall we made the presentation to the NWCG Executive Board (under whom the EIM Task Team is tasked). A copy of what we presented can be located at: http://www.nwcg.gov/general/memos/m-14-014.pdf NWCG accepted our report and forwarded it onto the Fire Management Board (FMB) along with their endorsement. Over the course of last fall the FMB reviewed our findings, developed a strategy to move forward, and presented it to the Fire Executive Council (FEC). A key element of the FMB strategy is to divide up the tasks / recommendations identified by the EIM Task Team and re-assign these tasks to different entities that have the purview to make the decisions, i.e. NMAC for IMT mobilization and IMT utilization processes, CGAC for IMT governance practices, FMB for overarching principles that individual agencies have purview over, NWCG for development of streamlined development pathways, etc. One of the problems we ran into in EIM Phase 3 was NWCG’s role in the new governance structure, which changed quite a bit since 2010 when IMOSP/EIM was first conceived. Hopefully the FMB strategy will help clean up the governance issues and allow us to move forward in a more succinct way.
Last winter FEC discussed our revised recommendations and the FMB plan of action and they briefed the Federal Fire Policy Council (FFPC). At their April 2015 meeting FFPC agreed to the FMB/FEC recommendation and strategy to move forward. We’re expecting to see the final FFPC decision memo soon, but I did get a copy of the draft decision. In short, the FFPC decision supports all the revised recommendations the EIM Task Team developed:
Maintain distinction between Type 1 and Type 2 IMTs and establish national templates to increase the speed to certification.
Maintain GACG autonomy to assign IMTs within their geographic area, though NMAC will continue to exercise their authority to maintain a “national perspective” relative to IMT assignments and regular exercising all IMTs.
Defer to the GACG to determine number of IMTs hosted by each GA, with some sideboards that NMAC and CGAC will put into place.
Work within individual bureaus and agencies to analyze and reduce (if possible) barriers and disincentives to IMT participation. Will also be evaluating the possibility of establishing national and geographic area participation goals for each agency/bureau/partner agency. “