Looking back 45 years at large fire organization charts, “support teams”, and hair requirements in California
Chief John Hawkins shared with us a copy of the California Department of Forestry’s Fire Control Handbook, 1977 edition. The agency was known as CDF before they became the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE.
It is a .pdf copy of Handbook 5600 with a few amendments around 1979 and 1980 to address the agency’s limited trial of the Incident Command System (ICS) in their Region VI starting in 1978, and the planned California-wide implementation of the ICS in 1983. The entire document can be downloaded here (large 10.2 Mb file).
Firefighters of a certain age will most likely enjoy skimming through the pages of this 45-year old document.
The 324-page book contains many operational guides, as well as information about aviation, safety, pre-attack planning, “support teams”, and flood control operations. Much of it is timeless, but there have also been many changes. It is interesting to compare the 45-year old policies with current procedures.
But going back even further, let’s take a look at fire organizations before ICS began to be adopted in the 1980s:
My career was with the US Forest Service and National Park Service. The CDF organization from the Fire Control Handbook has at least one feature unfamiliar to me, the “Attack” function, which was called the Line Function by the USFS. It is now labeled “Operations” in the ICS. In the USFS it was led by a Line Boss in the pre-ICS days. “Service” became Logistics, and in the Planning section the Maps and Records Officer was replaced by two units, Resources Unit and Situation Unit. Sectors became Divisions, and a new position was inserted between the Planning Section Chief and Division Boss: Branch Director. There were numerous changes in Service/Logistics.
And then there is the current Incident Command System structure; keep in mind, you only fill the positions that are needed.
Teams would be called “Complex Incident Management Teams”
A decade after a similar concept was proposed, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) is being asked again to change the way Incident Management Teams (IMT) are configured. Currently there are three levels, Types 1, 2 and 3, with Type 1 IMTs being the highest qualified. The idea is to combine Types 1 and 2 into just one type, which will be called Complex Incident Management Teams (CIMT).
The Incident Workforce Development Group (IWDG), a working group of IMT practitioners and subject matter experts jointly chartered by the Fire Management Board (FMB), crafted a memo to the FMB asking for the change, in order to address the following:
Reduced number of IMT participants to fill IMT rosters, impacting the total number of IMTs available nationally;
Inconsistent use of IMTs due to lack of national IMT rotation management and commitment approval;
Reliance on Administratively Determined (AD) employees, retirees, and cooperators to staff IMTs without commensurate trainee use; and
Standardization of the IMT mobilization processes and other criteria across Geographic Areas.
In 2010, recognizing that the workforce management and succession planning for wildfire response was not sustainable, the NWCG chartered an interagency team to develop a new organizational model for incident management. In October, 2011 the NWCG released a 51-page document, Evolving Incident Management — A Recommendation for the Future. (If they issued a companion report, a Recommendation for the Past, we were unable to find it.) The suggestion was to merge all federally sponsored type 1 and type 2 teams into one type of IMT. There would three response levels: Initial attack (type 4 and 5 incidents), extended attack (type 3 incidents managed by type 3 IMTs), and complex incidents managed by Complex IMTs. Wildfire Today’s last update on that proposal was in 2015.
Below is a copy of the memo about the current suggestion. It was signed January 10, 2022 by the two top fire guys in the US Forest Service and the Department of the Interior and sent to the Fire Management Board, NWCG, and the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group.
(Click on the document above to see at bottom-left how to zoom in or scroll to pages two and three.)
The recently released report about the 2020 fatality on the El Dorado Fire addressed many issues the investigators felt were related to the management of that incident, including the current system for configuring IMTs:
“The same concerns exist for Incident Management Teams (IMT). With the reduction of 39 percent of the Forest Service’s non-fire workforce since 2000, the “militia” available to assist in IMT duties is rapidly being reduced to a mythical entity, often spoken of but rarely seen. The 2020 fire year was simply the latest in a long string of years where we did not have enough IMTs, let alone general resources, to address suppressing fire in our current paradigm. On the El Dorado Fire, Region 5 took a creative approach to ensure Type 1 oversight by grafting a Type 1 incident commander onto a Type 2 team, when no Type 1 teams were available. While this met the need and policy requirements, one cannot help but wonder what the difference really is between a Type 1 and Type 2 team. Why not just create one national team typing system, and why not ensure that it is staffed to a holistic fire management response (see Theme 2) and not just a direct perimeter control response.”
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.”
Some members of the teams may lose currency due to a lack of assignments
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.