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3/10
2004
Ab, received this in my e-mail to-day, initially it was sent to all the forest sups in r-6, or so it seems by the header information, it is a good read. WP

Ab Note: I just talked with Jeff and he gave permission for us to post this. As he says, context and intent are everything. Jeff asked me to preface this piece with the following:

I have a deep concern for the Agency. My intent in writing this was to expand the discussion with the idea
of having a fuller and richer communication of issues, to bring people together and decrease divisiveness.
Jeff

Thanks, Jeff, that is also the purpose of this forum.

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Where Did All The Incident Commanders Go?
An Opinion
Jeff Blackwood , 02/04

If we are not thoughtful in our responses to incidents where things go badly, one day soon we will look around and ask ourselves, “Where have all the ICs gone?”

As an agency, we respond to things that go wrong by reviews, analysis, and developing more processes and requirements while prescribing accountability and penalties. We anticipate that it will make things better. This may be helpful and necessary, but it is not the full answer if we are truly committed to a sustainable approach to dealing with wildland fire safety. These typical responses deal with the process and legal ends of things, but what of the human end?

When I meet with our ICs at the field level, I see more and more frustration, and outright fear. They ask why should they be an IC? Where is the agency support? What will happen to them and their families if anything bad happens? Who can they trust? Are they being set up by mandatory training and processes, so if something goes wrong, the agency can say that the Forest Service did our part – the IC or the line officer just did not do hers/his? They understand accountability – they are concerned and fearful of agency reactions and support. Even though the track record does not necessarily bear these fears out, believe me, they are there. You can see it in their eyes and feel it in their questions. The simple fact is that the playing field has changed, and we need them more than they need us.

These are real life responses to serious concerns. We as an agency tend to focus on providing the framework within which people should operate. We train and train, but is there more?

I suggest there is. I suggest there are several things we need to do to provide incentives and support to the ICs for them to be successful. It is only when they succeed that our agency is successful. Consider:

  • We invest heavily in technical training. We invest little in the art of decision-making. The kinds of decisions ICs make are not normal bureaucratic decisions. They are literally under fire. How well do we understand this, and provide the support, training and trust that recognizes the uniqueness, complexities, and difficulties of these situations?

  • We have top down reviews of programs. We need reviews from practitioners. Do we ask local ICs to critique processes and requirements we set on their shoulders? Do we ask them what is needed for a safe and effective program? Do we actually use that feedback? Maybe locally, but not much further.

  • When was the last time that we saw a national letter of support for the ICs, recognizing the difficult and important job they do? It is more common to just give them a letter with a long list of agency expectations.

  • Have we considered incentives for ICs? Have we asked them what would be useful to them? Many Type 3 and larger ICs are not in primary fire positions. It would be easy for them to say the press of business elsewhere is more important.

  • Could we more effectively single out ICs for tailored leadership training in a way that develops their skills, and doesn’t just leave them with a list of expectations?

  • Put yourself in the shoes of an IC. You are responding to an incident and are responsible for the life and safety of everyone involved, plus a host of other things. This is an awesome responsibility. How many of us have done this lately? Are there ways to help the ICs with this pressure? I assure you that another form to fill out or another certification program won’t do this.

  • Many of our fires are multi-jurisdictional. Some of the other jurisdictions do not necessarily endorse or support our process requirements. The IC has to make that work in real time, under heavy pressure, with real lives at stake. How many of us have to do this?

  • How many of you are line officers, ultimately responsible for everything that occurs on a Forest? If things are not 100%, there are many who know how to “make it better”. And, by the way, make sure all your targets are met.

I am not suggesting we change our standards or accountability. There are good and legally based reasons for them. What I am suggesting is there is a human element here – a need to invest in the arts and sciences of building decisional capability, of creating trust, and developing incentives for people to want to be ICs. It would be easy to say that this is the kind of leadership we should practice locally, and we do. What I see as missing is the national link to these principles. How often we forget that our agency is only as good as the people we employ. To employ good people, we need to be a good outfit that not only provides a safe and supportive work environment, but also the trust that is the basis for any relationship.

As we continue with the aftermath of South Canyon, Thirty-Mile, and now Cramer, we need to deal with the human side as well as the process side. There needs to be good reasons, based on trust, that make the job of an IC worth the risks that grow everyday. On this Forest, we average 130 wildland fires a year. There are 130 times that things can go wrong. We depend on the ICs to make them go right. Their motivation and character keep us in the game. I write these words not to be critical, but to stimulate a more rounded approach in positioning us all in reducing the incidents where bad things happen. My heart is with the Forest Service, and with the wonderful people who make it work.

I do not want to be a line officer watching a fire going over the hill, wondering - where have all the ICs gone?

 

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