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Forest Service Fire Organization on the Salmon-Challis NF & Other Forests
Unreasonable Expectations?
A Systemic Organizational Problem that Impacts Safety?

By Mellie, from TheySaid, 2/8/05

I agree with Rhino when he stated

Cramer is a prime example where a dysfunctional forest placed an individual in a position where he tried to do his best and became overwhelmed.

There is a potentially systemic problem in the way the Forest Service administers fire and aviation. In my opinion, the organization structure is outdated and fire managers have too much expected of them -- and this is under the best conditions. I think this  problem was a MUCH BIGGER PROBLEM on the Cramer because of the holes in the fire organization on the Salmon Challis NF. I doubt the OIG investigators even have a clue how big a problem it was/is. In my opinion, Jeff and Shane were victims, as was Allen Hackett. Alan was set up to fall, not intentionally, but set up by the way the system is organized and the way a key position was not filled. Too much was expected of him. When push came to shove and OSHA said "second willful violation", Alan became the scapegoat. When DOJ threatened jail time and fighting that was way beyond his financial means, he cut his losses, as most of us would do.

Let's begin with forest structure, responsibilities, and chain-of-command. The Forest Service is a marriage of many functions, one of which is fire. Right now fire is the cash cow -- the way logging used to be when timber was king. Fire is also the riskiest function -- and therein lies part of the problem. Many other functions are being centralized within the Forest Service putting additional stress on Incident Management Teams, but fire is evidently not being considered for centralization within the FS. To consider alternative structures apparently threatens power, money, egos, tradition. Line Officer (Forest Supervisor and District Ranger) control is sacrosanct and defined by law. I'm just wondering if there's not another better more centralized way that would let line officers retain control while streamlining operational structure for safer Fire operation and absolving Line Officers of threat for litigation.

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Some points and issues:
Each National Forest with many districts has a Forest Supervisor at its head. He/she supervises the District Rangers and the Fire and Aviation Program (FAM) and is responsible to the Regional Forester. The Forest Supervisors and District Rangers who "provide oversight" to the Fire Program usually do not themselves have fire experience. When the needs of fire and fire safety come in conflict with other needs on the forest, these non-fire supervisors likely have other priorities and projects.

I have talked many times about the fire budget (formerly MEL) and what Congress budgets for fire resources on the forests (ie, pre-suppression funds). Well, every year Congress designates money for fire, sometimes increasing the budget incrementally over the budget of the year before. By the time the money reaches the ground, there have been rakeoffs at every level of the regional and forest organization. When I ask about that, I'm told, "Well that's just the way it's always been. Fire pays the way for many other functions on the forest like timber used to." This year although money budgeted for fire was increased, money reaching the ground is even LESS than last year. But, I've digressed...

Back to structure and chain-of-command. Consider the Fire and Aviation (FAM) structure on a typical forest (like the Salmon Challis NF), on which fire is not centralized.

Forests that have an active fire program - with lots of complexity, including a great deal of seasonal fire and fuels reduction - typically have the following positions:

  • A Forest Fire Management Officer (FFMO, usually referred to as the Forest Fire Staff Officer, member of the Forest Leadership Team or FLT),
  • an Assistant FMO (Assistant Fire Staff Officer),
  • a Fuels Tech (many used to be old Brush Disposal or BD foremen when timber was king),
  • a Fire Planning Specialist who also knows NEPA.
  • Each part of the forest, or district has
    • A (District) FMO (FMO, Division Chief in CA) and
    • an Assistant (District) FMO (DFMO (AFMO, Battalion Chief).
    • Each district also has a variety of Module Leaders (Captains):
      • Engine Capts (4-6 per district in my neck'o'the'NorCA'woods), and
      • Handcrew Supts including HS Supts.
    • Can have Fuels Techs at the district level

    The Forest FMO or Forest Fire Staff Officer is a critical position, overseeing the whole forest's fire and aviation program, including each district's fire budget, planning, training, safety, aviation, etc. Goodness, the responsibilities are so great I don't know where to start. In addition, either the FFMO or the Assistant Fire Staff Officer performs duties of the Forest Aviation Officer, including contracts, CWN and any fleet, even overseeing flights for bug inspections! Larger aviation programs have a dedicated Forest Aviation Officer.

    The FFMO and Assistant Fire Staff at the forest level work for the Forest Supervisor who works for the Regional Forester. The District FMO, Assistant Dist. FMO and those on down the chain who work on the ground work for the District Ranger, NOT for the FFMO Fire Staff Officer. The District Ranger has congressionally delegated line authority for all that fire personnel do on a forest. In other words, the Ranger needs to sign off on it. When there's a large fire on a forest and an IMT is called in, it works at the discretion of the Ranger, as well. Legally, when things go wrong on a fire -- under the current set of rules currently understood by OSHA and OIG/DOJ (10 fire orders are violated leading to burnover, accident or death on a FS Managed fire) -- the Ranger is also at civil and/or criminal risk for some mess-up or oversight on something he or she signed off on that was required under their job description.

    As I mentioned before, today Forest Supervisors and Forest Rangers usually have no background in fire. In the olden days when things were simpler and the marriage of functions all pervasive, Supervisors and Rangers had often fought fire seasonally, worked briefly on a BD crew or had been Forestry types and done some timber cruising/pile burning, in other words, they had some woods and fire sense -- sense of hot slope/cold slope and how fire burned on the land. Not many of those old dog Rangers/ranger supervisors remain. (Dave Freeland Ranger on the SQF and Kent Connaughton, R5 Deputy Regional Forester are two wonderful exceptions who come to mind.) As Lobotomy points out, most Rangers and Supervisors today are "ologists" and therefore suspect for not being "fire professionals" when it comes to fire safety. [Aside: By training in one of my prior lives, I am also an 'ologist; and everyone in my family is an 'ologist. Nothing against 'ologists, but they/we have a very different view of the world and a different set of priorities than is needed if you're working for safety as a fire professional on the fireground!]

    So back to the Cramer Tragedy... On the Salmon-Challis, the Forest Fire Staff or FFMO position with all its many responsibilities was unfilled (or there was an acting). Alan Hackett, Assistant District FMO was trying to fill the District FMO position (although it's unclear if he was signed off on a FF52). He was doing District FMO duties, interacting with the Line Officer (District Ranger), doing the best he could. The District Ranger had oversight for all people on her district. The Fire Staff or acting Fire Staff (if there was one) and his superior, his Forest Supervisor also had responsibilities for overall forest functioning including oversight via the fire chain-of-command.

    Here you have a relatively low totem-pole person - Hackett - just above Engine Captain or Handcrew Captain in GS rank and experience trying to fill in wearing too many hats on a dysfunctional forest. Could he have refused? Who knows? Then came another hat: the Cramer Fire started. He was the IC Type 3 with too much else going on at a time when fires were going gunnysack all over the forest and all over Idaho/Montana. Complexity rose exponentially.... and then came the tragedy.

    What part did having too many responsibilities in several different mental and physical locations play in Alan's decisions leading to the tragedy? Seems to me his tragic failure in oversight was more of a "sin of omission" than a "sin of commission". Human factors of job overload/too many hats/ too many expectations placed on a "journeyman" fire supervisor -- rooted in a FS system

    I have to say, I'm in accord with Misery Whip who cited the importance of both human factors and decision making processes in high complexity organizations and with Rhino who said,

    Cramer is a prime example where a dysfunctional forest placed an individual in a position where he tried to do his best and became overwhelmed.

    Mellie

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