Forest Service Fire Organization:
Facts, Issues, Suggestions
A Safer Option? Centralization of Fire within Forests
by Concerned for the Future, from theysaid 2/8/05
- Line authority in the Forest Service was congressionally set and
is bestowed upon the Chief and delegated to Regional Foresters,
Station Directors, Forest Supervisors, and District Rangers.
- Staff positions, such as those filled by Fire Management Officers
(FMOs), do not possess line authority and act only upon the
authority of the line officer.
- FMOs may regularly act as Forest Supervisor, and District Fire
Management officers (DFMOs) may act as District Rangers and in those
capacities exercise line authority, but it is limited to specific
delegation by the line officer of record.
The traditional and, in most places, current organization places
fire managers under non-fire line officers. Most of the line
officers today do not have substantial experience with fire, and
there is nothing in place aimed at materially changing this; there
is no fixed requirement that one meet any level of familiarity or
facility with fire management and operations as a prerequisite to
becoming a line officer.
- Consequently, the FMO or DFMO has come to BE the unit or subunit
fire representative and must attempt to comply with all the existing
and emerging standards related to fire operations, qualifications,
program management, and supervision while at the same time meeting
the needs and wishes of the line officer. There are often
conflicting demands made upon fire managers and there is always more
to do than time allows, so focus and priority become critical. The
principle interest of the line officer may not be on issues related
to fire, and fire organizations are not uncommonly viewed as utility
work forces that are available for any purpose when not actually
fighting fire. In this setting, providing maintenance and
developmental training, drilling for proficiency, tending
interagency relationships, updating fire management and other plans,
preparing and managing budgets, and more -- all become extremely
- It is critical that standards be met, that SOPs are shared and
implemented, that fundamentals are taught and reinforced. Under the
current decentralized organization, the FMO is responsible for the
fire program under an arrangement that, classically, assigns
responsibility without authority. FMOs are charged with outcomes,
but are not necessarily given the wherewithal to directly effect
activities on the Ranger Districts. At minimum, the FFMO must work
with and through the District Ranger in order to influence
compliance and activities on the Districts.
- The subject of vacancies should be aired - even if parenthetically
- inasmuch as they commonly occur and impact employees, performance,
and outcomes in important ways. When vacancies occur, they are often
lengthy, given the timeframes required and the level of human
resource support. Remaining employees must attempt to perform the
duties of the vacant position along with their own, and there is
little recognition of the impacts upon the individual or on the
program. The effect of multiple duties on one's attention and
performance is a mitigating circumstance that seems to have been
"increasingly underappreciated" in recent investigations.
- It's not that centralized fire organizations make sense so much as
it has become extremely difficult to meet current requirements under
the existing organization. This is not a matter of preference. Many
of us even in fire would prefer to see the traditional organization
continue but, in the command and control environment of emergency
response, it hinders more than it facilitates in meeting the
realities of fire preparedness.
- The District Ranger is a key position, overseeing a large and
varied program of work and representing the agency in the community.
Some District Rangers, and others, are greatly concerned that
centralizing the fire department will exclude them and fracture
- Many DRs care deeply about fire and some are very capable at it,
and they should remain involved, but in a way that aims first to
enable the fire manager to direct fire preparedness and operations.
- Meaningful District Ranger involvement can occur under a
centralized fire organization by their sitting on what is
essentially a board of directors, with the Forest Supervisor. The
FMO reports to the Forest Supervisor, so the line authority remains
on each National Forest. FMOs needn't have line authority; they need
to deal with and through others' line authority in reasonable
- The liability of District Rangers would be described in the board
of director context, and would stand to be more focused, more
appropriate to the way the unit does business, and better described.
The responsibilities laid upon the Forest would ultimately be borne
by the Forest Supervisor, as it now is.
- This is not a stove-pipe organization that operates beyond the
bounds of the Forest Supervisors' reach. Programs of work and the
fire departments' contribution to District activities are subject to
Forest Supervisor and District Ranger direction but, in this
setting, critical fire program needs can be more cohesively
identified and planned for than the current arrangement allows.
- The Forest Service should recognize the fact that the fireground
has become much more complex and that its employees face greater
liabilities than ever before. The Forest Service ought to respond by
directing that its fire organization be made more likely to survive
and succeed by establishing a fire department that models effective
command and control organizations rather than doing what we've
Concerned about the Future