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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 difficult.
  • 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 their workforce.
  • 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 measure.
  • 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 always done.

Concerned about the Future

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