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The new Interagency Fire Program Management (IFPM) standards to “professionalize” wildland fire do nothing to address the issues that appear time and again in fire investigations. It is truly amazing that the new standard does not address issues that have been repeatedly identified since Mann Gulch. No credit is given for college level classes in Leadership, Management or classes that are related to or utilized for understanding fire behavior.

Its is time for the agencies to recognize wildland firefighting as a profession and at least require its own series as a technical specialty and require training and curricula that will actually address the problems of the past and guide us in the future.

As a wildland firefighter I am told every year that there is no tree, shrub, habitat or natural resource issue worth jeopardizing the safety of even one firefighter, that the number one priority of the agency is the safety of its firefighters. However, the federal agencies place a higher priority on training firefighters to be Biologists than firefighters. The agencies believe that natural resources are a higher priority than the safety of their employees. By focusing on training professional biologists, the agencies fail to rectify the issues that are continually cited from past wildfire tragedy; lack of leadership, lack of management oversight, lack of knowledge of fire behavior. Not once has the loss of life on fires been attributed to a lack of knowledge of Biology or biological processes. But that is the path the agencies have chosen for professionalizing the wildland fire workforce.

Institutional barriers, particularly OPM classifications, prevent the agencies from truly addressing the training and skills necessary for professional wildland fire training; by insisting that we are natural resource managers instead of managers of people we continue to compromise the safety of our employees, and are doomed to repeat the failures of the past.

When are we going to acknowledge that we need to make people management a priority over resource management? Leadership skills have been identified in every major accident report as needing improvement and development. Yet the new standard leaves this skill to competencies to be learned and developed on the job. This is the same approach that we have used for 50 plus years without positive results.

No credit is given to skills necessary to truly advance our knowledge of fire behavior: GIS, meteorology, Physics and Math are all not included in the new biology based standard.

The 1995 Federal Wildland Fire Policy and Program Review, directed federal wildland fire agencies to establish fire management qualifications standards to improve firefighter safety and increase the level of skill and competence in fire management programs. The policy did not say to make wildland firefighters better biologists.

The wildland firefighting community supports increased professionalism. Phase III of the Tridata Corporation report Implementing Cultural Changes for Safety Tridata report found “Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of those surveyed said there would be some or much positive impact to safety by considering firefighters as professional firefighters rather than as forestry aides and technicians or other general non-descriptive job categories.” The IFPM standard continues to classify firefighters in a non-descriptive biology series

The IFPM implementation guide and supporting documentation cite the need for professionalism as identified in phase III of the Tridata Corporation report Implementing Cultural Changes for Safety. A closer look at the Tridata report indicates that the agencies missed the point of goal 59, and its recommendations.
“Goal 59. Recognize and promote the image of the professionalism of wildland firefighting.”

“The agencies must collaboratively define the professional work ethic they want and systematically infuse their organizations with that work ethic through training, leadership, supervision, and effective organization.”

Implementation strategy 2 of goal 59 states that firefighters would view a new wildland fire series

as an important and significant step which, perhaps more than any other, would symbolize that administration is serious about improving professionalism and firefighter safety.” Bold added for emphasis

Shouldn’t we be encouraging people to take classes that actually address the deficiencies we continue to identify in accident reports? The accident reports don’t say we need to be better biologists. They say we need to become better leaders and managers. We already employ biologists and fire ecologists within our resource staffs, let’s use them as the resource specialists and let fire supervisors develop the leadership and management skills necessary to prevent future tragedies.

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