ARGUMENTS IN SUPPORT OF A PROFESSIONAL WILDLAND
FIREFIGHTER SERIESThe 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
“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
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
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.