Thursday, March 26, 2015

IGNITE - Serve Others

The measure of a leader is not the number of people who serve him, but the number of people he serves. – John C. Maxwell
The measure of a leader is not the number of people who serve him, but the number of people he serves. – John C. Maxwell
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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

BLM FLT Participates in the Devil's Den Staff Ride

Helmet, ax, and drip torch at Devil's Den
Devil's Den Staff Ride
BLM National Fire Leadership Team 
Spring Meeting
April 16, 2014
Oak City, Utah


On August 17, 2006, a Bureau of Land Management employee from Utah sustained a line-of-duty death on the Devil's Den fire that was located on the Fishlake National Forest. The fire was located approximately 1.5 mile east of Oak City, Utah. The fire started on August 15, and had grown to more than 20 acres by the morning of August 16. By the end of August 16, the fire had grown to more than 90 acres but was 75% contained.

On the morning of August 17, the Assistant Fire Management Office (AFMO) who was also the Zone Duty Officer visited the fire and took a flight of the fire with the Incident Commander (IC) and IC (Trainee) at approximately 1230 hours. They landed at an established helispot and had a conversation on the tactics and plan for the day. At approximately 1300 hours, the AFMO walked down from the helispot into the canyon where the fire was located to scout the line. Shortly after departing the helispot, the AFMO requested a helicopter for bucket support on some spot fires that developed in the canyon and outside the control lines. At approximately 1350 hours, the IC noticed that fire activity had started to pick up and black smoke coming from down drainage from the AFMO’s position in the canyon. The IC radioed the AFMO and told him of the activity and that he needed to get out of there. Shortly thereafter, the IC told the AFMO to drop his pack and run. Radio communication was lost with the AFMO and repeated radio calls went unanswered. At approximately 1700 hours the AFMO’s body was located and official notification of the fatality were made to the District Ranger at 1735 hours.

*** Reference the Devil's Den Accident Investigation Report for the report in its entirety. ***

In the fall of 2013, Rex McKnight, co-chair of the BLM National Fire Leadership Team (FLT), asked BLM Utah, who was hosting the spring 2014 FLT meeting to facilitate a staff ride for the FLT. The Devil's Den fire was selected and a staff ride facilitated on April 16, 2014.

The Staff Ride included representation from all BLM states, along with representation from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), the BLM Acting Assistant Director for Fire and Aviation and staff from BLM Utah.

The Staff Ride

The staff ride began in Salt Lake City with a bus ride to the Devil's Den Trail Head located in the Oak City Canyon, approximately 1.5 mile east of Oak City proper. During the bus ride, the Devil's Den “Lessons Learned Center” video was shown along with a Google Earth virtual tour and group discussion on objectives and goals of the staff ride. The goal of the staff ride was twofold, first to put the FLT in the boots of the AFMO and see what decisions they would have made and how their decision would have differed. Second, what decisions or influence could the FLT make in their current positions to help mitigate or prevent a similar accident from occurring anywhere else in the BLM.

*** Reference the Devil's Den Staff Ride packet that was provided by BLM Utah ***

During the staff ride the following topics were brought up and discussed among the FLT and BLM Utah facilitators:
  • Setting the Stage
    • There had been numerous fires within the fire zone and this was just another fire. By the end of the Initial Attack (IA) period, it was 75% contained. Much of the Richfield Fire Staff had started to go back to school and even with the loss of personnel, camaraderie was at a seasonal high.
    • What if anything, could have been a warning sign that things were developing or foreshadowing a fatality was about to occur?
      • The Zone Fire Management Officer (FMO) had been gone for a majority of the season due to participation in Incident Management Teams (IMTs).
      • This was just another Red Flag Warning day, just like it had been the previous days.
      • There were several other Type 3 and Type 2 fires going on, and they had started to wrap up operations as objectives and control measures were being met.
    • Providing a plan and creating an atmosphere as well as promoting a culture where people can speak up when they feel uncomfortable.
    • Having a supervisor or crew superintendent ask subordinates what is the plan, do they support the plan, and is the supervisor missing anything or does everyone have the full picture (“The Gut Check").
  • Normalization of Risk
    • All firefighters have slides based on previous experiences where there might have been close calls but had a positive outcome. (Cutting through the green hundreds of times). The current times and conditions need to be emphasized to firefighters as it relates to current day conditions (budgets, ecosystem conditions, workforce plans, reduction in available resources). Evaluating each situation and making sure the plan of action is still valid at all steps along the implementation process.
    • From a State Fire Management Officer (SFMO) perspective, the normalization of risk easily could be the reduction of budgets and workforce planning. Decisions that are made at the SFMO level changes or impacts the number of resources that boots on the ground have to depend on or utilize in suppression actions. This alters slides that firefighters have from previous experience but don’t validate accurate conditions based on budgets and workforce plans.
  • Being Resilient
    • Managers from NIFC to SFMOs to Agency Administrators should be providing letters of expectations. This would include the importance of the Risk Management Process regarding tactics and the current fire situation. It is important for up-and-comers as well as more experienced firefighters to understand that the number of resource in the system is significantly reduced from previous years (heavy airankers, Type 2 crews, etc.) and Nationally, we are going to see higher preparedness levels earlier and more frequent.
    • Pressing upon folks to make tactical plans on fires and establishing future plans on reduced number of resources, increased fire behavior, dramatic changes in vegetation and ecosystems. This will help programs be resilient in dealing with the changing environment if the expectations and future planning is inline or consistent with the real-life conditions today.
  • Resource Utilization
    • The Bureau and SFMOs/DFMOs need to do a better job sharing and utilizing the right resources for the need. This includes sharing across state and geographic boundaries; we need to look for efficiencies within our individual states that will help the Bureau fire program as a whole.
  • Feedback
    • Through expectations and further development of a highly reliable organizational (HRO) culture within the BLM fire program and even across BLM functional boundaries; a better job needs to occur where employees are empowered and have the ability to provide feedback and input into the decision process (also mentioned above).
    • Providing additional opportunities for our employees to succeed by promoting and further development of leadership curriculum that emphasizes the importance of the leadership but also the follower roles.
  • Defining Success
    • The definition of success is dependent on individual situations but the consensus of the group was success could be defined and measured by the development and promotion of core values within the fire program nationally.
      • The values need to be readable, easily understood and make sense to the up-and-coming firefighter.
    • We will continue to mitigate risk, prevent injuries and fatalities; but we are in an inherently risky profession when injuries and fatalities will occur. Discussions were had that during and after a serious injury or fatality we must continue to support our employees and their families to help our employees and agency be a resilient organization.
    • Having plans on how the Bureau, states and districts are going to handle these types of situations before they occur is key to the success of how employees and their families can be supported.
    • How and what type of help is needed when a serious accident or fatality occurs.
Take-home Messages from BLM Fire and Aviation Leadership
  • It was very rewarding for me to participate on this staff ride with my peers and our leadership from NIFC. I feel that far too often, we get bogged down with the demands of the job and risk losing sight of the firefighters on the ground who are executing our decisions.
  • Over the course of the day, I was reminded of the importance of being mentally and physically fit for duty. As a State Fire Management Officer, I have the responsibility of being a good role model and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
  • We as a leadership team spend too much time staring at each other in conference rooms. This staff ride gave us an opportunity to interact in a different environment and see one another in a different light.
  • This staff ride gave fire leadership an opportunity to meet and interact with District and Forest fire staff whom we may never have met otherwise.
  • This staff ride gave me an appreciation for a piece of ground in a part of the country I hadn’t been in for a long while. I have a new appreciation for some of the challenges facing our fire management folks at the local level.
  • To have the opportunity to have first hand, in living color perspective from our facilitators was irreplaceable. To do it among a group of leaders asking the operator questions, gave me multiple perspectives that I would never be able to obtain in my lifetime, as historical assay was occurring before our eyes!
  • To use the senses - hike makes us walk in their shoes, sweating and breathing requires us to speak to the fitness or health of individuals (let alone ourselves), seeing the terrain, navigating a route, viewing the distant influences of the geography that may have or have not influenced operational decisions, smells and sounds ............. all invaluable and unachievable in a meeting room or a lessons learned digital presentation.
The Staff Ride Itself
  • A "powerful" experience, to be able to walk the same terrain/topography Spencer walked + attempt to process what was running through his head + what I would have done is worth a 1000 Powerpoint presentations.
  • The HRO wildland fire operations tenet of being "mindful," having our "heads-in the game," being "in the moment"... Not fixating on the past, or ruminating about the future... Rather than "react" focus on "responding."
  • We can't, nor should we try to multi-task in our business... Duty Officer, AFMO, directing bucket drops.
The FLT:
  • Excellent logistics/planning (Chris Delany, LJ Brown), EMT support, Guides/Stations (Well done, Utah BLM)
  • Some of the best FLT communications I've seen (idea sharing, problem solving)... To and from the site on the bus. Nice job.
  • Great feedback from non-FLT BLM fire folks (Utah BLM FOSs, AFMOs) in West Desert District... Impressed we (the FLT) took a day out of our schedules to "study" a fatality, focus on safety/risk management... A good message to send that we take this seriously.
  • Todd Richardson "rules"... To make that hike so soon after knee surgery (grit/determination/perseverance)...
  • Reattach with the field operations. It is easy to sit in the ivory tower and make uninformed comments on incidents and staff.
  • SFMOs/SO must be mindful of vacancies in the field and subsequent "Actings" to ensure span of control and situational awareness is maintained at the operational/field level.
  • Order leadership when necessary!
  • A great reminder to the field and SO of over-engagement of DOs to fire operations. They must maintain 30K level of situation and not commit to an incident or individual district.
  • Flip-side is, is the importance of DOs to maintain engagement/awareness on all incidents and not assume all is going well; i.e., complacency (especially at the SO level).
  • I also have created a new watch for myself. Watch out when "subordinates in the office setting are your superiors and supervisors on the fireline." This should not be a problem, but continues to haunt me about this incident.
  • Be prepared for serious accidents and have updated Emergency Protocols and Death in the Line of Duty Procedures.
  • Senior Management (State and National) needs to play a bigger role in the lessons learned and/or recommendations after these serious accidents. Often times we can pass the buck down to the districts/unit and tell them what they need to fix, and we are negligent in identifying recurring mistakes at our level.
  • The Devil's Den staff ride was a great experience. It gave the FLT a chance to break the norm and not only team build but take back some important lessons learned on human dynamics. In the fire world, we are in a constant learning environment and the FLT needs to continue to champion the concept of continually learning from the past so we can better the future for all of our personnel. I think this staff ride and hopefully future staff rides like this will solidify that commitment. This staff ride gave me as a State FMO the opportunity to go back to my state and sit down preseason with our district fire personnel and review this incident and discuss human factors within their districts.
  • The Devil's Den staff ride with the FLT was an excellent opportunity for the group to grow as a team and to prepare us for the fire season. We must continue to provide learning opportunities, as activities like this to grow better leaders, increase our awareness of past so we don't continue to make the same mistakes over again, and to help us define and refine success in the BLM fire program.
  • I took away from this staff ride that focusing on the big picture is important for fire managers at the field and state office levels. Focusing on one specific incident and not listening to an incident commander are a deadly combination. To ask for help is OK and for SFMOs to provide help where help is needed. This requires all of us to be diligent in touching bases with the field on a regular basis.
A special thanks to Kyle Cowan (BLM-WY) and Chris Delaney (BLM-UT) for capturing this experience, for the BLM FLTs permission to reprint their experiences and comments in this blog, and for the staff ride SMEs for being a part of this transformational experience.

Monday, March 23, 2015

IGNITE - Authentic Communication

The heart of communication rests in being authentic. –Lolly Daskal
The heart of communication rests in being authentic. – Lolly Daskal
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Friday, March 20, 2015

How to Lead from a Cubicle (and other odd places)

Wildland Firefighter Memorial
Wildland Firefighter Memorial at NIFC in Boise, ID
One of my favorite leadership quotes goes something like “if you think you’re leading but no one is following, you’re just going for a walk.” While it’s got that great punchy character that gets people’s attention, and it’s indeed true in a lot of situations, it doesn’t apply to every situation. As I’m sure many of you know, there’s more to being a leader than just being in the front of the pack, and it’s likely that most of us will be in a situation at some point in our careers where we don’t have anyone following us in the traditional sense.

In my life, I’ve recently made a career move that puts me in a situation where I’m not exactly a leader, but not exactly a follower either. I went from being the assistant supervisor on a ten-person crew to a position where I work as a member of a three-person module where we’re more peers than anything else. I went from working in an environment where there were lots of “lead from the front” opportunities to one where leadership is definitely more subtle. I spend a lot of my time in a cubicle, in the winter and shoulder seasons at least, and it seems when I do make it to the field, I’m doing my own thing, collecting data and being a kind of freelance Field Observer (FOBS) rather than leading a crew or squad. I do plan on continuing to do fire in the traditional sense, taking assignments here and there to stay current and up to speed, but it’s not my primary job these days. It’s not a unique situation by any means, as on every district, forest, field office, or park there are fire effects folks, fuels technicians, and various prevention and patrol people that don’t fit into a traditional leadership role.

To my mind, this is where the idea of leadership as a more holistic concept comes in. Look at the values and principles championed by the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program for example… it’s not all about others. In fact, there are several principles of leadership that are more self-oriented, like being proficient at your job, or seeking self improvement. Being in that in-between place between follower and leader can actually be a great opportunity to do some personal growth.

In my case this is especially true, as I’ve challenged myself to not grow stagnant as a leader, but to find other ways to contribute. Sure, I’m not leading people in the traditional sense, and it probably looks like I’m out for a walk more often than not, but I’m learning that being a leader within a community like wildland fire and aviation means more than just leading the boots on the ground. I’ve taken on some additional responsibilities, like assisting the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program with their social media and reading programs. I’ve taken the time to put myself through some training I never had the opportunity to pursue before, like accident investigation and risk management. I’m making new professional connections, and gaining new perspective on leadership as a result of seeing and doing things in a way I really hadn’t before.

In a funny way, in stepping away from a stereotypical leadership role I’ve realized that there’s much more to being a leader than just having followers. In fact, you can have just as much, if not more influence by being a follower, so to speak. When you don’t have position power, you’re forced to think more about what you’re trying to do, and why, and have better justification for your actions than you would otherwise. I think that, far from being a negative thing, being a follower and leading via influence is just as important as being a positional leader. Everyone has a boss after all, even if you are in a leadership position you’ll still have peers, and leaders above you.

So if you’re like me, and not in a traditional leadership role, I challenge you to take a look at your situation and find opportunities to grow as a leader, and as a person. Look for ways to support those around you, ways to enable your peers, and those around you, to be better at what they do. As I see it, being outside, being a follower, you can wield as much, if not more influence than you could before, and the opportunities are endless… Sometimes taking leadership actions, looking out for your coworkers and peers, can create a chain reaction of leadership good vibes.

If you find yourself making a transition from leader to follower like I have, treat it as an opportunity to approach familiar problems from new angles, or even tackle new challenges. Go forth and do good things, and don’t stop being a student of fire, and leadership.

Until next time…

Justin Vernon is a regular guest contributor on our blog. Justin works for the United States Forest Service and is the a member of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee as steward of the Professional Reading Program. Check out his Chasing Fire blog. All expressions are those of the author.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

IGNITE - Leaders Respect First

To gain respect from our people, we first respect them. –Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 45
To gain respect from our people, we first respect them. - Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 45
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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Play On!

"We learn when we enjoy ourselves." - Kelly L. Howarth
Many years ago, I was standing on Sandia Peak overlooking Albuquerque, New Mexico. A young gentleman walked up beside me. He didn't know anything about me, but I immediately knew something about him from his distinctive appearance. He was dressed in Nomex and carrying a yellow day pack. He was a wildland firefighter.

I took the opportunity to introduce myself and mentioned I worked with the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee which administers the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program. His immediate response was, "I  have been trying really hard to get into L-380!" He had heard it was a great learning experience but was unable to get into the class due to demand and lack of seniority.

If you have taken an L-course, you understand the allure these courses create. They are not your typically run-of-the-mill classroom courses. Students are active participants in real-life scenarios. The "hotseat," as it is fondly called, forces a student to respond to inputs and make decisions. This experiential learning technique creates a safe environment in which to learn. In fact, this sort of play, leaves learner and educators wanting more.

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper

  • Watch "Adult Learning is Child's Play" featuring Kelly L. Howarth.
  • If your team hasn't participated in experiential learning for leadership development, start today. Visit the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program Toolbox for an suite of tools to share with your team.

Monday, March 16, 2015

IGNITE - Be Serious About Growth

The more seriously you take your growth, the more seriously your people will take you. –John C. Maxwell
The more seriously you take your growth, the more seriously your people will take you. – John C. Maxwell
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Friday, March 13, 2015

A Discipline of Practice

Few of us are naturally-born athletes. In fact, some of us make better fans than athletes, yet we all make up the team. Regardless of your athletic ability, practicing is critical to the game. Without consistent practice and hard work, we may never realize our goals. To be a part of a team means that we create a discipline of practice and implement what we learn come game time. There is nothing for the quarterback to do if the center doesn't hike the ball and the offensive line doesn't block.

In this blog, Dan Cathy, President and COO of Chick-fil-A, shares what he calls the four disciplines. Effective leaders have a consistent level of performance. Dan believes consistency comes from discipline of practice.

Key Disciplines

Mental - Are you the student you need to be?
  • TIP: Book time in your calendar to visit with a mentor and reflect.
Emotional - People follow those who are passionate about what they are doing.

Physical - Take care of yourself.
  • TIP: Get good sleep, exercise and eat well.
Spiritual - Maintain a good moral foundation.

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper
  • Take a moment to watch Dan Cathy's video
  • Develop a plan for this year that includes the consistent practice of "You Time." 

Thursday, March 12, 2015


Know your people and look out for their well-being. – Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 58

Know your people and look out for their well-being. – Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 58
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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Zooming Out on Complexity

Cohesive teams are more creative and adaptable when dealing with complex situations. This enables them to detect and mitigate errors before irreparable damage occurs. Cohesion allows team members to anticipate the needs and actions of other team members. This increases efficiency and saves time. (Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, p. 52)
In his short TED Talks video "Simplifying Complexity," Eric Berlow contends that "complex doesn't always equal complicated." He suggests that by embracing complexity through the use of good visualization tools and stepping back or zooming out, simple answers may emerge.