One of the tough things about policy is that the identification of problems is easy while the improvements and solutions are extremely difficult to express and even more difficult to implement. Still, the problems cannot be ignored even if a certain proposal has little chance of implementation. With that in mind and also understanding I'm no scientist or lawyer, let's talk about federal incident management positions and wildland firefighters. To mix metaphors, just give me a second to mount the soapbox and start chasing rabbits.
Since 1970, the western US annual wildfire season has grown in duration by 78 days. (Globally, fire season has lengthened across 11.4 million square miles, roughly the size of Africa.) Since 1984, the area annually burned by wildfire in the US has doubled. The Forest Service estimates that area may double again by 2050. Some scientists now say 50% or more of western forests could burn in the next three decades. Fires greater than 1,000 acres have increased almost 600% since the 1970's and fires over 10,000 acres are up by over 700% for the same time period. In short, the changes we are seeing across the landscapes are not explainable without considering the major driver of climate change. Everything else, including lack of thinning, prescribed fire, and other management practices can't touch the influence of climate change.
Communications plans are essential to any crisis. You have to understand the incident, identify your audiences, select the principal messages, and determine the best ways to deliver and spread your information. Then you have to make sure a lot of other folks understand the plan. For a primary crisis communicator or PIO, you should always have a plan and it should constantly be evolving based on the reality of the incident. However, unlike public affairs people, we often don't have time to write it all down.
Wandering around camps and offices, you often hear hear murmurings about how Type I IMT members have large egos.
Well, yes, that's mostly true. But it's only half of the story. That Type I self-assuredness is not necessarily a personality flaw. Instead, it emanates from two elements of Type I work:
It is a mantra among just about everyone that we must speak with one voice during times of crisis and uncertainty. It is also a mantra among just about everyone that we should speak with one voice during times of certainty and non-crises. One voice is always justified in the name of consistency, to reduce anticipated public confusion, and if we are being honest, it’s done because the larger organization does not trust some folks to get it right when difficult topics come up. Thus, top-down talking points and no deviation from the core message. The problem, as Peter Sandman points out, is that when you speak with one voice, there is a predictable and increased interest in what those other voices might have to say.
Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.
--James MacGregor Burns, Leadership
Leader's Intent came to the incident management community from the military. It's a great concept, built around the idea that under the pressures of a complex and dynamic environment, centralized command and control will break down. When that happens, everyone needs to know the expectations and strategy of the incident so they can continue to work with the big picture in mind. A shared intent empowers everyone to work towards the common goals.
Every incident management team has an equilibrium--a balance, a state of mind--where maximum efficiency is reached, maximum effort is possible, and stress is maximally managed.
Think of it as spinning plate. If everything is in balance, the plate spins smoothly but once the balance is upset, wobbles ensue. Wobbles have a nasty tendency to quickly become more dramatic and are difficult to return to a balanced state. We've all probably been on wobbly incidents and it is not a good feeling. The stress increases and the incident issues do not receive the best thinking the IMT can bring to bear.
The Wildland Fire community borrows frequently from other areas, but has established a culture unlike any other in the response field. As part of that culture, we have a certain way of communicating, even to the point where cliches specific to Wildland Fire have developed.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.