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.
Media briefings are not something we do every day. Sure, crisis communicators and PIOs often do interviews, but a full-blown live media briefing for a high-visibility incident seldom comes around. I've had the luck--or misfortune--of doing media briefings on four incidents during my career. Some were bigger than others and one was more emotional than the rest, but the common elements are multiple and varied media outlets, live broadcasts, long-term and complex incidents, and regional or national (and international) coverage.
Media briefings are perhaps the most intense thing we can do as PIOs/crisis communicators. Not only are we representing all the responders and speaking to all of the public affected, but because of the high visibility, many others are watching and our reputation--perhaps our career--might be influenced by a single exchange. Because of that dynamic, you can look at media briefings as the most personally stressful communications chore. If you are speaking about fatalities, it amps things up even more.
Since the idea of this blog popped into my head, I've been thinking about a post on media briefings. I started writing a few times, but those attempts were ultimately frustrating. As I worked through the process, I came to realize I couldn't build a post around an academic bent or just jot down a basic How-To. No, in order to honestly convey the lessons I learned, it had to be more personal. So please bear with me. As of now, I plan to break the topic up into three posts (maybe four) that will mirror the chronology of my career through the Rodeo-Chedeski, Wallow, and Yarnell Hill fires. (The Eagle Creek Fire will make an occasional guest appearance.) This first one will be the most personal and deal with learning and persevering through failure, the second will cover mostly positive lessons learned, and the third will be about the unique stresses fatalities bring.
Teaching with a PowerPoint built by someone else (especially a committee) is a great opportunity to inspire student and instructor boredom. In the incident response world, we are usually bound by NWCG and FEMA developed presentations. Not only can they be dry, but they are often out of date and not aligned with the frequent changes in incident management and crisis communications/public information. So what's an instructor to do?
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:
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.