Thoughts on Task Books
In the wildfire world and presumably, the rest of the emergency management world, we have standardized task books but little instruction on how to fill them out and much less on how to evaluate trainees. Most of us rely on our own trainee experiences to inform how we should mark up a task book and interact with our trainees. My own time as a trainee was frustrating because senior PIOs used different criteria to sign off on tasks, not to mention being all over the board on how to put initials in the book. Once I became one of those senior PIOs, the lack of standards and protocols created several (and sometimes difficult) conversations where the trainee was adamant about what tasks I should sign off on. I've also been known to question the parentage of a previous PIO who signed a trainee's task book in a manner contrary to my approach. So, given that there are few standards, here's how I look at PIO task books and training assignments. I hope this helps others work their way through the process.
A reminder: Having a signed task book does not make you a good PIO any more than a law degree makes a good lawyer. Both jobs demand extensive experience, tutelage, and continuous learning.
There's a constant tension between training and education. Training prepares you for the expected while education helps to better prepare you for the unexpected. Not completely, just better. Many folks want the education to follow the same process as training, but often, pre-developed checklists and formulas do not wholly apply to our incidents. In fact, the world we choose--incident response--is driven by the unexpected and the uncertain. That's why I believe we should intentionally end up on the side of education when we can.
Instruction does much, but encouragement everything.
Criteria for signing off on a completed task book: If I'm working with a PIOF trainee, my primary concern is how much potential do they have? Can I see a solid PIO2 or a good PIO1 in the future? Do they have the drive to improve their writing? How about the interpersonal skills they will need to make a good team member and supervisor of other PIOs? Do they want to keep coming out on incidents? If I see potential, I want to encourage the learning process, encourage them to take more assignments, and thus will be more forgiving in signing off on both tasks and the completed book. However, it always has to include a discussion (see below).
For the PIO2 trainee, I'm a bit more exacting. Have they done the tasks on a variety of incidents where their assumptions have been challenged? Have they been humbled? Have those experiences prepared them to function as a Lead PIO on a Type II IMT? Same question for a leadership assignment on a Type I incident, like running community relations, media outreach, public meetings, or VIPs. Those positions need someone who can take care of other PIOs, think for themselves, understand the job, brief briefly, and identify the needed work without much direction. And like the PIOF trainee, they need encouragement to keep pursuing the classes and the qualifications and the experiences--and the encouragement to enjoy the journey.
As for PIO1 trainees, I'm pretty much an asshole. When signing off on a PIO1 task book, my primary consideration is: Can I trust this person if they became the Lead PIO on my team working with my teammates who I care for deeply? The discussion is well beyond tasks at this point and centered mainly on personality. Specifically, stress management. Can you manage your own stress, make decisions under stress, communicate under stress, and help team members, cooperators, stakeholders, and all the incident PIOs manage their stress? Also, are you a good mentor and can you read a room of PIOs and understand what they need from you? Do you listen well and are you empathetic? Will you constructively and appropriately speak up in C&G meetings? Of course, no human (especially me) can do all of these things well all of the time, so when you have a bad day, are you robust, resilient, and mindful? Can you learn from failure and share the lessons even though it may be personally difficult? When you've just screwed up can you put it behind you while you spend a few minutes talking about the job to a trainee?
Ideally, you will get to work with a PIO1 trainee more than once. As a trainer, it helps to think through issues and approaches between incidents and also allows for a gradual and appropriate increase in their responsibilities. When trainees are ready, let them run the show with you providing backstop support if necessary. Based on anecdotal observation and personal experience, handing an incident completely over to a trainee is really tough to do, but if we want to grow PIO1s, we need to make the effort. Same for PIO2 trainees.
Even better is when you have two PIO1 trainees and you can watch them work together. The need for co-leads on a Type I incident is practically a necessity and when you can provide experience and lessons about how to divvy up the work and cover for each other, you should. It increases understanding of the inherent problems of having two Lead PIOs while providing time to work through those issues with one or both trainees. We are also seeing the need for two more and more at the Type 2 level, and in recent years, the lines are really blurring between Type 1 and 2 IMT assignments. Which is all the more reason to have a rigorous expectation of PIO2s.
I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.
Task book discussions: If the incident complexity allows, I want to sit down with each and every trainee: at least 20 minutes with a PIOF and 30-45 for a PIO2 or PIO1. For PIOFs, I may ask the trainee if another PIO can sit in so I can interact with the trainee while showing a more experienced PIO how I work through the task book conversation. If the PIO organization is large, I want to at least touch base with the trainee's primary supervisor before they sit down with the trainee to work on the task book.
(As I have mentioned in previous posts, humongo incidents are the worst for trainers and trainees because of the huge number of inputs coming at the top level PIOs. This means there is little capacity to identify trainee needs and spend the time thinking about how to provide for a good experience. If you end up on a mega-Type I incident or even an understaffed incident, be prepared to do the same task for several days. You're not forgotten, there just may not be enough bandwidth to manage a worthwhile training experience.)
I try to take discussions beyond the task book words, tie it to the expectations of a good PIO, and describe the complexities of a tough incident. For example, let's look at Task 12 in the PIOF task book:
12. Apply the ICS.
This looks like a simple sign-off, but it is a task--Apply the ICS-- that is never-ending for anyone serious about emergency response. There is always something new to learn about ICS and IMT performance. For this one, I'll talk about how ICS is both hierarchical and horizontal while noting that a good PIO must understand not only how the PIO function interacts with the IMT, but how the other functions interact with and influence each other. All of that takes experience on multiple incidents of differing complexities. I'll ask about previous incidents, encourage questions, and cover PIO span of control issues to include incident-within-an-incident problems. We'll spend time discussing how to look at team interactions from a PIOF perspective and how that will change as one advances in qualifications. We'll also converse about the I-level courses and encouragement is given for the trainee to take them all.
Note: If a trainee is lacking an important class, make sure you mention it on the written evaluation so the trainee can use that as justification for funding with the home unit.
Picking an early task like Apply the ICS to examine in detail and using it to expose the trainee to previously unrecognized complexities also serves another purpose: It creates a learning environment instead of an evaluation environment. When going through the trainee process, most of us default to the latter and come to feel defensive and personally judged, which can obviously hamper communications. The ultimate goal is to help the trainee towards self-evaluation, which is where the true learning and desire for continuous learning comes from. Going beyond the task book words also preempts the "I did this once so I should be signed off" mantra. If you did it once as a PIOF trainee, I may sign you off, but I'm always going to explain the further steps you need to take to master the task and to start thinking through the more complex problems. For the tasks that go directly to the job of PIO, if you only did it once as a PIO2 or PIO1 trainee, I'm probably not signing you off. We'll have a good discussion though.
If you have trainees that are consumed by the letter of task books, the earlier you can break them of that and point them towards self-improvement and continuous learning, the better. Becoming a good PIO is a never-ending process and we should all have higher standards than the words in a task book.
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.
Yes, it's all terribly subjective--but the job is tough and even tougher to categorize, which makes it near impossible to develop objective criteria. Thus, it is all the more important to open the conversation with sincerity and honesty, which is why I like the notion of parrhesia that Preston Cline brought to our community. Parrhesia is an ancient Greek word that has classical definitions in rhetoric but was recently adopted and altered by special forces units so that it applies to performance during stressful and dynamic situations. In this sense, parrhesia means a brutally honest conversation that has demands of both the speaker and the listener. The speaker is obligated to convey truths that may be harsh and difficult, but always come from a respect for the potential of the listener. So much so that it is an honor to enjoin the conversation. The listener is compelled to hear the words in that same regard and understand that through the exchange, they will learn more about themselves and ultimately perform better in tough times, both as an individual and a teammate.
Again, the goal of every task book discussion is not signatures in a book, but to help the trainee move towards continuous self-evaluation and self-improvement, which also leads to continuous team evaluation and improvement because they become part of the IMT. To accomplish this, we must engage in an honest conversation with a focus on education above training. And always remember, if you can sign off on task books, if you are in a position to help PIOs advance personally and professionally, then you are in an entrusted position and should treat it as such.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Great subject... and a sorely needed conversation. The chasm between a PIO who is fully qualified and can do "PIO tasks" and what makes someone able to LEAD a section is tremendous. And IMHO not well addressed with our current PTBs. I think a lot of the problem of the myriad of unqualified PIOs becoming "signed off on" can be laid at the feet of those who have been anointed with T-1 status, but who really do not seem to have what it takes to EFFECTIVELY lead.
Thanks for the comment Pete. Well said. Obviously, I agree with the task book being at least somewhat divorced from the reality, but the task books have always been designed as more like a guidepost than a job description and the real learning is supposed to take place on incidents. With the changing complexities we're seeing, I think we need to treat all trainees as potential Leads because even though they may never run a team of PIOs or be on a C&G, they may face situations where they have to think strategically, make decisions quickly, and act independently while doing so in accordance with the IMT they are working for. If we are not fully engaged, the task book draws us towards simplicity while the actual work increases in complexity. We need to do a better job consistently preparing our PIOs for the incidents of the future. How we use the task book and the opportunities it provides for interaction are critical in that regard.
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Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
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Blog DOB: 4/26/2018
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.