National wildfire teams getting harder to fill

LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) - Officials with the National Interagency Fire Center are studying ways to boost recruitment for the teams that manage wildfires and other disasters.

A shrinking and aging federal workforce, combined with the personal and professional rigors of serving on a team that manages large wildfires and other disasters, is expected to make it more and more difficult to recruit members of incident management teams.

"It's hard on families and it can be hard on careers and it's often hard to fill in for an IMT (incident management team) member who may be gone for six weeks out of a summer," Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center at Boise, told the Lewiston Tribune.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group has interviewed thousands of people in the wildfire response system to come up with a solution. The group has made a series of recommendations, including streamlining training requirements and being more flexible with team size and makeup.

NIFC currently categorizes teams based on the level of experience and skill they possess. Type 1 teams are sent to the most complicated or pressing wildfires, while Type 2 teams primarily handle slightly less challenging blazes. One recommendation is that the types of teams be combined, and structured so they can be easily sized up or down depending on the needs of the incident they are working on. The group also said smaller teams called "modules" with expertise in finance, technology support, aviation or other skills should be created so they could be sent to incidents as needed.

"The past philosophy was one size fits all. In the future there will be a closer look at the demands and needs of the incident and (an effort) to scale the incident management team to the particulars of that wildfire, or whatever the situation is," Smurthwaite said.

Some incident team members fear that approach will cause a loss of cohesion among team members. Bobby Kitchens, a veteran of many incident teams, said he thinks the modular approach will work, but if team members don't know each other as well, it could make them less efficient.

"The theory in incident command structure is, if you are qualified for something you can do it no matter where, and that is true, but there is a synergy of being with people that work with you all the time," Kitchens said.

The group also recommended that NIFC streamline the rigorous training required of incident commanders, without sacrificing quality. Smurthwaite said it takes 20 to 25 years for a person to fulfill all the requirements to become an incident commander.

"It takes less time to become a brain surgeon than it does to be a Type 1 incident commander. We just have to make it so it is faster, but we are still getting the quality," he said.

The recommendations will be implemented slowly over time, he said.

"This is a long-term process. It's not something we can flip a switch and make it all happen," Smurthwaite said. "One of the recommendations in the report is this will take five to 10 years to implement."