Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The IFPM/FS-FPM Double Standard

hanging scale
(Hemera Technologies/Thinkstock)
“Following the South Canyon Fire in 1994, an interagency team was formed to investigate the fatalities and contributing factors. The subsequent 1995 Federal Wildland Fire Policy and Program Review, signed by both Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, directed Federal wildland fire agencies to establish fire management qualifications standards to improve firefighter safety and increase professionalism in fire management programs.

To accomplish these action items, the former Federal Fire and Aviation Leadership Council (FFALC) formed an Interagency Fire Program Management Qualifications task group. The objective of the Task Group was to complete staff work, acceptable to all federal agencies with wildland fire management responsibilities and to the Office of Personnel Management, sufficient for the establishment of minimum qualifications standards for key fire management positions (emphasis added).”

[From the Interagency Fire Program Management Qualifications and Standards Guide ]

“This effort began several years ago as a result of wildland fire incident reviews. The death of 14 wildland firefighters on Storm King Mountain in 1994 was a turning point. These studies highlighted the fact that we needed more stringent, uniform qualification standards for employees in certain fire management positions to assure firefighter safety (emphasis added).”

[From June 15, 2004, memo from Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth to Regional Foresters, et al, regarding implementation of IFPM]

“Delegation of National and Geographic Area Fire Program Manager IFPM role: National Fire Program Managers (NFPM) and Geographic Area Fire Program Manager (GFPM) positions will be filled with qualified individuals from senior leadership positions at the respective National and Geographic levels. Due to organizational complexities, there may be instances in national and geographic organizations where the senior fire program manager delegates the IFPM requirements to a senior officer (emphasis added). The primary intent of this delegation is to place the appropriate individual who meets IFPM minimum qualification standards in the position of authority to support safe operations in the field.”

[NWCG Memo #021-2008, IFPM Decision Paper #4, September 29, 2008]

Regional Office - IFPM This position is the individual at the Regional Office who has been delegated program management responsibilities for Fire and Aviation Management for the Region by the Regional Forester. This position has been included in IFPM Standards since Oct. 1, 2004. The Selective Placement Factors became effective on October 1, 2010.

IFPM Category
Recommended Min. Grade, Series, PD
Target Minimum NWCG Qualifications2
Primary Core        Secondary        Add’l Req
Requirement        Requirement    Training
Geographic Fire Program Mgr
GS-301 14/15
ICT3 or T2 C&G or RXB2
M581 or LFML
Series:  Regional Fire Directors have transitioned to the GS-301 Series, and are approved for secondary firefighter retirement coverage by USDA on June 2012
NWCG Qualifications
As identified in the IFPM Standards for GFPM. Applicable NWCG qualifications are divided into Primary Core Requirements –AND- choice of Secondary Core Requirement –AND- Additional Training requirements (if applicable). Refer to IFPM Standards and Guides pages 2-19; and IFPM Decision Paper #4 (Sept. 29, 2008) for list of Command and General Staff positions approved for IFPM equivalency. The target NWCG qualification requirements are not selective placement factors for filling Regional Fire Director positions, and the role of the GPFM may be delegated to a member of the Regional Office FAM staff that meets the above requirements. See IFPM Decision Paper #4 for Delegation of National and Geographic Area Fire Program Manager Role (emphasis added).
[IFPM-FSFPM Crosswalk]

“In addtion (sic), the U.S. Forest Service implemented an agency addendum to IFPM called the Forest Service Fire Program Management Standard (FS-FPM). FS-FPM was fully implemented on October 1, 2013. After that date, all incumbents and new applicants to key FAM positions are required to meet minimum qualification standards identified in the FS-FPM Standard (emphasis added).”

[From the US Forest Service Fire & Aviation Management webpage as of April 21, 2017]

I remember when I first heard of Interagency Fire Program Management (IFPM). I was a Forest Fuels Specialist on the Uinta and Wasatch-Cache NFs in Utah, and it created quite a ruckus. It wasn’t the incident qualification requirements or the 90 days of fire experience requirement that caused controversy, but the 401 Series requirement for key fire management positions that created an uproar. The Forest Service had been using the 462 Forestry Technician series for years for most fire management positions. There were still a few hold-over 460 Forester Fire Management Officers but many were 462. And a lot of those people in the 462 positions did not have college educations, which the 401 series required. For a lot of my friends and co-workers this created a problem in that they wouldn’t be able to keep their position if they didn’t attend college. I remember a Zone FMO who was in his late 40s saying “I barely passed high school 30 years ago, and they want me to go to college?” (Editorial comment – this guy was an excellent FMO; a few college credits weren’t going to somehow make him a “better” FMO).

But the qualification part? Yeah, we got that. South Canyon was my generation’s turning point. Many of us lost friends on that mountain or were impacted on some level. The world of fire fatalities is sadly a small one. How could we argue that an FMO on a high complexity unit shouldn’t be a Division Supervisor or Type 3 IC? We’d all worked with people in these critical positions who didn’t have much operational experience, and sometimes it was okay; but more often it was not. And the 90 days fireline experience requirement? Hell, most of us thought 90 days wasn’t enough – that it should be more days the higher the position.

To me the beauty of these requirements isn’t necessarily in the obvious – being a Task Force Leader or a Division Supervisor. What these demonstrate is that one has spent time on the fireline, on a module, sleeping in the dirt night after night, chasing spot fires, dragging a drip torch through briars so thick that when you fall you just bounce back up, puking on a PT hike, trying to whistle after eating an MRE cracker, crawling under the engine for a break because that’s the only place there’s shade. These experiences contribute to being a good Task Force Leader, a good Division Supe, a good Crew Boss, a good Burn Boss. It’s not just that one time your resources went direct and successfully contained the fire. It’s all of it wrapped up into a glorious wad of shared experience and values.

It’s about being a part of the culture. Our wonderful, crazy, challenging, culture. I’m tired of defending our culture. I think our culture is pretty damn great. And it seems often the people saying we need to change our culture are the ones who’ve never been a part of it. Our culture has changed and evolved when true leaders from within have been asked, and allowed, to lead change. Turn-down protocol was established after the Sadler Fire entrapment, when hotshot crews spoke up about turning down the assignment that then contributed to an entrapment. Doctrine came from the first Pulaski Conference in 2005. The Pulaski Conference was innovative and novel at the time. It was one of the first times where true field-going employees were asked to participate and develop policy. It set a new tone for the field. Your ideas, your experience? They matter.

Okay, so, get to the point, right? My point is, why is it okay that there is an “exemption” or “waiver” or whatever you want to call it for Geographic and National Fire Directors when it comes to IFPM/FS-FPM and the 90 day fireline experience requirements? I know I’m a little late since this policy change came out in 2008, and IFPM and FS-FPM have now been implemented. I do remember when this came out. I was the IFPM/FS-FPM lead for Region 5. It barely blipped on my radar, though, because I was laid up at the time after a motorcycle wreck, not to mention the challenging 2008 fire season in CA. A year later I was off to Region 8 and no longer an IFPM/FS-FPM lead. And honestly I didn’t think people would actually be hired into those positions who didn’t meet the requirements. I couldn’t imagine senior management actually doing that. From the 2008 NWCG memo: “Due to organizational complexities, there may be instances in national and geographic organizations where the senior fire program manager delegates the IFPM requirements to a senior officer.” What does that even mean, “organizational complexities?” If there are organizational complexities shouldn’t the standards be even more important to follow?

Since that time four FS regions have advertised FAM Director positions with a waiver of IFPM/FS-FPM (as long as a subordinate staff member met them). One of them went so far as to waive the 90 day requirement. I don’t know how that was even possible, but they did it. Two of those four regions hired FAM Directors who needed the waiver.

Why is that okay with senior management? I guess “okay” is not the word for it. That would imply passive involvement, but they are the ones who facilitated it. Where is the “duty, integrity, respect” in those decisions? As a friend and mentor, Joe Millar, used to pointedly ask, where is the “leadership” in those decisions?

This isn’t about the people hired into those positions. Not at all. No, this is simply about a standard being changed for only the upper levels of the organizations. I’ve not heard of these standards being waived for ANYONE at a forest or district or park or refuge or agency (BIA) level.

And so a question that begs to be asked, and answered is, if these standards aren’t important enough for those at the upper level management then why do we have these standards at all?

In my first essay I invited managers to reflect upon their decisions. That’s all I’m asking here. For the folks who had that authority to reflect on the decision to waive the IFPM/FS-FPM standards. And for the folks who make the decisions to hire the Geographic Are Fire Program Managers (GFPMs) to reflect on the decisions they made to use those waivers. And the decision they will make the next time one of those jobs comes open. I’m asking for authentic leadership. To set the example. To pick GFPMs who meet the IFPM/FS-FPM standards even though they don’t have to. To choose what may feel like the “difficult right.” I can assure you it will be the right decision, for countless reasons, in the long run.

Leadership is not a license to do less; it is a responsibility to do more. ~ Simon Sinek

Riva Duncan is an Interagency Fire Staff Officer and blog contributor. All thoughts are those of the author. This is a second in a series of potential posts.

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