february 2015

In addition to managing the biophysical aspects of large wildfires, Incident Management Teams (IMTs) must also manage the social aspects of the fire (Canton-Thompson et al. 2008). However, we have a much more sophisticated understanding of the biophysical risks related to wildfire than the social risks. Land cover type, topography, soil moisture, humidity, fuel loads, wind, and weather are common in the vocabulary of most fire managers.

We are much less conversant in the signals and language related to social risks. What phrases and situations signal problematic communication? How do we recognize barriers to coordination among responding agencies? And how can these risks be assessed and managed?

Yet many experienced IMTs implicitly manage for these social or relationship risks during a wildfire. Our research project sought to harvest that experience so that we might more explicitly and systematically understand those risks and share that knowledge.

The President and US Forest Service Chief visit your fire. What is a Social Watch Out Situation? (Waldo Fire, Colorado, 2012). Photo: Kari Greer.

The conditions under which large wildfires are managed have changed in the last 20 years (Moritz et al. 2014). As more fires occur in the wildland urban interface (WUI), the challenge of managing social situations has increased. These WUI fires often mean that IMTs need to deal with multiple, local cooperating agencies and entities, including law enforcement, state forestry, local fire service, utility companies, private businesses, local land owners, Red Cross, animal shelters, and offices of emergency management.

As fires cross into multiple jurisdictions, IMTs must balance differing goals and objectives from multiple local host units (e.g., US Forest Service, state forestry, county fire, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service). The IMT must also manage its own team dynamics to effectively work with the local host unit(s) and the local cooperators. Additionally, IMTs are often outsiders coming into a community during a highly stressful time; they must quickly identify key local stakeholders, build relationships, and discern how to work effectively with that community.

Given these complex conditions, there are numerous opportunities for communication and coordination essential to the effective management of a large-scale incident to break down. Just as greater situational awareness of the biophysical environment can give responders the information they need to manage operational and safety risks, we argue that greater situational awareness of the social environment can likewise aid responders in identifying when extra care and attention needs to be dedicated to managing relationships to avoid failures in communication and coordination.

In 2012 and 2013, we interviewed a cross section of 24 highly experienced fire managers, which included US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management Fire Staff, Fire Chiefs, State Forestry officials, Forest Supervisors, and Sheriffs, all of whom served on IMTs in different capacities from across the United States (10 states). Altogether, these informants represented 646 years of large wildfire incident management experience along with having tackled an estimated total of 824 Type 1 wildfires.

With the aim of benefiting from their considerable experience, we asked them about what kinds of social situations they watched out for when they were on a fire. We then took this list to the Area Commanders and Incident Commanders Annual Workshop in College Station, Texas in Spring 2013 and asked all the Area Commanders, Incident Commanders, and Deputy Incident Commanders in attendance (n=41) to critique our list and improve it. During the summer of 2013, we conducted research on several large wildfires and further refined our list based on what we observed in the field.

In Spring 2014, we returned to the Area Commanders and Incident Commanders Annual Workshop in San Diego, CA with a list of 30 social watch out situations and asked all those in attendance (n=36) to identify the watch out situations they found most challenging and were likely to encounter when they were on a wildfire. Some situations were perceived to be more problematic than others in terms of their potential for impeding effective communication and coordination on an incident. Twelve social watch out situations were identified by 75% or more of the Incident Commanders as most challenging for them, and these comprise our total list of “Top Most Challenging Social Watch Out Situations (Table 1). We grouped these watch outs into categories from highest to lowest percentage of agreement: 85%+ (red); 80-84% (orange); and 75-79% (yellow).

Table 1: Most Challenging Social Watch Outs

Table 1: Top Most Challenging Social “Watch Out” Situations for IMTs

Four social watch outs emerged with 85% or more of the incident commanders agreeing that these were the most challenging social watch out situations on a large wildfire. Two of these situations focused on loss of or threats to critical values at risk. When structures or other highly valued assets are at risk, IMTs are challenged to communicate effectively with the affected, and potentially affected, publics. The third situation dealt with hidden or unspoken agendas on part of the local cooperators. If the IMT is unaware of the agenda of its partners on a fire, the IMT can be caught in the middle of long standing dynamics that contribute to ongoing tensions between stakeholders. Finally, if the fire occurs during a time when national resources are heavily committed, the IMT may be unable to meet local expectations for fire management. Communicating this to affected publics is difficult.

Five social watch out situations received between 80 to 84% support for being the most challenging. Three of these addressed tensions with the local community or cooperators. Problematic history between the host forest and the local community, an anti-federal sentiment in the local community, or conflicts or turf battles between local cooperators and the host agency or unit were all situations that could be challenges for IMTs. If the fire becomes significant from a local political perspective, the IMT will need to respond to local politicians who may want to visit the site to better understand the fire impacting their community. Finally, if a fire lasts for an extended duration, the community may become fatigued from evacuations or prolonged smoke exposure, which becomes a situation that the IMT must manage.

The last category comprises situations that received 75 to 79% agreement among Incident Commanders in terms of how challenging they were to manage. A serious injury or fatality would immediately demand the attention of the IMT. If the incident garnered statewide interest from politicians, visits from state legislators, a congressperson or the governor might have to be managed. Finally, if conflicting management objectives among agencies occurred, the IMT would need to sort through how to address these conflicts so the fire could be effectively managed.

We also asked Area Commanders, Incident Commanders and Deputy Incident Commanders about which situations, in their experience, were most likely to occur on a large wildfire (Table 2). In general, the most common watch out situations encountered by ICs appear to be associated with incident severity and the associated political attention that frequently accompanies significant fire events.

Watch out situations related to problematic relationships — like turf battles and anti-outsider/government sentiments — appear to be relatively less commonly experienced by IMTs. Depending on your perspective, this could be viewed as either good news or bad news. While watch out situations associated with problematic relationships were identified as some of the most difficult to manage, they are relatively less common. However, because they are relatively less frequent situations, IMTs may be less practiced in how to both identify and manage these types of watch out situations. In fact, their infrequent nature may partially explain why they are so difficult to manage. These findings suggest that IMTs may need to pay special heed to relationship-oriented watch outs that they encounter, appreciating that: 1) these situations can significantly undermine effective communication and coordination on incident; 2) they are notoriously difficult to manage; and 3) their team may have relatively less experience and consequently fewer tools for how to manage these situations.

Steelman Table 2 Most Encountered SWO.png
Table 2: Most Encountered Social Watch Out Situations


Table 2: Top Most Encountered Social “Watch Out” Situations for IMTs

Metacognitive tools — tools that help us think about how we think, analyze, respond and communicate — such as the tables above, can be helpful aids for decision making in environments where it is easy for individuals to become overwhelmed by information (McLennan et al. 2006). Effective incident management requires attending to not just the operational aspects of fire management, but also being sensitive to the social, cultural, economic, and political aspects of the incident.

Given the numerous activities they need to track during a major WUI fire, IMTs rely on tools to assist them to prioritize their attention. Our results create a framework for evaluating social risks within a metacognitive framework. The systematic documentation of the social risks faced by IMTs can help create a vocabulary around and sensitivity to key problem areas that may require additional resources and proactive attention to ensure that risks for problematic communication and coordination are mitigated.

What our research and tables suggest is there is an empirical basis for establishing a common set of social watch out situations that are most challenging and most encountered among IMTs. Gaining insight into these common problem areas can then lead to more systematic management of these situations. These hands-on heuristic tools are helpful because they use specific examples from prior incidents to help IMT leaders to identify when certain aspects of incident management may require special attention. For instance, to deal with some of the risks may call for the addition of resources such as liaison officers, public information officers, or assigning duties consistent with challenges of the situation.

The documentation of these social watch out situations is also important for training the next generation of IMTs to manage large wildfires that increasingly will have urban interface components. As the current generation of IMT members retire, our research provides a means for capturing the wisdom in their experience.

Articulating this list, providing a framework for discussion about these situations, and reflecting on what can be done to effectively manage them could lead to better safety outcomes. The Standard Firefighting Orders and 18 Watch Out Situations are tools that are expected to provide a measure of safety to wildfire fighters on the frontline. With the growing threat of wildfire to local communities, we now need to expand these kinds of tools to assist in managing the complex social situations that are increasingly central to effective management of wildfire in the WUI.

Canton-Thomspon, J., K.M. Gebert, B. Thompson, G. Jones, D. Calkin, and G. Donovan. 2008. External Human Factors in Incident Management Team Decisionmaking and Their Effect on Large Fire Suppression Expenditures. 2008. Journal of Forestry. December.

McLennan, J., A. M. Holgate, M. M. Omodei, and A.J. Wearting. 2006. Decision Making Effectiveness in Wildfire Incident Management Teams. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, Vol. 14: 1: 27-37.

Moritz, M.A., E. Batllori, R.A. Bradstock, A.M. Gill, J. Handmer, P.F. Hessburg, J. Leonard, S. McCaffrey, D. C. Odio, T. Schoennagel, and A.D. Syphard. 2014. Learning to Coexist with Wildfire. Nature, Vol. 515: 58-56. doi:10.1038/nature13946

Toddi Steelman works at University of Saskatchewan, School of Environment and Sustainability, and North Carolina State University, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources. Branda Nowell, Clare FitzGerald, and Mary Clare Hano are at North Carolina State University, School of Public and International Affairs.