Issue 24 • 2009 A Lessons Learned Newsletter Published Quarterly
A lesson is truly learned when we modify our behavior to reflect what we now know.
The LLC staff recently interviewed eight Crew and Squad Bosses from around the United States regarding their
notable successes, difficult challenges, effective safety practices, crew training recommendations and unresolved
issues in supervising squads and crews. Special thanks are extended to these Crew and Squad Bosses for sharing
their significant lessons and practices with the wildland fire community.
Value of Extended Trainee Assignments
Assure that Crew Boss trainees receive quality training assignments. For example, one Type 1 Crew Superintendent
expects Crew Boss trainees to run the crew for two weeks, or the duration of the incident. If a safety issue arises, the
Superintendent or other overhead will step in, but otherwise, the trainer
allows the trainee the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.
In This Issue The trainee wakes the crew up in the morning, attends the briefing, briefs
Notable Successes ...............................1 the crew, and makes the day’s work assignments. They also make all
of the radio contacts with other crews, the Division Supervisor, and air
Difficult Challenges ............................. 3
resources. When managing a training assignment in this way, the trainer
Effective Safety Practices ................... 4 should make a point of letting the Division Supervisor and other crews as-
Crew Training Recommendations ...... 7 signed to the division know, each morning, that the trainee is running the
crew, but that the Crew Boss remains available if needed.
Unresolved Issues ............................... 8
By taking the crew for a full two weeks, the trainee receives broad experi-
How to Contact Us: ence that proves much more valuable than one in which the trainee runs the
crew for a couple of days toward the end of an assignment, when everything
email@example.com is winding down. The trainee gets the entire picture including mobilization,
firstname.lastname@example.org arriving at the fire, and running the crew during the first two days when
(520) 799-8760 or 8761 objectives are changing on a daily basis; then follows the mop-up stage,
fax: (520) 799-8785 demobilization, and getting the crew safely home.
w w w. w i l d f i r e l e s s o n s . n e t
Importance of Pre-Assignment One Crew Boss recommends that, before leaving the home
Crew Meetings staging area, the Crew Boss conducts a very thorough crew
meeting. Once the crew assembles and the Crew Boss
Having a crew return from assignments safe and having meets with the overhead, the Crew Boss should set a pe-
had an overall good experience represents a notable suc- riod of time aside for the crew to meet together. During this
cess for any Crew Boss, but it is no easy feat considering period, the Crew Boss lays out the rules and expectations,
the diversity of personnel assigned to fires, both on and including safety practices beyond the 10 and 18, crew con-
off the crew. Crew cohesion always presents a challenge. duct, and how to treat one another. The Crew Boss should
The Crew Boss for a Type 2 Initial Attack (IA) crew, must not cover firefighting tactics in this meeting, but provide the
maintain control and order during any deployment, and one structure and rules for the crew. Instead, set the tone for
successful Crew Boss finds that having very solid ground the crew’s assignment including functioning as a unit and
watching out for one another’s personal well being.
rules for how the crew is expected to perform, consistently
contributes to their success. Effective Contingency Plans
The average Type 2 hand crew includes firefighters and When conducting a firing operation, whether on a pre-
overhead that train together very little, and they spend most scribed fire or wildfire, have a good contingency plan that
describes who will be responsible for what if things do not
of the time they do have together engaged in tactical and
go as planned, and follow through with mindful procedures
fundamental firefighting training. This leaves little time to when the unexpected does happen. The Crew Boss must
prepare personnel for the mental and physical stresses that conduct a thorough briefing on the contingency plan so
come with fire assignments. Being away from family and that all individuals will understand their leader’s intent and
friends, as well as their normal lifestyle, puts crewmembers know what is expected of them ahead of time, instead of
under stress. Combine this stress with the rigors of fighting scrambling to figure it out after the fact. When the crew has
fire, as well as cohabitation with 20 strangers not used to a quality contingency plan and the Crew Boss briefs them
one another’s wants and needs, and you have the potential well, people can act quickly and decisively instead of with
for a variety of problems. confusion, when the unexpected happens.
Photo courtesy of Steve Little, USFS
Development of Leaders
One Superintendent of a Type 1 Crew, specializing in fire leadership development for 21 years, feels their success comes from
the crew members who complete the training program and continue their career, applying the skills they learned while on the
crew. The Superintendent and overhead help provide mentoring and evaluations for their crewmembers while the crew serves
as a national resource. To help crewmembers develop into leaders by the time they leave the crew, the crew’s overhead first
helps crewmembers learn what their individual strengths and weaknesses are. Sixteen or seventeen people pass through the
program each year. Every crew member is given the opportunity to perform in leadership positions and to operate at the level
they are comfortable with.
Most Type 1 crews have at least seven or more full time overhead positions, ranging from superintendent to squad bosses, and
trainees rotate through each of these positions. The individuals that come through the fire leadership development program hold
other positions. They come to the training program for five months to serve in leadership roles after their home unit identifies
them as having leadership potential.
Trainees participate in an exit interview once the five month period is over. The crew provides the questions to the trainees at
the start of training so they may think about them along the way. The exit interview helps the program obtain general feedback,
including stumbling blocks that trainees encountered along the way; whether with group dynamics, being away from family,
personality conflicts, or other matters. Along with the exit interview, trainees complete a homework assignment requiring them to
address what the trainee feels it means to be a Hotshot, both as an individual and as a member of a team.
Managing a Positive Crew Atmosphere
Twenty people working and living together represents a complex interconnected system, subject to many variables. These
include personal ethics, physical ability and condition, and the type of fire assignment on which the crew is working. A Crew
Boss can maintain performance and healthy relationships among crew members by maintaining a fairly constant tone, having
an effective communication style, meeting expectations, making sure they do not let things slip, and giving meaningful praise
when justified. Inconsistent behavior and actions from individuals in leadership positions quickly breaks down what a Crew Boss
should be attempting to build. Consequently, the Crew Boss and overhead should maintain a positive atmosphere by acting
consistently every day.
Handling a Crew Medical Emergency
Major medical issues are always difficult and cause stress, not only to those involved, but to the crew and the fire camp. One
Type 2 Initial Attack (IA) crew had a medical incident that became their complete focus for two days. This particular incident in-
volved extracting a stricken crewmember from a spike camp by a rescue helicopter. In a situation like this, the Crew Boss must
quickly and efficiently deal with the fact that the emergency involves one of their crew personnel, and respond immediately. The
Type 2 IA crew configuration allowed the crew boss to use the crew in effective modules. Having the extra overhead is vital to
crew performance and well being during a major medical incident.
The Crew Boss will need to have access to a complete Crew Boss kit, which includes a comprehensive roster of crewmembers,
including their personal contact information; information that attending emergency medical technicians will request. Depending
on the severity of the incident, the Crew Boss may need to focus on the sick or injured crewmember. If this is the case, and
another Crew Boss or trainee is available, the Crew Boss should consider asking them to temporarily take command of the crew.
This Crew Boss was fortunate to have another qualified Crew Boss on the crew, and was able to let them assume responsibil-
ity for the crew during the medical incident. After answering questions from medical personnel and watching the crewmember
airlifted from spike camp, the Crew Boss decided to leave spike camp to be present at the hospital to act on the crewmember’s
This Crew Boss advises others to talk to the Time and Medical Units in base camp to check on the proper forms to carry to the
hospital. They also suggest getting the name and phone number of the Liaison Officer attached to their home region and enter-
ing their phone number into the Crew Boss’s cell phone contact list. If available, the Crew Boss should contact the Interagency
Resource Representative (IARR). The most recent Incident Action Plan should also include a list of important names and phone
If needed, the Crew Boss should make contact with their region’s Liaison Officer to get help setting up return transportation for
the crewmember, as well as any transportation needs they may have to return the entire crew home. This Crew Boss found that
a cell phone proves essential in a situation like this, and recommends that if a Crew Boss does not currently carry one, that they
try to get their home unit to provide one. They also recommend that, the Crew Boss regularly contacts both the home unit and the
fire to which the crew is assigned, to keep everyone informed regarding the firefighter’s condition. Furthermore, this Crew Boss
reminds others that laws limit what information regarding the crewmember’s health may be released without the crewmember’s
permission. They also recommend taking possession of the firefighter’s wallet and other personal property. When doing this,
write a simple statement documenting your acts and have someone witness it. Finally, the Crew Boss must document events
and provide copies for all parties involved.
Monitoring Wildfires for Multiple Days
One Squad Boss found that monitoring a wildfire for seven days presented a difficult challenge for their crew. This assignment
proved mentally challenging for crewmembers because of the lack of their customarily active fireline work. In order to overcome
the challenge, the squad bosses reviewed topics in the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG) with crewmembers and gave
refreshers in GPS, Kestrel, and radio operations to the first year firefighters, who do not get the opportunity to use them very
Developing Good Decision-Making Skills
A Crew Boss has the important task of helping newer firefighters gain confidence about the decisions they make on the fireline.
Quality training assignments can make such a difference for crew boss trainees. The crew’s overhead can promote confidence
in young firefighters, who are pursuing Crew Boss qualification, by allowing them enough freedom to make decisions during their
trainee assignments. One experienced Crew Boss recommends that after a couple of crew boss trainee assignments within
their own crew, detailing crew boss trainees to a different crew, with a trainer that they do not know, to complete their task book.
This forces the trainee out of their comfort zone and circle of friends, allowing them to make decisions on their own.
Maintaining Crew Boss Role
One of the biggest challenges is separating oneself from the crew, realizing that the Crew Boss is no longer a crew member, but
responsible for leading the crew. It is a delicate balancing act to operate as an umbrella, catching the information coming down
from overhead and disseminating it to the crew, as well as taking the complaints and issues from the crew and transferring them
up to overhead and ensuring that everyone is on the same page. The line separating a crew member’s role from a Crew Boss’
role is very important and always a challenge.
Building a Team from
Building a cohesive unit out of new crew
members every year presents a continu-
al challenge. One crew’s facility includes
an aerial obstacle challenge course that
aids in team building, where four to five
crew members work as a team to com-
plete the challenge course. In addition,
the crew conducts other field exercises
to establish rapport, trust and commu-
nication skills. During these exercises,
the crew breaks into groups of four
and they work through simulated initial
attacks. During crew training, the Crew
Superintendent obtains feedback from
members to determine their skills, tal-
ents, and experience level.
The exercises enable crewmembers to
learn about one another. Learning each
others’ backgrounds improves trust and Aerial Obstacle Challenge Course
Photo courtesy of Steve Little, USFS
trainees begin to turn to one another for
particular skills. If crewmembers do not communicate well, they will struggle. The crew always teaches and uses common
terminology and descriptions, avoiding slang terms because they cause too much confusion.
Effective Safety Practices
Building Crew Cohesiveness
According to one experienced Crew Boss, conducting After Action Reviews (AAR) represents an effective safety practice that
also helps build crew cohesiveness. The crew holds a pre-shift Before Action Review, which is technically a briefing, and often a
noon-time During Action Review. At the end of the operational period, they then hold a mandatory AAR. The crew requires each
crewmember to speak during the briefing and AARs, expecting at minimum, an articulate compliment to an individual or particu-
lar effort, or a safety or time saving suggestion. At times, when specific incident information has been addressed, the Crew Boss
will put out a general discussion topic for the good of the group, such as “How are folks’ feet doing?” or “Describe your personal
hydration habits on the fireline.” The discussion about boots, socks, blister prevention or hydration that follows, on the fireline,
in the bus, or in camp, often triggers new ideas, dredges up old memories, creates camaraderie, and makes crew members feel
more prepared to speak out. This is of paramount importance and is one way the crew builds cohesion.
In 2009, one crew will assign a crewmember to act as safety monitor, changing every pay period, so that each crewmember gets
a chance to step back and make observations from this perspective. This will help them to step outside the box and see how and
why overhead makes the decisions they do. They will also access SafeNets, SafeComs and lessons learned to brief to the crew.
The safety monitor assignments will help crewmembers learn to teach and train others, improving their communication skills.
Posting Squad Lookouts
Sometimes, even when the best safety practices are used, a crew finds itself working in a potential high-hazard area. One Crew
Boss posts squad lookouts in hazardous areas as a mitigation measure. In these situations, the Crew Boss likes to first assess
the situation to see if the assignment is still safe enough to undertake following standard safety practices. If it appears to be safe
but the potential for problems exists, the Crew Boss has the three squad bosses, who are IC Type 5 qualified, assign a squad
The crew primarily employs this practice during night operations. The squads rotate squad members through the lookout posi-
tions to prevent the lookouts from becoming complacent. The crew does not use the ICT5s as the lookouts because they should
be supervising the squad. The lookout assignments keep everyone’s head in the game concerning safety, and provide the
crewmembers with the chance to assume some additional responsibility. This seasoned Crew Boss encourages their peers to
remember that if an assignment is truly unsafe, the Crew Boss has an obligation, not only to the crew, but to the entire fire orga-
nization, to bring their safety concerns to the appropriate person’s attention. Safety should never be an afterthought.
Falling Operation Practices
One Crew Boss recommends an effective safety practice for use during falling operations. While the sawyer sizes up the tree,
crewmembers with radios stage on each end of a nearby trail or walkway, to ensure that no one unknowingly walks into the
falling operation. As an additional safety measure, the sawyer also shuts the saw down after completing the face cut, prior to
completing the back cut, in order to announce the back cut and where the tree will fall.
Enroute to an Assignment
Photo courtesy of David Crary, National Park Service
Looking Out for Each Other
According to one Crew Boss, crewmembers looking out for one another represents the best safety practice a crew can use.
This Crew Boss encourages firefighters, both new and experienced, to point out safety issues. They believe that complacency
hurts crews all the time and that if crews can remind themselves of the little things, they will reduce the risk in the equation. In
the morning briefings, the Crew Boss encourages the crewmembers to give input on the tactics and strategies planned for the
day. This Crew Boss is not surprised that some of the best ideas come from firefighters out for the first time.
This same Crew Boss, who often takes crews to Canada on wildfires, incorporates Lookouts, Anchor Points, Communications,
Escape Routes and Safety Zones (LACES) while keeping a keen eye on his personnel. When several squads work on separate
parts of the fire in the flat terrain, the Crew Boss is above the crew in a helicopter. From this vantage point, he can monitor work
progress, order and direct water drops and most importantly act as a lookout to provide quick escape instructions to a squad.
Ingraining the 10 and 18
Everyone in the Type 1 Leadership Develop-
ment Crew program must know the 10 and 18.
The Superintendent determines who knows
the 10 and the 18 right from the first day when
individuals arrive for orientation. During orien-
tation, a trainer can have trainees take out a
sheet of paper and ask them to write down the
10 and 18 and grade them. From that point on,
the overhead will know who has the 10 and 18
committed to memory, and the trainees know
exactly what overhead expects of them. One
Crew Superintendent recommends that when
giving feedback and critiques, the Crew Boss
ask crewmembers to address the 10 and 18
by pointing out specifics in relation to assign-
ments they have worked on. On some days,
trainees realize that if they do not know the 10
and 18, they will feel it physically, as a team.
This Crew Boss makes the entire team do
Wrong Answer in Fire Jeopardy push-ups when someone messes up the 10
Photo courtesy of Steve Little, USFS and 18, which they believe increases team
building and knowledge of fireline safety.
Gathering Knowledge from an
One Crew Boss reminds their peers to
obtain specific information on fuel types, fire
behavior and local weather conditions and
forecasts when going to a new location. This
Crew Boss tries to get the same in-briefing
that an IMT receives when they take a fire
over, ideally obtaining it before arriving for
the first day of the assignment. If trainees
see the Crew Boss seek this information,
they know what to look for themselves. This
experienced Crew Boss looks for more than
just the current weather forecast; they ask
for information about the weather 4-5 months
prior, as well as the previous few days. De-
tails, such as the drought situation, rainfall
over a given period, and the number of days
since last rainfall, prove valuable as well.
This Crew Boss also asks for information
about logistics, the fire’s location, the land-
scape, and communications. While the
Crew Boss realizes that time may not al-
low for this detailed in-briefing to occur,
when it does, the in-briefing proves
Reviewing Fuels and Weather Activity
Courtesy of Steve Little, USFS
Sand Tables and AARs
One seasoned Crew Boss recommends AARs, conducted on a sand table, as a very effective practice. This Crew Boss al-
ways carries the props or toys needed to use a sand table, including colored chalk, colored yarn for creeks and roads, and
Legos for houses. If they find no sand table available, they construct their terrain model in the dirt. This practice helps crew-
members visualize what is happening on the incident, and this Crew Boss finds that visual representations prove important
in order to have a full picture.
Work through the AAR chronologically, so that the crew can see where they started, where the fire was physically, and how the
crew wound up at the point they did at the end of the operational period. The chronological approach, combined with visual
cues allowed by the sand table, creates a more comprehensive AAR. When a Crew Boss feels they have been swamped for
a few days in a row and that they need to revisit events, an AAR provides an opportunity to regroup. This Crew Boss recom-
mends reminding crewmembers that they should discuss and understand what the concerns would be if they ever found
themselves in a given situation again, and that they encourage crewmembers to learn to facilitate AARs by leading some of
the crew’s AARs themselves.
AAR in the Rough
Photo courtesy of Steve Little, USFS
Crew Training Recommendations
Learning from Safety Grams
One Crew Boss finds that repeatedly training on the basics proves very beneficial for Type 2 crews. This Crew Boss consid-
ers a discussion of the previous year’s Safety Gram a very important training tool. During the annual safety refresher, each
attendee receives a hard copy of the Safety Gram and each line is read aloud and discussed. At the end of each page the at-
tendees are asked “What are the accident trends on this page?” Using this method, the trainer can cover trends such as travel
and vehicle related accidents, burnovers, shelter deployments, and a shifting pattern of accidents among primarily volunteer
fire departments and state agencies during the spring, to mostly federal agency incidents in the summer and fall.
Mental Preparedness for Assignments
One Crew Boss recommends that, as a Crew Boss, one must believe in the standards for what “arduous duty” means, and how
this relates to expectations for firefighters. This Crew Boss believes that the pack test provides a much better test of what a
firefighter must be able to do physically, but believes that we must also test and train for mental ability as well. They recommend
training on crew developmental skills that lead to self motivation, personal development, and other capacities. To accomplish
this, crewmembers must open themselves up to the question, “What will both make me better, and make my crew better as
An experienced Crew Boss recommends establishing clear parameters and expectations for roles and responsibilities within
a crew, right from the start, to provide a framework to improve mindfulness in crew operations. This provides individuals with
flexibility and empowers them to enrich the crew’s overall understanding of the environment, and increases their awareness of
what is, and what might be, happening. For a crew to operate at peak efficiency, each crewmember needs to know their role.
In addition, they need to understand their responsibility for constantly assessing their mindfulness of the situation. This includes
discussing how they feel, and asking why they feel a certain way considering what the appropriate response is. This helps the
crew achieve their assigned objectives while mitigating risk in the ever-changing fire environment.
For one Crew Boss, the bottom line focus is on teaching people an intuitive thought process that
uses existing tools, such as HRO, LCES, the Standard Fire Orders, and Risk Management into us-
able processes in the field. They recommend starting by developing mindfulness as a way of think-
ing as a way to help crews develop these capacities.
Several tools exist to help individuals and crews develop their mindfulness skills including High Reli-
ability Organizing (HRO) audits at http://www.wildfirelessons.net/HRO.aspx, leadership books, tacti-
cal decision games, and both the Lessons Learned Center and Wildland Fire Leadership websites:
www.wildfirelessons.net and http://www.fireleadership.gov/.
According to one veteran Crew Boss, the entire training curriculum of the Wildland Fire Leadership Development program,
including the L180, L280, and L380 classes are excellent for crews. The human factors content in this curriculum provides
significant value that goes beyond the immediate requirements of a person’s firefighting responsibilities. Human factors play a
huge role in the decisions firefighters make on a daily basis and cannot be overlooked.
Another knowledgeable crew leader believes that training people to lead and manage proves critical. According to this veteran,
crew bosses sometimes find themselves focusing on tactics and strategies more than interpersonal communications and crew
dynamics. The National Park Service Operational Leadership course provides an employee centered approach to managing risk
and achieving excellence. To focus on human factors and leadership, this Crew Boss selects a book and has the crew members
read a chapter of the book and relate the principles learned back to how they use them, or how they could use them in a normal
work day. Each crew member can brief only one chapter per book. By the end of the summer, the crew will have gone through
three to four books. The crew selects the reader by having crewmembers flip a coin once a week. Whoever loses on the coin
flip has to read that week. The Crew Boss should read the entire book ahead of time to make sure nothing is missed by the
crewmember who is leading the chapter discussion.
Task Book Evaluator
Fire personnel need more training on serving as position task book evaluators. Task book evaluators need to understand the
background behind the position task book system, the intent of the system, and how to provide honest feedback to a trainee.
One Crew Boss noted, “I have seen hundreds of task books that have checkmarks placed but the only feedback the trainee
received was ‘good job’, or ‘you are not ready’.” The Crew Boss created a task book attachment sheet because they felt the
need to document the quality of the check-off.
The nature of each training assignment is important during task book evaluation. For example, if a trainee has only worked on
mop up for a single assignment, versus being on four to five small fires where they were involved in initial attack and the com-
plete management of the fire, the experience they gain may be less diverse. The quality of the assignment they received goes
hand-in-hand with the training and check off process. Quality may actually prove more important than either assignment length
or the number of assignments.
Fire Behavior Calculations
An experienced Crew Boss believes that teaching crewmembers to use Appendix B-Fire Behavior, in the Fireline Handbook is
important, because each crewmember needs to know how to predict the probability of ignition and obtain approximate rates of
spread and flame lengths. This proves to be significant when the crew reports to a fire where no fire behavior analyst (FBAN)
is available, especially during initial attack. According to this veteran, any person in a crew leadership role should be able
to calculate fire behavior basics until an FBAN arrives. They believe that squad and crew bosses should not wait until they
complete S390 Intermediate Fire Behavior to learn how to do basic fire behavior calculations.
Solving Poor Transportation Issues
Crew bosses, who have been around, know that they can find themselves dealing with inadequate transportation arrangements
or drivers while on fire assignments. While the U.S. Forest Service has made improvements in this area, one Crew Boss be-
lieves more must be done. For example, this Crew Boss observes that the fire organizations complete thorough bus inspections
in some fire camps but not in others. The Crew Boss also had to personally remove incompetent drivers from crew transport
vehicles. According to the Crew Boss, these individuals had no business driving fire crews around on a level road let alone
mountainous terrain that required well-developed driving skills. In 2008, the brakes on one crew’s transport bus caught fire on
a minor grade because the driver exercised poor driving skills and abusive braking.
Many crew bosses have had to devote a significant portion of time deciding whether the bus driver is competent enough to move
the crew. Problems such as this could be addressed via higher driver standards and better record keeping on drivers. This vet-
eran also suggests tighter restrictions on inspections, better accountability at the ground support unit, a mountainous terrain bus
navigation training course, and a pool of names of prohibited drivers that can be shared between geographic area coordination
Crew Boss Meetings Needed
A veteran Crew Boss recommends re-instituting the practice of holding Crew Boss meetings at the end of each operational
period as a time to provide feedback to line overhead and the incident management team. According to this experienced crew
supervisor, five to ten minutes between crew bosses and their respective line supervisor would prove beneficial. For newer
crew bosses and engine captains, these meetings provide an opportunity to learn from the experiences of the day.
Handling Off-Fire Duties
Ensuring that the members of the squad are doing their respective jobs off the fireline remains an unresolved issue for some
crew bosses. One crew used ten person modules, with two module leaders, a foreman, and a superintendent acting as over-
head. At times, using this configuration, the span of control proved too large. Even though the span of control allowed only
small oversights, high reliability principles tell us that each weak signal can add up to a big problem within an organization.
The Crew Boss decided that three squad bosses provide better oversight and supervision during non-fire duties, providing a
more effective span of control and more opportunity to detect weak signals of developing problems within the crew.
Need Your Input . FUTURE OF WILDLAND FIRE SAFETY
2008 marked the 10th anniversary of the release of the Wildland Fire-
fighter Safety Awareness (TriData) Phase 3 study. The TriData Phase Wildland
3 report is available at http://www.nifc.gov/safety/phaseIII.htm. This was
a landmark safety study for the interagency wildland fire community that
helped shape fire management direction during the past decade. Sev- Lessons
eral of the NWCG Safety and Health Working Team (SHWT) projects and Center
initiatives came out of this study as did the formation of the Wildland Fire
Lessons Learned Center (LLC).
To recognize this landmark study, the SHWT and LLC would like your input on key recommendations that still need to be
worked on to improve the safety culture of the interagency community and identify gaps in the TriData study recommenda-
tions. Please take a few minutes to give your feedback at: http://www.wildfirelessons.net/Surveys.aspx