By Tim Ryan
Published Monday, August 20, 2012
| From the October 2012 Issue of FireRescue
Wildland/urban interface (WUI) fires occur across the country all year long. A large portion of these fires occur in small jurisdictions with limited training budgets and even more limited personnel. Every time the alarm sounds for such a fire, fire chiefs everywhere cringe, wondering to themselves if they’ve properly trained their firefighters for the worst-case scenario.
There are many avenues that small rural fire departments can take to prepare their members for these challenging and dangerous calls. A regular training program can go a long way to mitigating the risks involved in the WUI. Begin with an analysis of the risks involved in your jurisdiction to identify areas where more training is needed. And remember not to reinvent the wheel: Developing a department training program that borrows from standardized training programs will help ensure that department leaders and firefighters fully understand how to safely and successfully engage a WUI incident.
Taking that WUI training program to the next level and pursuing qualification in the wildland firefighting system will ensure your department can operate consistently with your neighbors and other wildland fire cooperators.
The First Step
The first step in developing a comprehensive WUI training program: Evaluate the risks in your jurisdiction. Is there the possibility of a large-scale conflagration due to wildland fire? What resources are available to you should such an event occur? Do you have relationships with neighboring jurisdictions or federal cooperators to manage this event?
Keep in mind that the risks go beyond the usual fire department standbys of life and property. There are often jurisdictional issues, land-use issues and public perception issues. In contrast to the typical, short-duration incident that most departments respond to, a WUI incident can be prolonged, involve much higher cumulative values at risk and put your department under a much more powerful microscope.
Officers & ICS
Once risks are identified, you can begin to build a program that starts with your department’s leadership. Ensuring that your department’s chief and company officers have the training they need to operate on a large-scale incident is the key to making the WUI fire incident run efficiently. Much of this training is available to local governments at little or no cost. In many states, cooperative programs exist between local government and state natural resource organizations to provide training to firefighters in wildland operations. Additionally, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) has developed several courses to help structural departments become more proficient in the WUI.
Systems and training must be in place that enable officers—as well as your organization as whole—to properly understand and utilize the incident command system (ICS). All federal wildland firefighting agencies use this system, as do most state agencies. ICS should be used on every incident, because WUI fires often become very complex in a short time frame, and ICS provides a standardized means of controlling any incident as it expands, making transitions to larger and more complex organizations smoother.
Remember: Officers play a key role in implementing and using ICS, because they arrive first and set the groundwork for the emerging incident.
After officers gain knowledge of and experience with the ICS system, firefighters must then be trained to operate in the system as well. FEMA offers several online courses that can help introduce the key concepts of ICS to your organization. These courses are very well designed and informative, and they’re online-based at the lower levels, I-700 up through I-200. These excellent online introductory courses are available through FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute. Each course takes a few hours to complete.
Tip: If your organization struggles with ICS, hosting an NWCG class, such as S-200, can really help because it offers several table-top exercises that put a much more practical spin on the use of the system.
The more advanced levels of ICS classes, the I-300 and I-400, can often be obtained through state disaster and emergency service organizations or through the National Fire Academy (NFA). The NFA offers these classes around the country throughout the year.
Note: The NFA also offers courses designed for structural chief officers titled Command and Control of WUI Fire Operations for the Structural Chief Officer and another titled Introduction to WUI Firefighting for the Company Officer. Both would be a great introduction to the complexities encountered in a WUI fire.
The next step in developing a comprehensive training program involves filling in the gaps in your strategies and tactics. Training for operational work at a WUI incident must begin with a good, basic understanding of wildland fire behavior. This knowledge, coupled with a solid understanding of how weather, fuels and topography come together to create dangerous wildland fire events, sets the stage for developing sound strategies and tactics on the fireground.
If you’ve encountered WUI issues in your response area, it’s likely that your department already performs some wildland fire training. Taking those basic skills and moving them into the WUI environment really just takes a few appropriate classes. Again, the NWCG has developed great courses to help the WUI firefighter.
Moving your firefighters from the basic Wildland Firefighter (FFT2) level up to the Advanced Wildland Firefighter (FFT1) is a great place to start WUI training. (Note: These class levels are the opposite of NFPA firefighter qualifications).
The Advanced Wildland Firefighter class, S-131, designed by the NWCG, prepares wildland firefighters for work at the initial incident command level and offers some great table-top exercises. The S-215 class is equally excellent because it enables firefighters to understand the unique risks present in the WUI, as well as some methods for assessing the likelihood of saving houses, and introduces some very important risk management tools to help firefighters make the right decisions. Students are coached in using the risk management process developed by the NWCG to help firefighters make safe decisions in the WUIT. The S-215 course also introduces a standardized approach to assessing homes in the WUI to determine the effectiveness and feasibility of saving the structure.
The NFPA has also introduced a class, Assessing Ignition Hazards in the WUI, which is another great resource for structural firefighters who want to become familiar with working in the WUI. (Although similar in scope to S-215, it’s geared toward the structural firefighter.)
Several years ago, the NWCG, the National Association of State Foresters and other cooperators developed several “gap” courses to help structural firefighting departments bridge their training and qualification programs into the wildland firefighting qualification system. Information on Gap Courses, as well as the “Skills Crosswalk” program, which allows for NFPA certified structural firefighters to “cross walk” into the NWCG system can be found by following the link at the end of this article.
These classes are an excellent resource for departments that have pursued NFPA training and would like to transition their structural firefighters into the wildland firefighting arena. All the classes mirror the NWCG classes and are numbered accordingly. For example, the above- mentioned Advanced Wildland Firefighter course, S-131, is available as a gap course under the number G-131.
All of the gap courses fall under the Wildland Training for Structural Firefighter Skills Crosswalk Program, sponsored by the USFA. Becoming familiar with this program will help you understand the differences and similarities between the training and qualifications of structural firefighting, and those in the wildland firefighting realm.
Once you’ve laid the groundwork for training your firefighters in wildland fire operations, you may consider pursuing qualifications for your firefighters. The NWCG’s qualification system provides standard knowledge and skill sets that are recognized across all wildland firefighting agencies; it also helps firefighters develop needed skills and thought processes that are vital to operating safely on wildland fires. Using the task book system that has been developed by the NWCG can help firefighters identify training needs. Task books provide position specific job duties that demonstrate a firefighter’s ability to perform a function within the incident command system. This system has been in place for many years within widland firefighting agencies and helps provide a standard set of training and performance standards for firefighters all the way up to Type I incident commanders.
A Final Word
Transitioning to the use of NWCG positions can be a big leap for traditional structural fire departments that are accustomed to using the NFPA certification system, because it adds another set of training guidelines for firefighters to become proficient at. Seeking help from your state or federal wildland fire cooperators can be a big help.
Another great tool to help you better understand the NWCG system is the Wildland Fire Position Qualification Guide. This book describes in detail all of the wildland fire positions and what is required for them. A link to the guide is included at the end of the article. Once you integrate it into your training program, it can greatly improve the operational skill level in your department. Of course, implementing a training program is no small feat either, but once established, it will not only improve skill and safety levels, it can become a training mainstay for your department that can be used by firefighters and fire officers for years to come.
Sidebar: Need to Know Where to Go?
For more information on training program classes and where to begin the process, visit these helpful sites:
- NFA Gap Courses - www.usfa.fema.gov/media/press/2009releases/030209.shtm
- Online ICS Training from FEMA - http://training.fema.gov/EMI
- NWCG’s Field Manager’s Course Guide - www.nwcg.gov/pms/training/fmcg.pdf
- NWCG’s Wildland Fire Qualification System Guide- http://www.nwcg.gov/pms/docs/pms310-1.pdf
- National Fire Academy Off Campus Course Info - http://apps.usfa.fema.gov/nfacourses/main/schedule/off-campus
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