Red Cards for Wildland Firefighting

The term “Red Card” gets a lot of attention during wildland fire season. You hear comments like, “I need to get Red-Carded” or “I need a pack test for my Red Card.” As more and more structural-based fire departments are finding themselves working in the world of the wildland firefighter, it’s only natural that there are so many questions about Red Cards. In fact, browsing the Internet, I found several message boards with erroneous and misleading information about Red Cards and very few accurate descriptions of what they are. I’m hoping I can clear up some of these misconceptions in this article.

Red Card Basics
When considering Red Cards and their use, the first thing is to determine whether you or the members of your department need them. If they are in fact needed, it is important to become educated about what they are, what they do for you and who has the authority to issue them.

A Red Card is officially known as an Incident Qualification Card. They are not often actually red, although most I have seen have at least some red ink on them. This card is generated from a training and qualification database run by federal and state agencies that work in cooperation with the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG).

Called the Incident Qualification and Certification System (IQCS) or in some areas the Incident Qualification System (IQS), this program tracks an individual’s training and incident responses. A Red Card is like a sort of license that indicates what positions the card-holder is qualified to operate in. The software tracks this training and experience and then determines if the individual has met the requirements for a given position. These positions are defined in an NWCG-published document called the Wildland Fire Qualification System Guide, or more commonly, PMS 310-1. A lengthy read to say the least, this document defines the requirements for someone to be qualified in a position and therefore hold a Red Card indicating so.

Red Cards are utilized by state, federal and other fire agencies that work cooperatively with the NWCG. All federal and tribal firefighters are issued Red Cards. Many local government agencies that have members who work on incident management teams (IMTs) or that mobilize to large wildland fire incidents also carry Red Cards. Local government fire departments that only respond to wildland fires within their jurisdiction or the jurisdiction of local mutual-aid partners typically don’t need to worry about Red Cards. In these cases, the chief of the department is certifying that you have the skills and abilities to operate in certain positions; this is generally defined in a mutual-aid agreement. The process for obtaining Red Cards for local government personnel varies from state to state. Your state forestry department should have information about the process, particularly if there’s an active fire suppression program for wildland fire.

A common misperception I hear is that one can only obtain a Red Card if they pass the infamous “pack test,” a 45-minute, three-mile trek with a 45-lb. pack. This is true only for positions that require the arduous pack test. Several different levels of physical ability exist within the NWCG, ranging from light duty to the aforementioned arduous pack test. There are many jobs in wildland fire; some of them require an individual to be able to pass the pack test and many others do not. A Red Card is issued to any individual who has qualifications used on a wildland fire incident, including positions in logistics, finance and planning, in addition to any physical fitness requirement.

There are several reasons why a department may wish to have its personnel “Red-Carded,” or more accurately, qualified by NWCG standard to operate within the NWCG’s system. Departments such as mine, which work closely with neighboring federal agencies or that share protection responsibility for public lands, may find it necessary to have staff members Red-Carded. This enables personnel to work on federally managed incidents as firefighters or other personnel. It also enables federal agencies to reimburse departments for personnel and equipment costs on incidents. More importantly, it shows that a fire department has taken the initiative to train its personnel to the same level and through the same process as their federal cooperators. This commitment can go a long way in improving relationships and creating training opportunities among local, state and federal government agencies.

In many states, Red Cards can be issued within a department up to the Engine Boss level. Basically, the department enters into an agreement with the state or federal cooperating agency, allowing for each agency to accept qualifications from one to another. For example, a department may have an agreement that allows the fire chief of a department to certify that personnel are qualified to operate at the Engine Boss level. Cooperating agencies will agree to accept this qualification on the chief’s word. Check with your state forestry agency to specify how this operates in your area.

Above the Engine Boss level, it’s necessary that personnel complete the required training and position task book for the desired position. Once the task book and training are complete, and personnel demonstrate proficiency at the desired level, a Red Card will be issued at that level.

Unlike the structure firefighting world, there is no specific test or interview for these positions. The NWCG operates under a “performance-based system.” Position task books, available on the NWCG’s website, define the set of skills required for a given position. PMS 310-1 defines the experience and educational requirements, along with successful performance in a position (verified by a task book) required for qualification. This means that a firefighter who wants to be qualified in a position must meet the specified requirements set forth in PMS 310-1 prior to initiating a task book, then demonstrate performance at that level as a trainee. Once all tasks and required training are complete and the firefighter’s task book is signed off by a series of evaluators, the firefighter is eligible to be qualified by the agency for which he or she works. Usually, above the Engine Boss level, this is performed at the state level.

Final Thoughts
Engaging in a program that allows your department to have Red Card-qualified personnel is a great idea if you operate in the wildland fire realm with agencies that use the system. It demonstrates an initiative on your department’s part to produce personnel who are trained and capable of performing at a nationally accepted standard level. There’s a pretty steep learning curve for departments that are unfamiliar with the NWCG’s system, but a little time spent reading the policies and procedures found in PMS 310-1, as well as some conversations with your state’s forestry or wildland fire agency, can clear things up and get you moving in the right direction. At a minimum, your department should be aware of the NWCG and its training system if you operate in the wildland/urban interface. There’s bound to be an incident that will require you to work with NWCG-affiliated agencies, and the more you know, the better that cooperation will be. missing image file

sidebar-Skills Crosswalk
There’s another option for structural fire departments that wish to pursue NWCG qualification and receive a Red Card. The Skills Crosswalk program was designed to incorporate existing skills, knowledge and abilities obtained by firefighters through NFPA training. By utilizing the Skills Crosswalk program, structural departments can fill gaps in their training and develop equivalency with wildland firefighter training.

The authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) in a particular area can administer this program, although it should be done with the input of a cooperating wildland fire agency.

The Crosswalk takes into account the knowledge a firefighter at a particular level of NFPA training should have, adds core components of NWCG classes, and offers a reduced-hour alternative for training. For example, an NFPA FF I can complete the class work required in about 21 hours as opposed to the NWCG course work of 67.5 hours.

As stated in the article, in many jurisdictions the chief can issue Red Cards up to the Engine Boss level; however, higher qualifications are typically managed at the state level.

Skills Crosswalk programs are available for positions ranging from NWCG FFT2 (basic wildland firefighter) up to Strike Team Leader.

More information about the Skills Crosswalk can be found at

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