Criminal charges make wildfire supervisors reluctant to serve

Criminalcharges make wildfire supervisors reluctant to serve

21 February 2007

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Seattle,WA,USA– Asurvey of wildland firefighters indicates many are reluctant to volunteer forsupervisory jobs after an incident commander was criminally charged in thedeaths of four firefighters in Washington state.

But a spokeswoman for federal firefighting agencies said Wednesday there hasbeen no decline in the numbers of firefighters signing up to lead managementteams.

Ellreese Daniels, a former U.S. Forest Service incident commander, wascharged in federal court here last month with involuntary manslaughter and lyingto investigators stemming from the deaths of four firefighters in the ThirtymileFire in Okanogan County in July 2001.

Responding to concerns that the federal charges would make wildfire incidentcommanders more reluctant to serve if their decisions could lead to a prisonsentence, the International Association of Wildland Fires conducted an onlinesurvey of its members Jan. 28-Feb. 15.

The nonprofit firefighter lobbying organization, based in Hot Springs, S.D.,released results of the survey with 3,362 responses on Tuesday.

Primary firefighters – for whom wildland firefighting was the primary duty oftheir job – were asked how the situation would affect their careers. They weretold to mark all the responses that applied. charges against Daniels would haveno effect on their plans.

Thirty-six percent said they would make themselves less available for fireassignments, 6 percent said they would not take any fire assignments until theliability issue is resolved, 8 percent said they would retire or find anotherjob within a year. Of that same group, 23 percent said they would not takeassignments as an incident commander. Four percent said they served as incidentmanagers in 2006 but would not do so in 2007.

Still, 39 percent said the charges against Daniels would have no effect ontheir plans.

Results of surveys of part-time firefighters were similar.

IAWF President Chuck Bushey of Billings, Mont., said his organization willprovide the results to land management agencies and other fire organizations”so that they can determine if they need to mitigate any adverse impactsthat may be identified.”

Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise,Idaho, said a nationwide system that logs firefighters’ availability has notseen an appreciable decline. Each year, firefighters are issued “red cards”that indicate their level of training.

“So far, we have not seen a decline in number of folks participating inincident management teams. We haven’t seen an increase of applicants turning intheir red cards,” she said. “When the fire bell rings this westernfire season, we’ll probably have a more concrete indication. Our folks infirefighting generally rise to the occasion and consider it their duty.”

Another part of the survey question posed to primary firefighters asked ifthey would “remove some positions for which I am qualified from my ‘redcard’ ” – and 23 percent said they would.

Daniels, 46, of Leavenworth, is scheduled to stand trial in March on fourcounts of involuntary manslaughter and seven counts of making false statementsto federal investigators.

Lawyers for the Forest Service and other federal firefighting agencies aretrying to develop a system that would separate safety reviews of fires fromcriminal investigations so employees would not fear repercussions fromdiscussing lessons learned, Davis said.

In light of the charges against Daniels, federal wildfire agencies arestressing leadership skills and decision-making in courses that potentialincident commanders are taking across the country, Davis said.

“A lot of our fire folks in leadership positions have liabilityinsurance. It’s a personal decision, but something that’s getting more attention,”she said. “We have said repeatedly that if the incident commander is payingattention to situational awareness, escape routes and safety zones and canjustify the actions taken, the agency would stand behind them.”

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