Compounding Inexperience

So I thought I would start a few topics in the next coming months here to switch gears from our everyday discussion on active fires that are currently unfolding and build some discussion about the ones we’re going to have to fight in the future, and get specific about some issues that to me are going to be very big problems when they surface.

So currently there is a constant shortage of operators in Cal Fire, what I mean by that is especially new FAE’s are constantly being forced to work in order to make coverage in the unit at least where I work. Now in one hand some people may not have a problem with that because they like to make money, on the other it keeps many away from their family more often and they know what they signed up for so there is only so much complaining that goes on. However this is not the problem I am addressing just a part of causation.

So we have a shortage of Company Officers in other words, and if this problem is not Cal Fire specific, please other people can weigh in. In order to address this issue I believe Fire Fighters are being pushed up through the ranks very quickly to alleviate the staffing, and here is where the problem starts to grow legs. For a very long time I have been a true believer that we end up with some individuals that are just barely good enough at specific tasks or perhaps were signed off too early with task books in order to possibly avoid another trainee assignment, boost the ranks of qualified personnel, or avoid working with them again.

Now I understand that you’re never going to fully be ready to promote before you actually take the hot seat, and that there are some things you will learn when you officially take that position. Please do not confuse what I am saying for that, what I am getting at is that MANY of the young FAE’s at the very least especially when it comes to large scale wildland fire incidents just simply do not have the experience to lead their crews effectively or safely. I can also offer a specific example to help you understand where I am coming from.

Without getting specific on names or anything there was recently a situation where some young company officers were asked to chase spot fires in a drainage on a 40% or more slope in peak burning period with access '1000 ft through the green without adequate escape route or safety zone. Now I could get deeper in the weeds with the specifics in this mission but it is not the main focus of this topic so I will continue past it which I’m sure to some of you is frustrating as there are certainly some angry fireman flipping through the IRPG right now saying what the F did he just say and I want to know more. But at any rate the task was carried out and personnel on that specific spot fire were uninjured giving the false sense of accomplishment and false sense of appropriate tactics. I believe the lack of lengthy experience in the industry and early promotion of some, along side the yes sir attitude prevented the leadership to instantly recognize the dangers of the situation and understand that at the very least they were working an assignment in which 3 of the 5 common denominators were present during the operation.

Now taking all of what I am trying to correlate and adding a hypothesis to this topic, I’m going to say what about in 5 years? So with pushing people with little experience into these positions who now in turn will experience many situations from a followers point of view, only from a leaders point of view which will create possibly more normalization of deviance because there will be less experience of peer review and critique on the outcomes of many of the missions or incidents they are in command of or simply a part of. Not only does this effect the rest of their career and hamper a lot of their ability to be taught or experience a situation before they are in charge of the command in said situation, but now they are also teaching their subordinates things quite possibly as they experience them for the first time as well.

So in closing what about in 5 years? or 10? what will this look like Compounded by time? When we suppressed all fires for a long period of time we created conditions that were extreme and are now battling the arduous results of our decision from the past, what will our decision to push personnel through the chains so quickly bring to the future of the integrity within our ranks?


That is exactly what is happening and where it’s going. Too many people think they are ready to promote and have no discipline to stay and learn. Then they become the so called “leader” of 2 new FF’s who continue the cycle because they weren’t mentored properly. It’s happening in the Captains rank as well.the


Right and I suppose my aim is to figure out how widespread this problem is and to give it a face so that someone might be able to recognize some of the symptoms of the problem when it’s happening around them.

Also I want some of these new leaders to trust some of their gut sometimes when their hair stands up and they are being told they need to do something that they think is very risky they need to understand they have ground to stand on sometimes. The proper risk assessment analysis seems to be fading into the background on some of these operations.


Quick answer
Problem will only get worse because of Demographics.

The Babyboomers were the single largest generation at 3.8 births/deaths

Gen X is 2.4

Millennials are Barley 2.0

It’s just not fire. ALL BLUE COLLAR TRADES have the problem.

More to follow

GREAT TOPIC for discussion


I’d like to point out that not only is there an issue with carrying out those orders, but how about the person who gave them? What were they thinking?

Too often, legitimate refusals come with public beratings, beat downs and humiliation. That culture needs to stop as well. Instructions should be able to be given and supported by sound principles.


Large fires have what they do to offer for experience. But that depends on your line assignments and not being stuck mopping up Div A the entire fire.
That being said, there is a tremendous amount of experience the FC can impart on the new FAE. Finance, station operations, supervision, and most of all many IA fires, both from the attack mode and from the command mode. I was lucky to get many IA fires on Helitack. We first saw many different fires with many options from the air. I gained my aggressive firefighting confidence and mentality.
You can’t get very valuable IA experience sitting on a cold piece of line all summer.


Yes a lot of truth in there but I’m not suggesting people need large fire experience just complex fire experience and just because someone is a FC does not mean they are incredibly dialed this is a attempt to bring awareness to the reality that there are lots of inexperienced company officers out there or soon to be CO’S that are not going to magically gain the slides they need to be competent moving forward but will definitely be expected to make decisions that will put their crews and possibly the public behind the 8 ball and at the very least need to have confidence enough to question the people giving them orders if those orders have bypassed rules of engagement in order to achieve an objective.


I had an incident just outside our city limits a couple years ago. Was on the CNF in my old stomping grounds. It was just after sunset so Feds had just gone home and were recalling folks. No aircraft was assigned. Our two type 3s showed up first. We had a 1/8th of an acre mid-slope fire backing down about a 1/4 mile hike up a ridge through the green to get to it. The other Captain former CDF and I evaluated the situation as pretty stable, heavy on-shore winds were done for the day as the interior valley had cooled with the retreat of the sun. We had a briefing and described to the crews that we would hike up with hand tools and keep a good eye on the weather and fire on our way up. Talked through our LCES plan etc. I would have preferred a tank or two from a helo but that was not an option.

It was uneventful. We hiked up, got to the black, anchored in and went direct. Had the whole thing pretty much lined before my old IHC showed up and finished it up. A crew also plumbed in a hose line up to use. If you know me personally you know I mapped the fire.

The next day I put it in Google Earth and turned on the the 3D and made some screen shots to send out to the crews I worked with that night. I wanted to make damn sure that they knew this isn’t our normal MO and that the fire was out of alignment which allowed us to make the course we did. The last thing I wanted was for these folks whom about 90% did not have a whole lot of exposure to wildland fire without a hose in their hand to put this in their playbook that we just go marching off through the green to get to fires without some serious though about what we were doing.

I spent 5 years on an IHC and I cherish that experience, I would not change a thing with my path as it gave me a good foundation for when I eventually became a CO. I watched my superintendent get in a yelling match with DIVS when we turned down an assignment over unacceptable risk. Probably one of the best lessons I ever learned. Not so much the yelling but not giving in to pressure or ego.


Expanding on the Specific CF problem. In most calendar years there are a total of 350 available spots in COA. All FAE, Open List FC, HFEO’s FOR 1 & FOR 2 are required to attend COA. With priority given to All but FAE due to the way the person is hired and total length of training required to be completed during their 1st year of employment ranging from a little as 14 weeks to as many as 21 and even 28 weeks.
Using a 90% passing rate that leaves 315 available positions in a given calendar year. Now ask yourself how many Chief officers are retiring in a given year statewide, 100-200, maybe 250? I say that because each and every chief officer that retires creates a need for a graduate from COA to keep the pipeline full just through attrition and retirement. Now add an avg of 100 positions
Have been created the last 3 years in the FAE, FC & HFEO ranks. Not to mention losing another 100-200 FAE/PM or FC/PM to LG because of burn out and or the grass is greener thinking.

The bottom line is this, the demand at the COA/FAE level is at or above 400/year(I would bet an OT check closer to 500) and we are at best pushing out 350, more like only 300 when All of the above positions are factored into the equation.

Finally, having lost good FF, Good FAE to LG sucks. But I can’t fault them for bettering themselves & their family. My FC once told me “my job is to train my replacement. You will be my replacement one day” Truer words have never been spoken.


I would say this can be a real issue, and not unique to CalFire, or even to wildland. There has to be leadership, and there will be, whether qualified or not - unless you completely shut down a resource. If an experienced officer retires, someone is going to lead. Either a new officer, or an acting. As more retire or move on, it gets worse. I’ve read more than one place that some urban departments have a similar issue, in that 40 years ago, by the time a guy made captain, or even driver, he had hundreds of working fires under his belt. Maybe more than one a shift in some areas. Now, a lot of career departments rarely have a working fire, so guys making captain have less experience than a guy riding tailboard used to have. Training, drills, simulations, etc., can be valuable, but it’s just not the same as the salty old guy who can look at the smoke and say “it’s time to get out of here” for no particular, articulable reason but he’s right. A real issue, but very possibly with no real good answers. Great topic for discussion.


Yes this sounds like a very easily justifiable situation not to take anything away from the fact that there was risk there but the situation I was describing is not even on the same playing field.

One thing that I believe needs to be more of a focus early on is leadership classes like L-280 and L-380 at the FF level with legit instructors and time dedicated to it during either rehire or during early season.

Also some sand table tactical decision games like in S-230 crewboss class is something that can tell you more about a applicants ability to perform safely under pressure than a FAE exam I believe some sort of live/interactive simulation would be a much better test to help weed out some folks that are good at memorizing Jones and Bartlett but can’t follow simple rules of engagement or keep a cool mental state under duress.

Edit I do realize that “simple rules of engagement” makes it sound like it’s easy when it’s not and is all the more reason why this stuff is important.


@Frank_Strong not trying to one up you lol. Your event was the exact opposite of mine. Yours a total unsafe operation that people got lucky on. I am simply cosigning on your point about how luck in a right in your face dangerous operation or even misunderstanding a safe operation can have detrimental affects down stream reinforcing bad habits that one day come back and cash in.


Just 2 statements…

The 35 yo battalion chief…

Normalization of deviance…

Carry on


That’s a great topic you see it on the other side as well. I always say never mix years of service with experience. Just cause one has 25 of service doesn’t mean they were in the trenches the whole time.

Normalization of deviance is an issue. MCS has a class. They come in and put it on for the folks, great beginning of the season cohesion. It’s called “Luck runs out.”


And on the other hand, someone was making a point on here last year that many people who started their career in 2011 have seen more in past 10 years than many firefighters saw in the previous 30.


They may have seen more intense or drastic situations but not necessarily added more tools to the box, also it’s possible that they’ve seen a lot of the same fires for example it’s now normal to have these large intense fires in extreme conditions so the amount of diverse fires they’ve been on might not be so bountiful.

Also looking back at some of these fires the old way of anchor and flank still seems to be the best option just seems like the fire takes awhile longer to give you the opportunity now.

I believe we keep getting caught trying to burn things because we can’t go direct but we may just not be waiting long enough at certain times to have that small window open up, and for some, timber fires are a new experience so the slides are barely being built and for those of us that know; once that fire is on the ground there’s no taking it back.

The art of a painstakingly slow timber burnshow can be tedious and boring but sometimes that thing needs to move like molasses in order to stay on the right side of the line.

Also please believe I’m not trying to say everyone out there is losing burns when they could have held them… however I’ve personally seen some torches go to fast this year in the timber, not to mention the times I’ve seen fallers not snagging lines before the burn show because they were possibly just mismanaged.

Also AJ I know what you were up to😏


Seems like, at least notably from other Captains and BC’s, a well rounded new Engineer has done seasons with all the aspects that CF has now, Hand Crew, Helitack, Overhead support, going out of county on a OES engine, and my personal favorite, a swamper. Didn’t the department or was it only UNIT? have an Advanced Fire Fighter packet not too long ago, I thumbed through it, Heck I thought it was pretty cool, the Assignee strived to get multiple task’s signed off that could potentially benefit them in the long run. Kind of a shame these types of things get laughed at or Shamed by “Professionals”. I mean you want a Swiss army knife but you laugh at the case to hold it. Each one of these gives the FF the ability to see the large Dynamic that is CF and how each position functions different but is part of the big picture. Also I believe it truly benefits a CO as they have a better understanding on how each tool can be properly utilized. My 2 cents, its a big Machine (CF), and its only going to get bigger. Everyone gets a chance to help steer it…


While CPF SUB-JAC has leveled the playing field and provided for all employees in an apprenticeship program to receive a well rounded training, with the funding and approval from the State Board of Education. In reality it has lowered the bar and promoted mediocrity due to the need to “train and promote” This is a societal problem that starts with children’s FEELINGS. When feelings matter more than facts, eventually the rubber hits the road and accidents happen. In the CF realm, a TRULY well rounded FAE would work
6mo Sch A
6mo Sch B
6mo ECC
6mo With crews.
Then the last 12 months would be spent on their decided career track to finish the apprenticeship training (Sch A, Sch B, Air, Crew, Truck, etc)

Sadly the phrase “We need meat in the seat” is all too common these days.

I truly commend the employee who says “I’m not ready to promote yet” I have a talk with them and ask what I can do to help their education & training along.

But the employee who says “I’m not ready to promote, so I won’t even take the test” my response is “Your would rather be LEAD buy the Idiot, then the idiot making the decision to lead. Because at the end of the day, it boils down to MEAT IN THE SEAT”

It truly is perspective.