Did The "Team's" Plan Really Fail?

To put the discussion of “failed plans” into better perspective and maybe provide some help for those new to incident management or not familiar with how incident management works, I wrote this summary. Mod’s, I’ll need some grace on length here. SMEs, I needed to simplify the process to keep it short and avoid the ire of Mods and readers – so please accept some generalities. No politics are mentioned and no agency specific procedures are included. This is the generally accepted doctrine as currently taught. I use the Dixie as the example, but it happens hundreds of times each year.

Part #1 – Developing an Incident’s Objectives

The Dixie starts, those responsible for the land (owners/managers) respond, as others also assist. Agencies provide engines, crews, dozers, aircraft, etc., but despite efforts it goes beyond local capability due to the complexity of the incident, usually operationally, logistically, or span of control. As a result, an Incident Management Team (IMT) is requested. They are highly skilled in managing more complex fires. The person(s) responsible for managing a fire on that land (termed the Agency Administrator or AA) issues the Incident Commander (IC) of the IMT a Delegation of Authority/Letter of Direction (DoA) making them responsible to manage the fire. That DoA has specific conditions, constraints, restrictions, and direction (termed Limitations and Constraints). Those often come from land management plans, pre-plans, results of lawsuits, politics, stakeholders, laws and regulations. That’s just the way it is.

All incidents have PRIORITIES. Those are recognized, in order, unless you are up to your ^% in fire and all you can do is save lives and possibly property and let it burn around you (point protection is the term) #1 Priority is Life Safety, #2 is Incident Stabilization, and #3 is Property and Environmental Protection. Using the Limitations and Constraints and the Priorities, the AA and IC and sometimes IMT members mentioned in Part #2, develop the Incident Objectives for the incident. There are both management and operational objectives. As an example, one of the Dixie’s management objectives is, “Utilize the risk management process to identify and mitigate hazards to protect firefighters and the public. Emphasize strategies and tactics that have the highest probability of success and the least exposure to firefighters and the public.” That is an objective to honor the #1 priority of Life Safety. One of the Operational objectives is, “Keep the fire south of Lassen Volcanic National Park.” There are several of each, and will vary by incident. Everything the IMT and the assigned resources do on that incident are focused, in one way or another, on achieving those objectives under the limitations and constraints given, and as provided in the DoA. In military terms, achieving all the objectives means you won the war.


Part #2 – Strategy and Tactics and the Operational Period Tactical Plans
A member of the IMT, the Operations Section Chief (OSC), who is responsible for all air and ground tactical resources, works with the IC and often the Planning Section Chief (PSC), to develop a strategy or a set of strategies to achieve the incident objectives. Some strategies would like to be used but cannot because of things like restrictions or Limitations and Constraints. Others are dependent on environmental factors and conditions and are considered “time tagged” or only available at certain times. The IC, OSC, and PSC work through the objectives and develop the strategies that should work to achieve the incident objectives. To implement those selected strategies, work must be performed. That work is called tactics. So, it looks like this: Priorities → Objectives → Strategies → Tactics. Each day the IMT, specifically the operations section, develops and socializes the tactical plan. The tactical plan takes a bite out of the problem one-time segment at a time (operational period is what it is really called). The tactical plan for that Operational Period is called an Incident Action Plan (IAP). Simply put, it provides the supervisors in the field with who they have, what they should do, where they should do it, and by when. There are lots of other very important items in the IAP like emergency procedures and communications, etc., but I must simplify it.
That is the PLAN. But that plan, the IAP, is only for that segment of time. And that plan covers All the areas of the incident. Those individual areas are called Divisions or Groups and managed by a Division or Group Supervisor (DIVS). If there are lots of them, the DIVS report to a Branch Director (OPBD) who helps keeps the span of control manageable. So, five DIVS report to one OPBD, and five to seven OPBDs report to the OSC. That organization can support managing thousands of personnel on an incident while keeping the span of control at an acceptable level. Those divisions are spread all over the perimeter at a wildland incident and there are tactics being performed in every single one of them. The engines, crews, dozers, and other resources are doing the dirty and difficult job of completing the tactics to make the IAP work for that operational period. It is tiresome, backbreaking, and generally a young man’s sport.


Part #3 – Can you say the Plan Failed?
On an incident such as the Dixie, fire can over-run one or more divisions. Some people then try to say that the “Plan failed” or “that strategy didn’t work.” Actually, the tactics in that/those division(s) could not be completed/maintained under the conditions experienced during that operational period. The tactics used to support the strategy in that/those Divisions did not work for any number of reasons, some not under human control. Does that mean the entire IAP or the “strategy” failed? Actually, no, it does not. Most likely many achievements were made, progress in achieving tactics were made in many of the divisions. Those tactics help implement the strategy and the strategy assists in achieving the incident objectives. Achieving the incident objectives is what wins the war. Individual battles (within the divisions) will be won and lost. That doesn’t mean they aren’t significant battles to lose, and that the OSC won’t swear and kick themselves while staring at the map and working with the OPBD and DIVS to resurrect the tactics in that division(s). But we, as humans, do not control many aspects of the battle, i.e. the weather, the terrain where it starts, and the fuel it starts in and occupies. We have some control over the amount of resources we can deploy, but as more incidents start, there is a very finite amount of each resource (engine, crew, airtanker, helicopters, etc.) that have to be spread over the number of incidents in the larger scheme of incident management. In short, losing a section of line and homes or additional terrain is a really bad thing and beats up the entire operational organization. It humbles you and gut punches you and your folks, in short, it really sucks and it hurts and you know it affects possibly hundreds of folks that are counting on a operation to always go right and never have a portion of it fail. That weighs on an OSC every day. But if that happened on a couple of divisions of an incident that had numerous divisions, and progress was made on other divisions, then how can you state that the entire plan failed? Logically, it isn’t a true statement.
Remember, the number one priority in incident management is Life Safety. Every son and daughter need to go home at the end of their assignment. Every home-owner and affected public needs to be kept safe, even if it inconveniences them.


This is very on point. I think that another thing that’s often forgotten is the old adage, “the enemy gets a vote.” The enemy in this case being the fire. Another version is that, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

The point is that plans sometimes do fail. In fact most plans fail in one aspect or another. We often are able to make adjustments on the fly and correct those failures before they become catastrophic, but even the best field commanders in history (both war and fire) have days where they face defeat.

This is not to say that we don’t try to learn from failure; that is essential. But I find myself becoming somewhat disturbed by this expectation that all plans will always be perfect and never fail. I also am becoming disturbed with this attitude that it’s totally acceptable to decry the efforts of those on the ground in an online or dinner table format when we don’t actually have all of the facts.

At the end of the day we have all had days on the line that didn’t go the way we planned. And guess what, we will all have them again. So learn yes, blame and accuse, no. Not unless there was clear misconduct or negligence that caused the problem.

Some days you get your ass kicked and that’s the way this business works. Every time you go out and make a plan the enemy still gets a vote.

End rant.


Very well said. I understand and get your point on disparaging those “field commanders.” I have kept the following quote close to me when doing the OSC job.

“The galleries are full of critics. They play no ball. They fight no fights. They make no mistakes because they attempt nothing. Down in the arena are the doers. They make mistakes because they try many things. The man (or woman) who makes no mistakes lacks boldness and the sprit of adventure. He is the one who never tries anything. He is the brake in the wheel of progress. And yet it cannot be truly said he makes no mistakes, because his biggest mistake is the fact he tries nothing, except criticize those who do things”

– David M. Shoup – General, United States Marine Corp.


IMT Geek, you hit this on the head. Thank you Sir.


Thank you all, well said,


Nice explanation of the whole ICS system for a fire, that even a non-fire person could understand. The quote is a nice touch for those that second guess everything. Job well done.


Nothing in this is intended to criticize the people on the ground, or in the air.

I think this is the part that the lay public has a real problem with. It may well be that no matter how well the experts manage the available resources, that even very modest goals are not achievable with the resources made available.

The public perception is of enormous (and expensive) resources, impressive looking in the skies and on paper, and at tax time. Without knowing the true immensity of what it takes to fight wildland fire effectively, the situation looks more like this:

“If you don’t know how to use your resources, it will never be enough.”

This is particularly frustrating when you are actually doing the best you can with the resources you can get, when fire leadership is doing a very, very good job of spreading a thin layer of butter over many acres of bread. With all the operational and safety issues that implies.

The whiff of negligence or incompetence, however unfounded, plays better in the media than explaining the consequences of over a century of human interventions in the wildland. Where we built our towns - and continue to build our houses, how we manage (or don’t manage!) our forests and public and private lands, how the ‘10 AM’ policy allowed fuels to build up long past when natural fire regimes would have self-corrected … these are hard questions with no easy answers.

When Hollywood can assemble more extras for a movie scene than the fire service can for genuine disasters, the public perceptions become very skewed. Much of the grunt work is done in remote areas that have been evacuated. Some of it - especially firing out - is beautiful and ugly at the same time. The ballet of firefighting aircraft is awe-inspiring to the trained eye, but again mostly outside public view.

You know you need more resources, and you ask for them. (“Buddy, can you spare a -209?”) Yet everything comes back UTF. Or you strip initial attack (ground and/or air!) to scrape up more resources, and small starts that are stepped on early in the season become yet more campaign fires.

Even suspecting the answer, I have to ask - where is everybody?

Last year, the public was expecting Avengers Assemble!

What they feel like they are getting instead:

As enemies go, wildland fire is remarkably predictable. I’ve heard over and over again that we need to Rx burn ‘a million acres’ to make a start on fixing the West’s fire ecology problems.

With enough firefighters year round, we could burn that million acres in the winter and have adequate resources during the summer. Without them… well … “failure to plan is planning to fail.”


No rant just the honest truth.

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Good post. Thank you for that.


We must remember that when an IMT needs resources either for a massive fire that has been raging for weeks or at the time of a new incident but late in the fire siege is like shopping for holiday presents at Toys-R-Us on Christmas Eve. What you want in the way of resources will not be available on the shelf…


Amen to that! It’s an ongoing battle until the beast is corralled and put to bed.


When you introduced this topic on 8/5, the Dixie Fire was approximately 323,000 acres. Now, two weeks later, the Dixie Fire is 657,000 acres in size. The fire doubled in size. Many more structures were lost. A third of Lassen National Park has been burned, and additional communities such as Susanville and Janesville have been directly affected by this fire. Do you stand by your original assertion that the plan as of 8/5 was a success?

Argo, one Incident Action Plan (IAP) like the one on 8/5 is not really “the plan.” The IAP, like the one on 8/5 is really a daily tactical plan that helps accomplish the tactics needed to make the selected strategy work. It is valid for one day and then the work assignments change as the conditions change. The selected strategy is one of the strategies used to meet the overall incident objectives. So if one daily tactical plan is only partially successful it doesn’t mean the entire strategic plan and objectives for the fire failed. So, the tactical plan on 8/5 was only partially successful. They have been able to only achieve partial success in many of the daily tactical plans. The overall strategy of getting out ahead of it and creating barriers has been difficult at best. When the fire throws a spot 5 miles out ahead of you, you have to understand that no one can create a dozer break, or any other break, five miles wide all the way around the head of the fire. There is only so much we, as firefighters can do. When the fire environment is completely against us, or many of the factors such as weather, are stacked against us, there is only so much that can be humanly possible. “When Mother Nature’s in charge you find out how small you are.” I can state that there is no team, regardless of Federal, state, or local sponsorship, that could have been more successful. Looking back is easy, predicting the weather we have had the last couple of days – already defined as very unusual for this time of year. How can you predict that weeks ahead? Seriously. So, they are doing the best they can. Eventually they will win the fight, but it will be long and arduous and they will suffer more defeats.


These conditions are like trying to stop a hurricane IMHO. Like was previously said mother nature will have the last say in what is or is not successful.


I take a very simplistic approach to all this. I don’t have a background in long term or strategic planning. As I see it we’re just a bunch of humans (ffers and the public) in the way of Mother Nature as she does her thing. As humans we require infrastructure, we form opinions, we make policy and we implement decisions that Mom was never consulted about. We can make the best strategic plans and we can implement them with perfection. In the end mom picks the winners and losers.


Milehighbar, Simplistic, very much so. Accurate, well, far more accurate that many who are not in the business would understand. If we would have listened to our Mom on this we wouldn’t be in this mess. The takeaway? Mom knows best and she will eventually get her way.


A great primer for a basic understanding of how an operational plan is put together. I am guessing that based on the limitations of putting all of that into the format for the site the portion where the plan is staffed-implemented and then evaluated was left out.
A plan is just an idea if the correct resources are not ordered and placed into operation to achieve the strategic goals. Those resources need to be paired together to achieve the desired results.
If you put a plan together but it is either not communicated correctly, or the people who are to carry out the plan feel it is not going to work and change it at the tactical level… then it could be construed as a failure.
This is especially important when components of the plan require to different groups of “planners” to be on the same page so that the overall plan can move forward.
The other issue that has be evident… the need to prioritize based on either greatest threat or highest probability of success and from there assign resources where the highest probability of success exists.

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Bogusthunder, you said,

“I am guessing that based on the limitations of putting all of that into the format for the site the portion where the plan is staffed-implemented and then evaluated was left out.”

I had to really cut down and generalize the entire planning process into a paragraph or two. Even then, I thought length might be too much. In the first paragraph (quote below) I tried to buy enough text based real estate to explain it as general as I did.

SMEs, I needed to simplify the process to keep it short and avoid the ire of Mods and readers – so please accept some generalities.

There are so many other nuances within the planning process, formal and informal meetings, discussions, using the Tactical Engagement Principles, coordinating the Operational Art, etc., that I would have loved to have covered and explained, but…

So, yes. Quite simplistic and glossed over to keep folks from falling asleep.