Preparedness Level 5

Operational Engagement
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2019

PREPAREDNESS LEVEL 5 (PL 5) means that nationally we are experiencing so many major incidents that there is potential to exhaust, or have exhausted, all agency fire resources.

There are a number of factors which exist at this preparedness level that have the potential to impact firefighter safety:

  • Most or all levels of the fire management organization are operating at maximum capacity or even in crisis mode.
  • The incident support system is maxed out.
  • Resources needed to accomplish incident objectives are unavailable.
  • Fatigue is impacting individuals at all levels of the organization.
  • There is a sustained high operational tempo.

We must be mindful that these conditions reduce our margin for error.  The decisions we make have the potential to further reduce that margin, or to increase our capacity to cope with uncertainty.

Read the following scenario and imagine that you are in a similar situation…

It is PL5 and you are on a rapidly growing Type 3 incident. The fire is growing and the resources on the incident can’t keep up with the demands of the fire. A type 1 team has been ordered but is not expected to arrive for multiple days. An engine crew has been exceeding their 2:1 work/rest ratio for 3 days straight and is now overly fatigued both mentally and physically. The crew works a full day shift prepping line with chainsaws for the soon to start night shift of burn operations.

The engine is a part of a task force responsible for completing a back burn and holding the line without the ability to bring in extra resources if things don’t go as planned. The engine crew consists of an Engine Boss (ENGB), an assistant (very experienced firefighter), a first year crew member, and a fuels tech from the local district that has 4+ years of fire experience but not as a primary fire fighter. The assistant is involved in the burn and is working for the Firing Boss, leaving the ENGB and two engine crew members to help with holding. Unfavorable winds during the night burn cause the firefighters to take smoke all night.

At about six hours into the burn the ENGB is faced with making a decision. The task force needs a Dozer Boss and since the ENGB is a trainee and the only option, is asked to leave their engine and provide direction to the dozer. At this point the ENGB takes a tactical pause to think about the timeline that got them to this point.

  • Stories like this are not uncommon during PL 5 conditions; we operate at high tempos for long durations often with narrow margins for safety. Take this time to discuss how you could create margin in this situation or share a personal story where you were stretched operationally, and what you did.
  • Do we adjust our tactics during PL5 knowing that it is unlikely that we will get any additional resources?
  • Are there other circumstances when conditions like PL5 can occur?
  • What practices can you use to cope with the increase of expectations and operational tempo during PL 5 conditions?

Additional Resources

Incident Management Situation Report (IMSR)
Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461
NWCG Standards for Helicopter Operations, PMS 510
RT-130, Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher (WFSTAR)
Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book)
Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

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