National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Preparedness Level (PL) 5 Watch Outs

Preparedness levels are established locally, geographically and nationally to indicate that there are ongoing major incidents and 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 this scenario and imagine that you are in a similar situation.

It is PL5 and you are on a rapidly growing Type 3 incident. There sources on the incident can’t keep up with the demands of the fire. An Incident Management Team (IMT) has been ordered but is not expected to arrive for multiple days. An engine crew has exceeded their 2:1 work/rest ratio for 3 days straight and is now overly fatigued, mentally and physically. The crew works a full day shift prepping line with chainsaws for the night shift’s planned 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 experienced assistant, a first-year crew member, and a local fuels tech with more than four years of fire experience but not as a primary firefighter. The assistant is involved in the burn and is working for the Firing Boss (FIRB), leaving the ENGB and two crew members to help with holding. Unfavorable winds during the night burn cause the firefighters to take smoke all night.

About six hours into the burn, the ENGB is faced with a decision. The task force needs a Heavy Equipment Boss (HEQB). As a trainee HEQB and the only available option, the ENGB is asked to leave the engine and provide direction to a dozer. At this point the ENGB takes a tactical pause to think about the timeline that got them to this point.

  • Scenarios like this are not uncommon during PL 5; 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 it is unlikely 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?
Operational Engagement
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Apr 2021

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