National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Becoming a GISS

What is an NWCG Geographic Information Systems Specialist (GISS)?

The NWCG provides national leadership to enable interoperable wildland fire operations among federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial partners. NWCG establishes the standards and training requirements for wildland fire incident positions, including those for the GISS position which uses geospatial technologies to assist wildland fire response. A GISS creates hard-copy maps and digital products to improve the situational awareness of firefighters and to aid in the decision making of the Incident Management Team (IMT).

What Does Being a GISS-T Mean?

The "-T" added to the end of a position means that the individual is a trainee. Trainees must take any required training for the position and demonstrate acceptable performance in an incident situation before becoming qualified for a position. Getting the required training and incident experience as a trainee generally takes two or more years for a GISS-T. Don't be in a rush to quickly move through the GISS-T process; the more incident experience you have the better and each incident is different and provides a different learning environment.

Determining your Sponsor

Many people interested in becoming a GISS are not coming from fire or land management agencies. This is perfectly acceptable but makes navigating the steps to become a GISS-T more difficult. If you are not coming from a federal or fire agency the first step necessary is to determine who will sponsor your wildland fire participation. The sponsor is responsible for maintaining your incident qualification record, tracking your training, issuing your incident qualifications card (also known as a red card), helping with fire travel, and getting you paid. There is quite a bit of paperwork involved, so finding a sponsor that is familiar with the process will make it much easier.

Prospective GISS-T in federal agencies should check with the Fire Management Officer (FMO) for the area you are located. State employees should check with a state wildland fire agency. Those in the private sector can contact a local fire department, Office of Emergency Management, or reach out to a federal agency and inquire about becoming a temporary Administratively Determined hire for that agency. The process will be different for each agency.

Starting a Position Task Book (PTB)

A GISS-T must complete a GISS Position Task Book which outlines the duties that must be performed to become a fully qualified GISS. NWCG position trainees will demonstrate competence in all PTB requirements as well as take any required training (see training section below). PTB competencies, behaviors, and tasks required for successful performance must be signed off as completed by a qualified GISS who observes the GISS-T perform the work. Each individual is responsible for initiating their PTB with their agency sponsor prior to working on an incident. Please check with your sponsoring FMO or Training Specialist to open a PTB.

Incident Qualifications Card (Red Card)

All personnel responding to a wildfire incident must have a red card. The red card lists the positions for which an individual is qualified as well as any trainee positions (positions with an open PTB). These cards are generated by the incident qualifications tracking system used by the sponsoring agency. The federal agencies use the Incident Qualifications and Certification System (IQCS) and states use the Incident Qualifications System (IQS). These systems also track the classroom training and incident experience of the individual. Work with your sponsor agency to fill out a profile in the appropriate qualification systems and get a red card with GISS-T listed.

Some wildland fire positions require a Work Capacity Test (WCT) to demonstrate a physical ability to do a job. There is no fitness requirement for the GISS position.

Interagency Resource Ordering Capability (IROC)

After your incident qualifications have been loaded into the appropriate system, these systems will communicate with IROC, the system used to order personnel and supplies for a wildland fire incident. Work with your local dispatch center make sure you are listed correctly in IROC and to determine the method used to change your status. Your status determines your availability (Available or Unavailable) and for what area (Local, Geographic Area, National, or State).

Keeping your status current is very important to getting ordered successfully. If you are not listed as Available in IROC you will not get a call. Also make sure you are not listed as available when you are not since turning down an assignment is considered a good way to not get a second call. When your status is set to Available, you are committing to a 14-day assignment if called, so keep future schedule conflicts in mind. Make sure your supervisor and family agree with your availability.

An Integrated National Application Portal (iNAP) account will be required for accessing the IROC Self Status page. An iNAP account can be requested by visiting the iNAP (Internet Explorer required) and selecting Request User Account in the upper right corner.

Getting Ready for Assignment

Once your status is set to available in IROC you could receive a call from dispatch at any time. Make sure you are always ready to go and pay attention to the contact phone you listed in IROC. Prepare you GISS kit and your red bag (travel bag, often called a red bag because most firefighters' bags are red) and have them ready to go.

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Improve Your Odds of Getting an Assignment

There are several ways to improve your odds of getting a GISS-T assignment. One is to sign up to be on an IMT. Each fall or winter, there is an outreach effort to get interested personnel to sign up for IMTs. This is done by geographic area and each area handles the timing a bit differently. Check the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) web page for a list of Geographic Area Coordination Centers (GACCs).

Another way is to get on the priority trainee list for your geographic area. The same link as above can be used to find out information on the priority trainee list by geographic area. Finally, another good way to increase your odds of getting an assignment is by networking. Reach out to qualified GISS in your agency or to IMTs you have worked with in the past. Who you know is very important for the GISS-T, so use every opportunity to talk with GISS and Situation Unit Leaders (SITL) and let them know you are available and interested.

How to Be a Good GISS-T

A good attitude and a willingness to help are hallmarks of a good GISS-T. When you do get the call to go on assignment, be prepared to put in long hours assisting the lead GISS and the SITL (or possibly the Plans Section Chief for smaller assignments). As a trainee you are not expected to be able to do everything; you are there to learn and practice the job duties. Make sure you communicate when you don't understand something or need additional guidance. Keep a good attitude and expect to be working under pressure and on tight timelines.

When you show up at the incident, get a briefing from the lead GISS and SITL. Outline expectations and make sure your role is clearly understood. Review your PTB so the lead GISS understands what tasks would be most helpful for you as a GISS-T. Also meet with the IMT training specialist so they can help you get the best training assignment possible. 

At the end of the assignment, get a detailed performance evaluation and any completed tasks signed off in your PTB.

Work with your sponsoring agency to track and record any continued training and incident experience since this will help you maintain currency in the position.

Prepare for Multiple GISS-T Assignments

Each incident will be different with varying opportunities. Don't expect to get your PTB signed off after one or two incidents. Typically, performing all of the duties in the PTB takes four to five incidents over multiple years, so don't be in a rush to complete the PTB. The more learning opportunities you have, the better prepared you will be to perform as a GISS. There is no requirement that a GISS-T work on incidents of different complexity (Type 1, Type 2, Type 3, etc.), but doing that is strongly encouraged. Different types and complexities of incidents will have different product requirements, differences in the size of the GISS shop, and different levels of stress. Keep in mind that once you are signed off on your PTB, you will be expected to perform as a GISS Lead at any incident complexity type.

Training for GISS

Required training for the GISS position includes ICS-100, Introduction to the Incident Command System, and IS-700, National Incident Management System (NIMS): An Introduction. Both courses outline the command structure used during wildland fire incident response. Required training for the GISS position also includes S-341, Geographic Information System (GIS) Specialist for Incident Management, and RT-341, Geographic Information System (GIS) Specialist for Incident Management Annual Refresher. This required training will ensure a GISS meets incident response needs. The GISS must use the NWCG Standards for Geospatial Operations, PMS 936, and the NWCG GISS Workflow, PMS 936-1

Continuing GISS Education

Continuing education is also a critical issue for the GISS. Due to continual advancement in GIS technologies, workflows, and changes in wildland fire applications, a GISS will need to spend time in the off season becoming familiar with all changes. Expect to see changes to the GISS process on an annual basis. The NWCG Standards for Geospatial Operations, PMS 936, and the NWCG GISS Workflow, PMS 936-1, were created to help with this and should be referenced throughout the season for updated training materials.


Check out the GISS Position and GeoOps YouTube Playlist to learn more.


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