National Wildfire Coordinating Group

The Staff Ride

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The intent of this resource is to provide a library of information on significant wildland fire events in order to assist individuals who want to conduct staff rides to those sites...and to provide a reference source for individuals who want to develop new staff rides for incidents of local interest.

A staff ride consists of three phases: the first phase is a preliminary study of a selected incident, the second phase is a visit to the actual site associated with the incident, and the third phase involves an opportunity to integrate the lessons derived from the study and visit. The various tools and references found in this resource will allow staff ride facilitators to address all three phases in designing a staff ride.

The NWCG Leadership Committee is the sponsor for this resource.

Staff rides were developed by the Prussian Army in the early nineteenth century and have been used by the militaries in many countries since then. In the 1970's the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps turned to staff rides with great enthusiasm and now they are considered essential instructional techniques in advanced military schools and in field units.

The intent of a staff ride is to put participants in the shoes of the decision makers on a historical incident in order to learn for the future. A staff ride should not be a tactical-fault finding exercise. Participants should be challenged to push past the basic question of "What happened?" and examine the deeper questions of leadership and decision-making: "What would I have done in this person's place?" "How detailed should the guidance from a superior to a subordinate be?" "Can a senior leader make use of a competent but overzealous subordinate?" "What explains repeated organizational success or failure?" The study of leadership aspects in a staff ride transcend time and place.

Staff Ride/Case Study/Site Visit... There is a difference...

Staff Ride:

A field study that is conducted on the ground where an incident or event happened. A staff ride consists of three distinct phases:

  • A systematic Preliminary Study of a selected fire or other emergency operation,
  • An extensive Field Study to the actual site(s) associated with the incident,
  • And an opportunity for Integration of the lessons derived from the study and visit.

Staff Rides require maximum participant involvement before arrival and at the site to guarantee thoughtful analysis and discussion.

A staff ride should avoid being a recital of a single investigation report. Such reports rarely address the human factors that affect individual decision-making. For this reason, providing participants with a variety of information sources is important.

Case Study:

  • An analysis of persons, events, and decisions that are studied holistically.
  • Does not need to be conducted at the site of the incident, but could include a visit to the incident location.
  • Case Studies are used to demonstrate a thesis or principle.
  • Case Studies are led and require facilitation.

Site Visit:

  • A visit to the actual location associated with an incident or event to provide opportunity to gain meaningful perspective and insight.

Virtual Site Visit:

  • A virtual staff ride (VSR) follows the same methodology as a "live" or "field" staff ride, but because travel restrictions preclude a trip to the incident location, the terrain is replicated in a virtual environment.
  • Material from Virtual Site Visits may be used to hep conduct Case Studies and Staff Rides.

Individuals who plan to facilitate a staff ride should read the Wildland Fire Staff Ride Guide prior to conducting the event. This guide provides a thorough explanation of the logistical and instructional considerations for a successful event.

The following tips have been collected from facilitators of recent staff rides and should be considered a supplement to the complete Staff Ride guide. If you have a suggestion or tip, please email

Prior to the staff ride there are several preparation actions a facilitator should do:

  • Research a variety of information sources and become well-versed on the incident in order to be able to answer questions from participants.
  • Walk the ground at least once with all support cadre so that you know where the stands are and can accurately orient participants when you take the entire group to the site.
  • Provide "read-ahead" suggestions, the event schedule, and travel directions to the participants at least two to three weeks in advance.
  • While an investigation report is a primary source of information, it should not be the only source of information that is used. Facilitators are encouraged to rent and watch the movie Courage Under Fire. Although this movie is a fictional drama, it provides a good perspective on the barriers that can be encountered during an incident investigation.
  • Prepare a Medical Plan (ICS 206 WF).

During the staff ride some facilitation techniques to consider include:

  • Use a sand table or other terrain model to provide an orientation of the site and sequence of events prior to the start of the actual field visit.
  • If you have a large number of participants, break them into smaller conference groups of 10-12 individuals each. Provide a knowledgeable conference group leader for each of these smaller groups with an overall facilitator to coordinate movement and adherence to planned timeframes.
  • Manage the group by providing activity and departure time cues at the start of each "stand."
  • Orient the group to key geographic features and review relevant events at the start of each "stand" so participants can build the overall picture of the incident in their mind.
  • Don't get caught up in being a narrator--encourage group discussion, interaction, and debate. Tactical decision games (TDGS) are one method to do that. Facilitators should feel free to use any method that they are comfortable with. If you do use the TDGS, hand them out to the participants as you leave the "stand" - that is prior to the "stand" where the participants will respond to them. This will allow participants time to think about the dilemma.
  • Other facilitation methods to encourage interaction include presentations by first-hand witnesses from the incident, open-ended discussion questions designed for your target audience, and assigned participant briefings that require pre-study research.
  • Be sure to allow some discretionary time for participants to do some exploring on their own sometime during the staff ride.
  • It is very easy to run short of time at the end of the day. Make sure to save enough time at the end of the event for a final integration, allowing individuals to discuss and share their "takeaways" from their assessment of the event.
  • Have fun with the group.

Staff rides are a superb tool for developing the decision-making skills of leaders at all levels. The staff ride allows the participant to examine and analyze fireground decisions made by leaders of the past in concert with an on-scene study of the actual terrain upon which the fire was fought.

The following references provide information about Staff Rides in the wildland fire service:

The following document can be used as a guide to assist in the development of new Staff Rides:

The following links provide additional information regarding the use of Staff Rides in other organizations:


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