2003 was a terrible wildfire year for the United States. As an incident commander for the federal wildland fire community, I led my team on many assignments across the country, working under the Incident Command System. This proven system is based on common terminology, qualifications, and certifications; coordination of resources; and mutual aid. It has worked for wildland fire management since the 1970s.
The beauty of the Incident Command System is the ability to beef up response or scale it back as circumstances evolve. For example, in 2003 multiple incident management teams were deployed to control Montana wildfires. An “area commander” was also assigned to help. Like a general in the military, an area commander has the experience, knowledge, and ability to provide leadership and allocate limited resources. In 2003, this Incident Command System enabled us to bring these fires under control.
What is gravely missing in the U.S. response to COVID 19 is the Incident Command System approach. Leaving it up to governors to compete against one another for ventilators and to issue different guidelines is a recipe for disaster. Doctors and nurses have yet to receive the personal protective equipment they so desperately need, and the public is getting mixed signals. This crisis calls for a clear chain of command and an entity that can coordinate the response of all the states.
The president needs to appoint someone under the Incident Command System who has the skills he and his team lack. It’s time to contain this wildfire.
Fred Bird is a retired wildland fireman who lives in McElmo Canyon outside of Cortez. He fought wildland fires for 31 years.