In my time serving from the fireline to the fire office, there have been several constants besides the fact that there will always be another fire season. Two of these are that budgets always seem to fluctuate — if not in real dollars then in how much those dollars could purchase, produce or employ — and that the need for professional training, coursework or the equivalent always seems to increase with our growing job complexity. In recent years, these two topics seem to increasingly conflict with our wildland fire and resource employee management priorities.
Wildland fire has always been a business where we typically have worn more than one vocation "hat." The people who can regularly cross disciplinary fields have thrived. Our personal enthusiasm for wildlife, forestry, range management and other professional endeavors, frequently involving years of advanced education, were entry-level routes into the general field of land management. These jobs naturally led many of us into a wide variety of "secondary" wildland fire management jobs within the fire-adapted ecosystems where we worked. The fire jobs were often viewed by our office managers as seasonal — only a temporary priority over our other assigned duties.
We have learned, though, that our "primary" and "secondary" job responsibilities have tended to merge or even switch in priority as the time between fire seasons has shortened both locally and globally. As permanent staff sizes also declined due to budget tightening, those who remained learned out of necessity to become the office managers and acquire business and personnel management skills beyond our original academic professions and learned fire skills. For many, wildland fire has been the classroom for attaining these office business skills — and now it is our turn to meet the budget and employee challenges.
Understandably, the workplace has become increasingly stressful and demanding — a workplace where the mantra has become "accomplish more with less" as we strive to properly manage our changing landscapes in a safe and efficient manner. Due to budget priorities and employee time constraints, resource managers and wildland fire staff are finding it difficult to stay in contact with their professional peers and learn about the latest discoveries and innovations. Budget-induced travel and meeting restrictions are stymieing professional and personal development. Yet our need for understanding our chosen professions and how they interact with our need for making good land management decisions is greater now than it has ever been.
IAWF and its partners plan to increasingly use electronic technology to make professional educational opportunities available and affordable to our international community. However, I do not see the demise of face-to-face conferences; if anything, I see an increased need as we strive to meet and learn from our global fire co-workers and from other industries. Electronic education provides no chance for valuable professional and social networking, and little opportunity to closely question and learn new ideas and research or to actually meet the people behind the research.
So for all of us watching our budgets and the inclination to eliminate employee participation in conferences, I offer this: Budget priorities come and go, and so do dissatisfied employees who can't maintain their professional educational levels. Or worse, when the economy is down, dissatisfied employees don't produce as high a quality, or quantity, of work. Conferences are like "air" — they're a necessity to keep employees alive, healthy and active. Even more important, conferences bring forth the creative energy in employees who are interested in doing better and more.
It's truly myopic (and often short-term) management that reduces conference attendance in the name of budget. Budget dollars will come back, but dissatisfied employees won't. Consider the asset you have in your employees and how you need to enhance that investment.
Contact the IAWF
International Assn. of Wildland Fire
3416 Primm Ln.
Birmingham, AL 35216
To join the IAWF, visit www.iawfonline.org
Send them to: Wildfire Magazine
Attn: Kevin Daniels