Fire management policy around the world has been quite responsive to changing situational dynamics. It has progressed to a point where decision-makers have more flexibility than at any previous time. Accepted strategies are more sophisticated and comprehensive and tactical spectrums fully support multiple objectives. However, flagging budgets and lessening force strength are limiting overall programmatic growth. There is a growing awareness that future program needs cannot be accomplished solely by a passive approach that places an over-reliance on past practices, processes, and applications.
While the specific fire environment and fire behavior and intensity regimes of the future cannot be predicted with a high degree of reliability, there is little doubt that this will be a very transformative time for wildland fire management. As a result, ways to manage change and improve management efficiency must be actively pursued. It is easy for managers to highlight program elements where improvements seem logical. Frequently identified areas include:
- strategic thinking
- budget, staffing and equipment levels
- technology and information management
- management focus, and
- predicting the future.
However, determining innovative solutions is difficult; resistance to change is hard to avoid, and precedence tends to push us to familiar ways of doing business. To meet future challenges, problems must be clearly defined, understood, and parceled into achievable divisions.
One very important area gaining attention, which may be at the core of fire management challenges, involves decision-making processes. Supporting and making better decisions, based on the best available information, seems easy enough. But wildland fire is one of the most important, highest risk, most complex, and potentially highest consequence programs facing natural resource managers. Decisions carry enormous significance. They must be made during all phases of fire management. They frequently must be made under compressed timeframes, active external attention, and intense scrutiny. They are pervaded with uncertainty, involve possible serious consequences, encompass complex and sometimes contradictory issues, and are entrusted to decision-makers having wide ranges of experience. Cultivating specific phases of information management such as collecting, assembling, organizing, and analyzing data along with interpreting, understanding, displaying, and applying analysis outputs can dramatically enrich decision-making.
Developing tools and processes to facilitate smart use of all phases of information sharing, communication, and decision-making is now a prominent challenge but one that can be easily overlooked. Meaningful technological innovations and rapid advances in information management are emerging at ever-increasing rates. The growing power and value of decision support has captured much attention in recent years. Rapid data acquisition, along with sophisticated timely analyses, is opening new pathways for decision-makers. Increases in completion speed of routine information management tasks are removing uncertainty from the situation, addressing risk, and informing better-quality decisions. Support to decision-making and decision-makers must be high priority goals.
In order to keep pace with decision challenges and increasing complexity, wildland fire management must be a true knowledge management program where constant attention is given to emerging science and technology, historical documentation, and decision support models. New strategic and tactical paradigms, recent advances, and lessons learned must be communicated and understood by decision-makers and their organizations. Failure to maintain pace with information management will lead to a failure to maintain pace with management needs.
A principal limitation of decision-making support is not a direct weakness of the information itself but arises from the emphasis placed on it and its degree of use. It is far too easy to overlook, ignore, misunderstand, or resist applying available information. Time constraints can negatively affect decision creativity, innovation, and foresight. It has not been uncommon for decision-makers to review and superficially embrace decision support information, which could be markedly useful, then fail to incorporate or utilize it as a basis for decisions simply because it is new, outside an experience zone, or spontaneously considered too hard to understand. In addition, while a review of historic activity can also be extremely important, many decision-makers do not have the luxury of personal knowledge of past events in a particular area. As a result, they may get caught up in a contemporary bias that places too much emphasis on the most recent or immediate information and fail to recognize potential precedent-setting earlier events.
The deliberate incorporation of available information in the fire management decision-making process can only serve to achieve greater efficiency. Decision-making building blocks stem from program driving factors and progress through situational assessments. Collecting and analyzing information is prerequisite to completing the most encompassing review of the situation and developing potential actions to decide among. These process components are not perfect and will continue to evolve. Maintaining a continual flow of knowledge, education, and training about decision-making and processes is indispensably important to advance decision-making capabilities and support decision-makers.
Slow, inconsistent, or lack of movement of available information into decision-making processes and transfer of this information into management actions will not help meet future challenges or improve decision quality. Tremendous amounts of information are more readily available than ever before. The ability to rapidly obtain and analyze this information is substantially improving. Recognizing the importance and value of specific information, how to obtain it, how to share it, and how to apply it needs to be emphasized, understood, and utilized as a standard practice. It is vital to management decision-making processes and future wildland fire management actions.