By Brit Rosso
A few months ago I came across my pile of old Incident Response Pocket Guides (IRPG). For some reason I’ve kept all of my previous versions. I now started to wonder why. I’m not a hoarder, at least I don’t think I am. Anyway, there I was, staring at all of these old IRPGs. It made me think about the history behind this tool that we all take for granted.
I just happen to know someone who was directly involved with the development of the IRPG. His name is Jim Cook. Back in the day, Jim was my Hotshot Superintendent. Later in his career Jim moved on to become the Training Projects Coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho. I decided to reach out to Jim and ask him what he remembers about the genesis and history of the IRPG. Here’s what Jim had to say:
Jim Cook receiving the “Paul Gleason Lead by Example” award from Mark Linane in March 2005
“In the early 1990s we were developing the Look Up, Look Down, Look Around course (Look3). The course was a collaborative effort that involved a number of senior Hotshot Superintendents that were frustrated with the original S-390 course. One of the objectives for that effort was to meld the Look3 fire environment indicators with all the rules of engagement (10/18/LCES/Common Denominators/Downhill Checklist, etc.) into a pocket-sized reference book. This became the little orange Fireline Safety Reference booklet which was first published by NWCG in 1992.”
“About this same time the Los Padres Hotshot Crew was developing a similar pocket reference. Their idea was picked up by Bob Becker (U.S. Forest Service R5 aviation staff) and he expanded on it with aviation and other references. Then Becker proposed it to the Regional Office and sometime in the mid-1990s it was issued by the U.S. Forest Service in Region 5 for use as an initial attack response guide. I don’t remember the exact title, but it was about the size of the current IRPG.”
“So somewhere in the follow-up to the TriData Study that grew from the 1994 South Canyon Fire, the Red Book effort started, which caused a review of the Fireline Handbook. And honestly, I don’t remember the exact players or which NWCG committee chartered the formal products, but it was a time fertile for skunkworks. During this time, Mark Linane, the Los Padres Hotshot Superintendent, suggested that Bob Becker and I get together to float a proposal up through Paul Broyles, the National Park Service Fire Safety Officer, and Shag Aldrich, the U.S. Forest Service Fire Safety Officer, to sponsor a pocket guide that fell in between the Fireline Handbook (which was mostly focused on large fires) and the Red Book (which was going to be focused on local unit SOPs). We used the Look3 Fireline Safety Reference and the Region 5 response guide as the foundation to start from.”
“I do remember a lot of back and forth with the Fireline Handbook revision group and the Red Book development group regarding what should go where. And there was a debate whether this new pocket guide should be strictly a reference for initial attack or if it should be more comprehensive for responding to all-risk (as it was called then) incidents—from the title and content you can see how that debate played out. I also remember that we used the Alaska Handy Dandy and the S-520 Fireline Handbook insert as important references. The review draft was circulated in 1998 and the first NWCG approved edition of the IRPG was available to order in the NIFC warehouse in 1999.”
“I had the privilege to oversee the evolution of the IRPG for its first ten years, through 4 revisions. From the beginning, the intent for the IRPG was to keep it relevant to the various missions of operational wildland firefighters and to keep it to shirt pocket size. The unofficial goal was to keep it under 100 pages. It started out there, at 90 pages or so. But with every revision it grew. Now it is up to 120 pages, I think.”
“Of course, any product like this brings out everyone’s pet rock. Which is why the IRPG was originally envisioned, because the Fireline Handbook became known over time as the Fireline Hand “Brick” as everything got shoved into it. Most of the changes and additions we did to the IRPG were normal updates. But there were some very memorable issues that brought out a lot of geographic and interagency angst. Some of the more memorable change debates included the Risk Refusal protocol, Safety Zone guidelines, Interface Firefighting tactics, Falling procedures, and Incident Complexity indicators. And my favorite change: Getting the cover color switched from yellow to orange for the last revision I worked on.”
So there you have it. I do want to publicly thank Jim for this outstanding firsthand history of the IRPG.
Most folks fighting fire today have always had the IRPG tucked into their pocket since their first fire. There are others of us who remember the days when all we had was the Fireline Handbook, which usually ended up stuffed in a Red Bag or back in the truck.
It’s always good to know your history. This is just one of the many ways to be a Student of Fire. Tell us what the IRPG means to you, and how you use it out on the fireline.