Episode 80 – In Case of Fire – Handle with Courage

Episode #80
Original Air Date: 05.03.2019

34 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Mark Von Tillow

Our guest Mark Von Tillow is a US Forest Service, Retired Division Chief with the Los Padres National Forest in California. Mark has managed teams through extremely hazardous and risky situations. Listen in as he explains “Trust but Verify” and the importance of learning how your team members react in certain situations as an integral part of building healthy teams.

Mark began his career on the Tahoe National Forest in 1986. For over 26 years he worked on engines, Hotshot crews, and helicopter modules. He was the Incident Commander for California Team 3 for many years. Mark has extensive fire experience (He commanded the Whittier, Thomas, and Soberanes Fires amongst others) as well as all-hazard responses such as Hurricane Rita in Texas and space shuttle Discovery recovery mission.

Hear Mark share his stories and lessons learned from working as a Type 1 Incident Commander. When a community is on fire there are many stakeholders to consider and effective communication with the press and the public is a key component of a fire chief’s job. Some more talking points from this episode include: keeping track of resources, planning and prioritizing, as well as valuable debriefing procedures. We gratefully acknowledge Mark and his fellow-firefighters for their courageous service to our communities.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

“Probably what I’m most proud of is just being able to have a positive impact on people, … trying to pay it forward to the next generation behind me.”

- Mark Von Tillow

“Job number one, keep everybody safe and, as we say, return everybody home at the end of the shift.”

- Mark Von Tillow

“…it really is up to me to understand how everybody on the team is going to react to a given situation, whether it’s a bad situation, a good situation, … that’s the biggest thing, not shying away from it, but taking it head on and asking the hard questions.”

- Mark Von Tillow

“…going back to “trust but verify” again, giving people the freedom to do what they need to do, but also making sure that it meets your expectations as a project manager or leader.”

- Mark Von Tillow

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Project Management – Leadership Lessons Learned from a Fire Chief

Table of Contents

01:09 … Meet Mark
03:32 … Whittier Fire Incident
07:48 … Incident Command Types
10:11 … Managing Incidents
11:40 … Incident/Project Scope
12:53 … Peer Communication
14:11 … Keeping Motivated
15:30 … Leadership Transition
18:10 … Building trust
20:01 … Delegation
22:48 … Public Communication
27:15 … Resources
28:36 … Lessons Learned
30:39 … Career Highlights
32:29 … Closing

MARK VON TILLOW:  But for me, as the leader or as the project manager, you’ve got to know your people, and you’ve got to know all 56 of them in my case.

NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. So this is our bimonthly meeting to talk about what really matters to you as a professional project manager, it’s our goal to give you some words of advice and encouragement by hearing the experiences of other professionals and leaders in the field.

I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me is the one who holds down the fort here, Bill Yates.  So Bill, today’s podcast is a direct result of a request from a listener. By Request!

BILL YATES:  Yeah, how about that?  We heard from Amy.  I think she’s in Washington State.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah, she reached out to us and asked specifically that we have a guest on our program, someone involved in public safety, particularly when it comes to managing wildfires.

BILL YATES:  Right, right.  And we were delighted.  Wendy did some research, and she contacted Mark, it came together with Mark, so we’re delighted to have Mark on as our guest and talk through this in detail.

Meet Mark

NICK WALKER:  Well, let’s meet him; all right?  U.S. Forest Service Retired Division Chief Mark von Tillow started his career in fighting wildfires in 1986 on the Tahoe National Forest, he’s been a team member working engines, hotshots, and helicopters, and also he was the incident commander for California Team 3 for many years. Mark has extensive fire experience as well as some all-hazard responses such as in Hurricane Rita in Texas, the space shuttle Discovery recovery mission, as well. He was the Commander in 2017’s Whittier Fire in Santa Barbara County, California, and also in the Thomas Fire later that year.  He also commanded the fighting of the Soberanes Fires along the Big Sur coast, one of the costliest wildfire operations in U.S. history. Mark has a passion for this work and wants to pay it forward, and Mark, we welcome you to Manage This.

MARK VON TILLOW:  Good morning.  Thanks for having me.

NICK WALKER:  Now, I’ve got to ask you, first off, we have just come off one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in California’s history.  Fresh in our minds, of course, is the fire that destroyed the town of Paradise in Northern California, the Camp Fire.  This is obviously a career that takes a special breed of human, what led you to this career choice?

MARK VON TILLOW:  So this may seem like a different way to start this conversation, but really it had to do with my father passing away when I was 12. He had a heart attack in front of me, and this was pre-911 days, when you just pick up the phone and dial 911 now.  But I had to run around the block to get to my grandfather’s house to tell him what had happened. He came back, and it just seemed like a long delay for emergency personnel to get there.  That was really my first exposure to that, and I thought, you know, I’d like to be that person someday trying to help somebody, so that’s really where it started.

Fast-forward along through high school, graduate, go to work for a company called Hewlett-Packard, but I was also volunteering at a fire station, and that really seemed to resonate with me more.  So I worked nights at Hewlett-Packard, and I worked days doing the fire station and then found out about this Wildland Firefighting thing and decided to apply, and almost forgot that I applied when they called and said, “Hey, we have a job for you,” and I said, “Great.”  And so I left Hewlett-Packard and went to work for them and never looked back.

Whittier Fire Incident

NICK WALKER:  We wanted to start off too, by sort of giving our listeners a little bit of perspective on kind of what it is you do and a good example of that, I think, was back in July of 2017 when you were the Commander on the Whittier Fire in Southern California.  Also this one presented some special challenges, not the least of which was trying against incredible odds to rescue 80 children trapped at the Circle V Ranch Camp during the height of the fire.  Give us an idea of what went on there.

MARK VON TILLOW:  So interestingly enough, that morning, that day there was already another large wildfire going on near my station and I rolled out of the station that morning, and it had a very large column on it and I was thinking to myself, it’s awfully early to see that kind of fire behavior. They’re going to have a rough day, you know, so I’ll just hope that it’s okay and I went to work, and it was a very hot day. 

At about 1:00 o’clock tones went off for a wildfire in my district and soon as I came out of the station I saw the smoke, and I thought, wow, we’re going to be in for it.  It was probably 110 degrees that day.  Thinking ironically to myself, because this is how we think sometimes, I was thinking, boy, I shouldn’t have said anything this morning about the other fire because now it’s happening to me.

But as I rolled up on scene, there were some people trying to get out of the driveway that I pulled into, it forked one way to the left, one way to the right, the Whittier Camp to the right, and the Circle V to the left.  As I got out of the car I realized we had a language barrier it was a Middle Eastern language that I wasn’t familiar with, and they were having a hard time understanding me.  So I was trying to evacuate them out and they finally got the word that I needed them to drive out, and then they got going.

As I looked over to the other side, my friend Ray, who was a camp counselor at the Circle V Ranch, said, “Hey, Mark, do you want us to come out?”  And I said, “Yeah.  Do you have any kids?”  And he says, “Yup.”  Then he goes, “We don’t have any wheels to get them out” and I said, “Well, then, stay there, we’ll try to get somebody up there to shelter in place.”

So immediately now I have a life danger problem on my hands, and am still trying to evacuate the other people from the other camp to get them out, they got out successfully but for the next six hours it was a cat-and-mouse game with trying to get rescuers up to these kids.  I’m sure you can probably find some footage online of what they were facing trying to drive up there, the amount of fire behavior, but a dedicated effort through a lot of people that I’m very familiar with, we all worked together for years. They knew the situation, I didn’t have to give a lot of direction but they also knew the risk that they were about to encounter, you know, for their own lives.

But six hours of having a life priority when you still have a wildfire that’s moving and growing in leaps and bounds and is heading for structures and heading for other things, you know,  that becomes your number one priority is life.  So once they got rescued, and got out to safety that was a big, big relief for me and everybody else, we could start to focus on the fire itself.

BILL YATES:  Mark, I did, I was able to see some of the newsreel from this.


BILL YATES:  And it’s just – it’s jaw-dropping.  It’s frightening.  And it’s heroic.  How many, just to give people a sense, how big was the team that you guys had that were trying to get at the kids that were needing rescue?

MARK VON TILLOW:  Oh, I’d say – so on the initial attack, we call that, if I count them up, one, two, three, four, five.  Maybe seven or eight people focused on trying to get up there, and the rest of them were fighting fire and trying to keep the fire away from certain things but really probably about seven or eight.

BILL YATES:  It struck me how you had to quickly assess the situation, prioritize, like you said, life was at stake in this case. So then your priority one is that you put your best resources on it, and it’s, you know, those kind of decisions, that’s an example of why we wanted to have this conversation with you. In fact you guys are making quick decisions that in your case are life or death, and in our case, for most project managers, it’s more, okay, what’s the best use of resources? So we wanted to pick your brain, we appreciate this opportunity to pick your brain on some of the lessons learned from things like this example, yeah.

Incident Command Types

Now Nick, I was thinking, this may be an example or a good time for us to call a timeout and get Mark to talk about some of these definitions.  Like he was a Type 1 Commander so we need to do some – help our listeners understand what’s Type 1, what’s Type 5.  What does this mean?

NICK WALKER:  Yeah, what is a Type 1 Commander?  What does that entail?

MARK VON TILLOW:  Okay.  So a Type 1 Incident Commander is the highest complexity Incident Commander that you can be, or the leader of a team, Type 2 is just a little bit less complexity.  Type 3, as it goes down, it’s less and less complex.  So initially when I started on this Whittier Fire, for example, I was the Type 3 Incident Commander because of the scale and the scope of people, and as it moved on, we quickly realized that we didn’t need to stop at a Type 2.  This was going to be a Type 1 incident.

So, ironically, my team was the team that was on call, so I went from the Initial Attack Incident Commander to the Team Commander overall of the incident.  But that’s the team side of it, my day job as a division chief in the org chart is just essentially the top of the fire organization for the district.  I had two battalion chiefs underneath me.  And then underneath the battalion chiefs you have engines, patrols, dozers, hotshots, helicopters, and so it’s just – it’s a pretty simple hierarchy organization.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, and as I was looking at it, and correct me if I’m wrong, Mark, but it looked like Type 5 is more like local.


BILL YATES:  Maybe in a small town or village.

MARK VON TILLOW:  In charge of maybe an accident, you know, or something on the highway.

BILL YATES:  Right, right, and then as you progress through it, then, a Type 1, then your team was likely to get deployed to a different state or somewhere else in the Northwest that was battling a fire.  You guys may get the call to go there.

MARK VON TILLOW:  Yeah.  So we go through a call period, 24-hour, eight-hour and two-hour, and it changes every week.  So you’ve got to be ready to go within those time frames. And so when you’re on a two-hour call, we call it “hard call.”  You’re going to go immediately.  And sometimes you may just be on regional call, and sometimes you may be on national call, as well, so anywhere in the country.

NICK WALKER:  So Bill, he’s definitely a project manager.


NICK WALKER:  I mean, this is – there’s no doubt about it.

BILL YATES:  No doubt about it.  Yeah, maybe even a program manager.  This is at a high level, yeah, and high stakes.  Very interesting, all right.

Managing Incidents

NICK WALKER:  Well, let’s talk a little bit about how that applies to project management, I mean, obviously he’s managing incredible projects. So I can’t even imagine what is involved as an incident commander.  What are your duties, really?

MARK VON TILLOW:  Well, first and foremost is the safety of all the public and the firefighters, right?  Job number one, keep everybody safe and, as we say, return everybody home at the end of the shift or the end of the tour, however it is.  But it could be a lot of different things.  So I would get an in-briefing from the agency administrator, which is typically the Forest Supervisor or whoever the agency, administrator of the agency is.  What are their priorities?  How do they manage fire on the landscape on their land?  Some people manage it.  Some people have 100 percent suppression.  They don’t want it to creep around and do things, and so you’ve got to put them out.  So that requires a different strategy and different set of tactics.

So my job is really to overall watch, not only the operations piece – and that’s basically what we’ve been talking about – but I have to be fiscally responsible and, yeah, so our logistics guys always tell me, you know, without logistics it’s just a dream.  If you don’t have that stuff, then – and they’re right, you know.  If we don’t have the tools and whatever it is that we need from sleeping arrangements to tape to batteries to all that stuff that makes it work, you know.

Incident/Project Scope

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Mark, practically speaking, help us think through, okay, there’s an incident.  There is a fire.  A wildfire has broken out and what’s the, you know, from a project management standpoint, how do you scope the project?  So how do you guys determine the scope of the incident, the fire, and then how is a determination made as to, well, we need a Type 5 team, a Type 3, or a Type 1?  How does that take place?

MARK VON TILLOW:  So there’s a lot of things that go into it, actually, the time of the year can be one.  What’s the weather doing?  Is it worsening, or is it going to get better?  Or is it 95 degrees today, but we know tomorrow we have a snowstorm coming in?  So lots of different ways to think about it, but really it’s, when you have just the general summer fire going on, the complexity rating sheet is what we use, and it’s just a form that comes out of the National Wildland Fire Coordinating Group that asks a series of questions that you can answer yes or no to.  And you add up a number, and it says maybe you should consider ordering the next level team.  But that doesn’t mean you have to because your weather may change, or your resources may become more abundant, or maybe you don’t have – there’s a lot of things that go into the complexity incident.

Peer Communication

BILL YATES:  As an Incident Commander for a Type 1 team, do you have peers who are also speaking into that?  Or are you guys kind of waiting for orders?

MARK VON TILLOW:  No, so we have peers.  We have what we call the C&G, the Command and General Staff.  So it’s the five of us or six of us, the logistics, safety, plans, finance, operations liaison, and information officer.  Those are the key components to the team, you know.  And so they’ll be able to evaluate on the in-briefing if they’re going to, you know, the example, I guess, would be the space shuttle recovery mission; right?  That was a logistical challenge more than it was anything else.  So it was heavy on logistics that time, not necessarily operations.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  So there’s a need for a lot of communication among peers, and then coordinating who’s got the best resources and the best abilities to go at this.

MARK VON TILLOW:  Correct.  There’s a lot of communication that goes on, not only internally but externally in our agency with other agencies.

BILL YATES:  Right.  So I’m just – I’m kind of laughing, Mark, I’m thinking of the project managers that are listening to this going, yeah, our company doesn’t do that.  We don’t talk.

MARK VON TILLOW:  Well, you know, surprisingly enough, we’re really not any different than any other company.  We have parts of our agencies that don’t communicate that well, either and really that’s the core of success.

Keeping Motivated

NICK WALKER:  There’s got to be times – I’m thinking about communication with team members and motivating team members, there’s got to be times when it’s a little down-heartening, really. The nature of the work is there’s a lot of bad news involved and that sometimes occurs with other projects.  So how do you keep the team motivated, how do you keep their incentive going?

MARK VON TILLOW:  Yeah, you know, you’re right.  I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who referred to it as her “sad bucket was full”; you know?

BILL YATES:  Oh, wow.

MARK VON TILLOW:  And so I thought, well, yeah, that’s what we face a lot of times, it’s not always a good outcome. We do have horrific injuries and fatalities, and so how does the team – how do you keep the team focused on the mission? More and more communication.  And it really is up to me to understand how everybody on the team is going to react to a given situation, whether it’s a bad situation, a good situation.  I’ve had people that have lost their homes on the incident that they were on, so how do I address that as a leader?  Again, you just need to communicate with those people.  And I think that’s the biggest thing, not shying away from it, but taking it head on and asking the hard questions; you know.

Leadership Transition

BILL YATES:  One of the questions that I wanted to ask you, and it’s a little bit of a – it’s kind of a leadership-related question, so I think you can relate to this as a Type 1 Commander.  There were times where you were dropped into a situation, dropped into a location where you were taking the position of another leader. 

So a fire, a wildfire may have grown such that now we need a Type 1 Commander, so Mark and his team come in,I think many project managers can relate to that.  It may be that my project has gotten so big, now management says, “Bill, you’re not capable to manage this, I need somebody else to come in.  I need Lisa to come in and take this over.”  So in the case where you were that person, you were coming in and taking over something, how did you handle that transition?  Was it a simple, “Hey, I got more authority than you, so step out of my way?  And by the way, I’m going to use your resources?”  How did you handle that?  What are some techniques you used?

MARK VON TILLOW:  You know, certainly sometimes it’s an awkward situation with some people because they feel like, if we just hang onto it for a few more days, you know, we’ll get our arms around this thing. There’s no need for a Type 1 to come in here, but, you know, I don’t make those decisions.  When I’m ordered, we follow, you know, if somebody wants the team, we’re going to show up.  I’ve had the discussion with other leaders prior to taking it over. So there is a shadow period that we have to get up to speed, they’ll brief us, in-brief us, and I’ll ask that question.

I say, “So if you stayed here four or five more days, would you be successful?”  And if they say yes, and I agree with them, we’ll both go back to that agency administrator and say, “Look, you can save a lot of transition time here, and a lot of less exposure for these new resources trying to get up to speed if you just give them a few more days.”  So, yes, we have the conversation, and other times it’s pretty straightforward that, no, you’re not, you know, this is going to even go bigger than me, I may get replaced in 14 days.

BILL YATES:  That’s such an outstanding point, Mark, and I’ve got to admit there are times in my career when I wish I’d had the boldness to approach the person that I was stepping in to replace and say, “Hey, do you mind? Just me and you, I want to have a one-on-one with you, so tell me what’s going well from your opinion, and tell me what your challenges have been.  What do I need to be aware of here?”  I’m with you, man, there are times when that’s just not going to happen.  But there are opportunities to be bold and go ahead and ask and see if that person is open to the conversation because it could save your team so much heartache.  So that’s…

MARK VON TILLOW:  Yeah, so you know, just sometimes it’s just straight personalities that don’t get along. That person may go, “No, you need to take this over.  I can’t work here.”  You know?  It’s fine, so if that’s what needs to be done, that’s just what needs to be done.

Building Trust

NICK WALKER:  So one of the issues that seems to always occur on project teams is the issue of trust, especially when you’re talking about life or death situations like you’re involved in.  How do you build that trust and make sure that the team trusts the leadership?

MARK VON TILLOW:  Yeah, so especially I thought about it when I first became the Incident Commander, when I came over as an Operations Section Chief to the team. They knew me, but they didn’t work with me on a regular basis, so how did I build their trust? How did I trust them to do whatever it was?  One of the key things that I used was “trust but verify.”  So I’m going to give you the rope, I’m going to let you go.  But at some point I’m going to come check on it to make sure that the end state of what I thought I wanted to have happen is happening, and we share the same vision.

And so there’s a little bit of friction sometimes with that, but that’s the best thing to have happen to build trust so that you don’t have to worry about it down the road. I think you have to give people the opportunity at their level.  So, you know, going back to “trust but verify” again, giving people the freedom to do what they need to do, but also making sure that it meets your expectations as a project manager or leader. You know, you have a vision in your head.  Did you communicate that vision clearly to the rest of your team?  Do they understand what your end state looks like?  Also does it meet what the agency administrator is, you know, who we’re working for ultimately?

You know, some people want fires mopped up 100 percent while other people want it mopped up 50 feet inside. Does the team understand that from our perspective, why we’re not mopping it up 100 percent?  It’s for a safety reason.  There’s a lot of snags in there, whatever it is, but, you know, trust that they do the right thing. Then again, everybody understands that, in our world of that time-compressed environment that we work in, and we’re making quick decisions, everybody needs to come home.  That’s the goal.


BILL YATES:  Mark, I was trying to recall, on a Type 1 team as Incident Commander, did you have, like, 40, 50 people on that team?

MARK VON TILLOW:  So 56 people on the team.

BILL YATES:  Fifty-six, okay, and also I’m thinking, you know, as a leader of this team, you’re thinking, I’ve got people at all different levels in terms of experience, and even that level of trust that you’ve built up with them.  So I think a project manager, I think of myself with past projects.  There were times when I wanted to delegate to someone, and I had to pick the right thing to delegate to them, and sometimes I’d do the right thing.  Sometimes I’d give them too much responsibility, too early, or maybe not enough and then I really needed to count on them later, and they hadn’t had that experience that I wished I’d given them.


BILL YATES:  So do you have any advice for how do you delegate to someone to let them grow in a quote, unquote “less risky task” so that you can count on them later when the stakes are higher?

MARK VON TILLOW:  So that’s a great point and the one thing that I’ve used, and this doesn’t mean – this doesn’t come across as being sounding bad but everybody’s under observation; right?  And that goes for me, as well, I’m under observation as a leader because you’re looking up, and they like the way you lead, or, you know, some don’t.  But as far as how do you pick that right person and get the right delegation going, and then I think you have to watch their skill sets.

So it’s knowing your people, having conversations at the dinner table, at the breakfast table, whatever it is, finding out who they are, what their interests are.  Maybe they have a special interest in something that you didn’t know about, then you can relate.  How can I relate that into the incident or the project down the road?  That person has a skill set that I need to expose.

We also have trainees, a lot of trainees, we carry 13 trainees.  So those are people that are trying to get qualified in a particular position and we really watch those people to see what are they bringing to the table, and maybe something else gets exposed.  It’s like, you shouldn’t be a trainee in logistics.  You should be a safety trainee because you’re really good at safety or whatever it is, but for me as the leader or as the project manager, you’ve got to know your people, and you’ve got to know all 56 of them in my case.

BILL YATES:  That’s great.  And I just, you know, I’m just thinking of the numbers there.  So one out of five on the team, you’ve really got a special observation on them, they’re being trained, and I think that’s something for us to think about is we need to have that attitude with our project teams and always be looking for that growth.  That’s cool.

MARK VON TILLOW:  I think sometimes we don’t dig, I call it reach deep enough in the well, you know…

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.

MARK VON TILLOW: So …with our younger people, it takes a long time for us to get qualified over the years at certain positions. But there’s some younger talent out there that, if we didn’t have the bureaucratic process, I think would be very, very good in some positions.

Public Communication

BILL YATES:  Right.  There’s one topic that I really want to ask you about because it’s unique for the type of role that you’ve been in.  And that’s communication, especially communication to the public.


BILL YATES:  You know we talk a lot about communicating to stakeholders.  Well, communication with the public for you, with the wildfires especially, and the incidents that you guys dealt with, there are two edges to that sword.  You know, the public is craving information, and it could be because it’s my community that’s on fire.  You know, I want to know, I want information as soon as you have it, good or bad.  But there’s a lot of experience that you have to have to know what’s the right information to give at the right time.  What advice can you give us on that type of public communication?

MARK VON TILLOW:  So let me start this off, you know, with today’s social media, everything out there, people – some people believe in Twitter 100 percent.  Some people believe in, you know, whatever it is, and that’s the truth, so for me I found out that doing public meetings was important for me as the leader, the project manager, to stand up there, give them everything that I knew about the incident, the situation, the priority, you know.

And so what we often faced was, “My neighborhood is threatened next, why aren’t you doing anything?”  And so clearly explaining to them that sometimes there is a competition for resources when we have so many fires going on in California; that we’re well aware that your community is there, and we’re doing some stuff in the background, but it’s not making headlines because this particular community is really at risk, and so we have to prioritize.

And I make sure that I explain all that to them so that they understand we’re thinking about that and really that helps stop a lot of the questions and stop a lot of the social media stuff that, you know, if they just come to these public meetings, they’ll get the absolute most up-to-date information that they can get.  But you’ve got to lead from upfront on that stuff, and I really believe that.

NICK WALKER: So I’ve got to ask you because, being a member of the news media myself, I’ve got to ask you, what are the challenges in dealing with the news media in a situation such as that?

BILL YATES:  Oh, I can tell you what challenges I have with you, Nick.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah, okay.  Yeah, all right.  Well, we’ll talk about that later.

BILL YATES:  We’ll do that offline.

NICK WALKER:  Step outside.

MARK VON TILLOW:  Well, I think, you know, there are challenges sometimes.  Again, man, I don’t know how to overemphasize this communication piece, but I think if you don’t have that young writer, that young guy that wants to make a story for himself or make a name for himself, I personally didn’t really have any issues with the media unless they were just blatantly wrong about something.

And I don’t think, you know, working with my public information officer on the team, you know, we had to do two daily updates, a morning update and an evening update, and then any public meetings in between that we would have.  So as long as we had the same message going out we weren’t conflicting, you know, or he wasn’t tweeting something without checking with me, or I didn’t catch that tweet, I mean, that’s where it gets confusing sometimes with the media is that they’ll read something here, and somebody else said something there, and it’s just because we didn’t communicate internally.

BILL YATES:  I’ve got a really basic question on that, Mark.  Let’s say you have a team of 20 that they’re engaging the fire.  If the media has a chance to go to one of your team members that report to you, what are your team members told?  “Hey, no, no, no, you don’t talk to the media.  They all go through me or go through the communication coordinator.”  So how did you – what were your ground rules regarding that?

MARK VON TILLOW:  So I think in certain situations, whatever the line of questioning was, whether it was an operational question, a logistic question, a safety question, I would just direct to those people.  I would defer to them.  If it had to do with the overall incident, broader question of, you know, hey, do you know there’s 14 fires in California.  How are you guys – they know not to talk about that.  They would come to me.  But, you know, again, give them the freedom to talk about their own specialty that they bring to the table on these incidents.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.  And so I think, you know, for the projects that I’ve been on, team members appreciate it if they know, they just know the boundaries.  Let me know what I can talk about, let me know what I should not talk about, and where I direct it, then they’re good to go.

MARK VON TILLOW:  Yeah.  And, you know, so sometimes in the in-briefing there are things that we get that, you know, hey, you’re not allowed to talk about this, and I can’t even talk about it, if you get that question, refer them to here.  So, for the most part, it’s been a good relationship with me over the years.


BILL YATES:  Okay.  I want to switch gears.  So I’ve got nerdy questions for you here because you guys have really cool resources.  You have dozers.  You have helicopters.  You’re dropping water.  You have all this heavy equipment.  Even, you know, you would set up a tent camp just boom, like that, so you can meet the needs of the community.


BILL YATES:  There are a lot of resources that you guys have to track, also I’m trying to visualize how you did that, you know, maybe within your team, or maybe across the different task forces.  So how did you guys – how do you keep up with all the resources?

MARK VON TILLOW:  So there’s a little thing called ICS Incident Command System that we have, helps track resources, helps divide and conquer supervision responsibilities.  But as far as each resource, everybody gets an order to an incident.  So, for example, if you are an incident commander or a division supervisor, you’re going to get an “O” number, O-1.3.  “O” is for overhead.  If you have an “E” number, you’re an engine.  If you have an “A” number, you’re in aircraft, so on and so forth, so everything is tracked from the moment you check in to the moment you check out and that’s how everybody is accounted for.

BILL YATES:  Okay.  So you didn’t leave any bulldozers in another state or anything like that, to your knowledge.

MARK VON TILLOW:  Not that I’m aware.

Lessons Learned

NICK WALKER:  Once the project is finished, once the fire is out, where do you go then?  I mean, what do you do?  Do you have some sort of debriefing?  Recognition?  Talking about what you could have done differently?  What happens then?

MARK VON TILLOW:  Yeah.  So we definitely have what we call an AAR, an After Action Review, talks about, you know, what the situation was, so everybody comes together at the end, and we all have a same common operating picture of what just happened.  And then we talk about what can we do to sustain our strengths on that incident.  What went right?  And then what do we need to do to improve on the next one? It’s really those three questions, and that’s all we keep it to also it’s not meant to be a two-hour debrief. 

It’s meant to be an After Action Review, and it’s really meant not to take any notes, either, because people will remember more of it for the next incident out.  As far as after that, we’ll generally try to go have a team dinner and stay in a hotel, depending upon the incident, if the incident had a bad outcome, we may just want to all go home; you know?

BILL YATES:  Mark, that’s great, also the idea of a debrief, and in your case it’s called an After Action Review, is that right, the AAR?

MARK VON TILLOW:  Correct, yeah.

BILL YATES:  You capture such good information.  I love the simplicity of it.  There are three questions that you address, how do you capture that information and then share it for the future incidents?  Is that something that you can easily access?

MARK VON TILLOW:  Yeah.  So we’ll do an executive summary, also, at the end of the incident, which is a little bit more in-depth overview of each function.  And that will reside with the forest or the agency administrator so that they can reference it.  And then also I have a responsibility to talk to what we have, the Lessons Learned Center, which is out of Tucson, Arizona, and if we need to share something, we’ll share it with them, and then they’ll send some people out to dig deeper into it, to get to, you know, a lesson learned.  But there’s certainly a place for cataloging all that stuff, good and bad.

Career Highlights

NICK WALKER:  So you’ve had quite a career, and I just want to sort of close our time by asking you a little bit about the highlights of your career.  You know, looking back, maybe some wins, something that really impressed you?  Do you have anything like that that you can think of?

MARK VON TILLOW:  You know, I think probably in my younger days it was always can we catch the darn fire, finally hooking one at 20 acres instead of 200,000 acres. So those were fun, you really can find that yourself, you didn’t think you could push yourself that far and as you get longer in your career, those opportunities go by the wayside because now you have to lead people to do that.  And that’s definitely a younger person’s job, you know, building line and pulling hose and all that stuff.

But, you know, I think probably what I’m most proud of is just being able to have a positive impact on people, I think, and trying to pay it forward to the next generation behind me.  That’s really where it’s at for me.  As a matter of fact, right now I’m working with the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which helps people that have had either trauma, accidents, fatalities, helps those families out to bridge the gap between, you know, getting through all that stuff and grieving and all of that, and so to me that’s very important work.

BILL YATES:  That’s outstanding, and you’re coming from such a voice of experience and legitimacy in that.  I deeply admire the service that you’ve given to us, and you’ve got a lot to share, so I’m delighted that you’re not just hanging up the boots, but you’re actually staying involved that way.  That’s wonderful.

MARK VON TILLOW:  Yeah, well, I appreciate you guys having me.  I was surprised, but at the same time excited, so thank you for having me.


NICK WALKER:  Mark, this has been a fascinating discussion, and we so much appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.  We have sent you a little gift ahead of this time together, that Manage This coffee mug, and we hope you’ll continue to use that and remember us fondly here.

MARK VON TILLOW:  I will.  Thank you guys very much.

NICK WALKER:  We’re so glad that one of our listeners suggested this topic today.  And we want to invite all our listeners to contact us with any suggestions or comments about our podcasts.  So email us at manage_this.com, we would love to know what kinds of guests you’d like to see on the program.

And so a reminder that, by listening to this podcast, you just earned some PDUs, Professional Development Units, toward renewing your project management certifications.  To claim them, go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs and click through the steps.

That’s it for us here on Manage This.  We hope you’ll tune back in on May 21st for our next podcast.  In the meantime, please visit us at Velociteach.com/managethis to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or to contact us and tweet us at @manage_this if you have any questions about our podcasts or about project management certifications.

That’s all for this episode, thanks for joining us, until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

4 responses to “Episode 80 – In Case of Fire – Handle with Courage”

  1. William Donald Jenison says:


  2. Susan says:

    This was a fascinating discussion. I work for a Water and Wastewater Utility in Florida and the Emergency Management Structure has relevance.

  3. Paul L Gilbert says:

    Excellent discussion. It puts a whole new perspective on assigning resources and motivating a team.

    Does this person have the skills to handle this task?
    Are they experienced enough and have the skills to go into a fire and not put themselves and other team members at risk?
    As the leader, do I have the skills to handle this fire or do I need to ask for help?
    How do I motivate someone to keep going after they just lost their house in this fire we are fighting?

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