Oregon Smoke Information: Info Share

Hurricane Harvey’s dramatic rain event over the city of Houston has (justifiably) consumed much of the national and local media attention this last week. However, Oregonians may also be noticing the side effects of an event much closer to home; fire season. It’s been a hot, dry summer across Oregon, with little rainfall, and as the summer extends into a possibly hot and dry fall, several large fires have erupted across the state. This not only poses imminent danger to lives and livelihoods for those individuals in the path of the fire, it poses a risk to wildlife and forest ecosystems, shuts down roads and forest trails, worsens air quality, costs millions of dollars to combat every year, and prompts mass evacuations. Here in the Willamette Valley, the air quality has been pretty awful.

City, county, tribal, state and federal agencies have aggregated their data on a blog devoted to keeping Oregonians informed about potential fire and smoke effects to their communities. The blog includes links to all kinds of handy fire-related info generated by separate agencies, as well as tips on how to keep yourself safe and breathing easy during fire season. Check it out here.

Wildfire smoke in Oregon on the last day of August

Additionally, last August we released an audit of the Oregon Department of Forestry that examined the strain of several consecutive severe fire seasons on staffing and fire prevention efforts for the state agency. One of the audit’s findings was the need for more focus on mitigating forest fire risks. Ideally, one of the positive effects of a severe fire season could be a renewed focus by states, counties, cities, and individuals on steps that can be taken to prevent  fire related devastation in the future.

Accountability and Media Featured

Methods (to our Madness): Leveraging Administrative Data to Understand a Management Issue

Periodically, we will highlight some of the methods used in a recently released audit. Every performance audit is unique and can require creative thinking and methodologies to answer our audit objective. Some of these methods could be replicated or present valuable lessons for future projects.

Anyone who pays attention to the news or lives near a fire prone area, knows that Oregon’s fire seasons have been extreme the past few years. But I sat down with Amelia Eveland, Senior Auditor, and Luis Sandoval, Staff Auditor, to learn about more than Oregon’s formidable wildfires: how the team used data to understand workforce issues at the Department of Forestry, as described in the recently released audit, Department of Forestry: Actions Needed to Address Strain on Workforce and Programs from Wildfires.

Department of Forestry staff had described fire seasons in terms of acres burned and other fire activity measures, but hadn’t put numbers to what they intuitively knew; those large and frequent fires were affecting all of their programs. The team was able to quantify some of the impact of fires on department programs and staff by analyzing the actual hours worked by employees.

Don’t Overlook Administrative Data Sources

One of the things that I found most interesting was their data source: payroll data. Payroll data is collected for administrative purposes. But administrative data should not be overlooked as a source of information for management analysis. Payroll data provided the information that the team needed and was possibly more accurate than other data sources, since accuracy is important when people are being paid.

Understand Your Data and Its Limitations

Using a data source that is collected for another purpose can have downsides though. The payroll data only went back 6 years and only showed hours billed, not worked. The hours worked by some staff who weren’t eligible for overtime weren’t captured.

The team also had to understand the data and parameters. To do this they worked with the department’s financial staff who were familiar with it. They asked the department staff to pull the data and to check the team’s methodology. In the course of this process, they eliminated pay codes that would double count hours. For example, if someone was working a night shift on a fire line, they could receive pay differential (a supplemental payment) on top of their regular salary. Pay differential hours were logged separately from the hours logged for regular pay, despite applying to the same shift. Initially the team had been counting these hours twice, but working closely with the agency helped them pinpoint and correct potential methodological errors.

Putting Numbers to the Impacts on Staff and Programs

The team overcame these minor obstacles to conduct some pretty interesting analyses. They found that the past three fire seasons had been particularly demanding in terms of staff time, mostly due to regular and overtime hours from permanent employees (as shown in the graph below). This suggests that these employees may be pulled from other activities, and may also feel overworked.

 

forestry-chart

Payroll Hours Billed to Fire Protection by All Oregon Dept. of Forestry Employees

 

The team was also able to get a more accurate picture of which programs were contributing to fighting fire through specialized incident management teams. Because many Forestry employees split their regular time between different programs (for example, someone may split their time 80/20 between Private Forests and Fire Protection), it can be hard to track which programs are being affected when that person goes out to fight a fire. The audit team totaled the regular hours billed to each program and used the proportion of this total to arrive at a proportion of contributing programs.

Get the Power Pivot Add-in (so cool)

I asked the team for advice on using payroll data. They suggested manipulating the data as much as possible in the data query tool before exporting the data for analysis. The team used excel for analysis but used the power pivot add-in to be able to summarize the large quantity of data.

Auditing and Methodology Data Wonk Featured Performance Audit

Oregon Department of Forestry: Actions Needed to Address Strain on Workforce and Programs from Wildfires

Executive Summary


Three consecutive severe fire seasons have forced the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) to spend more time fighting fires and less time on its other programs. Recent fires have also strained ODF personnel, who often work long hours away from home.

ODF needs to take action to reduce these impacts on personnel and programs. Systematic, long-term workforce planning that takes into account resources needed for both fire and non-fire programs; development of a more effective business improvement process; better evaluation of wildfire prevention and detection measures; and increased mitigation efforts are steps ODF should take to help address current and future challenges.

Read full report here

ODF needs to analyze and clearly communicate full impacts of wildfires on the agency

Photo by Oregon Department of Forestry, CC BY

Since 2013, intense fire seasons have resulted in ODF staff spending more time on fire assignments. However, ODF does not currently collect, analyze and communicate to the Legislature and its stakeholders the full impacts of fires on its programs and personnel. This information is necessary for ODF to adequately plan and manage its workforce to meet existing and future demands.

Not only are more employees participating in fire related assignments, but these employees are working much longer hours. Overtime hours spent on fire protection by permanent employees have increased by 197% in recent years.

While the wildfire suppression workload has increased, staffing has not kept pace. ODF is fighting more severe fires with about the same full-time equivalent employees it had nearly 20 years ago. Fires have also created more administrative work, including preparing claims for cost reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies, and making catastrophic wildfire insurance claims and emergency funding requests. To date several of these claims have not been completely processed, which resulted in ODF borrowing to finance these fire related costs. During the past three fire seasons, ODF paid $1.5 million in interest on this borrowing.

ODF staff in Salem and field offices are feeling overworked and are experiencing stress and fatigue as a result of fire related work. Despite the strain of consecutive severe fire seasons, ODF Management reports that employees remain committed to participating in the agency’s firefighting efforts. However, as staff devote more time to wildfire seasons, employees and agency leadership have expressed concerns about ODF’s ability to continue performing at current service levels.

Recent fires have caused delays in work for ODF’s non-fire programs, as employees in these programs are deployed to fire incidents. Examples include delays in developing annual operations plans for state forests, completing Forest Practices Act compliance reporting, and updating bald eagle protection rules. Fires have also created more work for employees in these programs after fires are controlled, such as salvage logging operations and developing and implementing reforestation plans.

Non-fire program contributions to fire response capacity are not fully known

ODF2

Photo by Oregon Department of Forestry, CC BY

Non-fire programs contribute to ODF’s firefighting and to maintaining fire readiness. But ODF is not tracking the contributions these programs make, which are absorbed into their respective budgets. While we identified some of these contributions, ODF needs a full accounting of the contributions and related costs to adequately plan for both fire and non-fire work.

Non-fire programs contribute staff hours to fight fires and to Incident Management command and support teams. For example during the last three fire seasons, the average number of hours State Forests Program staff billed to fire protection doubled to 19,038 hours.
These programs also pay other fire-related expenses such as the cost of specialized fire qualification training, and certain fire equipment and supplies. ODF needs better information on these costs and how changes to staffing, funding and workload in these non-fire programs affect fire operation capacity.

Agency wide workforce planning needed

ODF needs a systematic workforce planning process to effectively address current and emerging challenges to its programs and workforce. Workforce analysis is needed to identify gaps and to monitor, evaluate, and revise resources in order to meet the agency’s strategic goals now and in the future. ODF has completed some analysis, but more is needed, and it should include all necessary firefighting resources.

At ODF, workforce planning is complicated by staff who have program duties and firefighting responsibilities; long training times for fire duties; and the need to meet multiple program missions, including responding to wildfires. But complete workforce analysis and planning, that takes these factors into account, can help ODF ensure it sustainably meets both its fire and non-fire responsibilities.

Systematic process for business improvements needed

As fires have increased in recent years, so have the complexity and number of financial transactions associated with suppressing those fires. Today, ODF has systems in place to collect and assess process improvement suggestions, but some are fragmented and incomplete. We found that sometimes suggestions were not fully reviewed and/or implemented, and decisions were not made or communicated.

A better system that fully reviews, implements and communicates decisions made could help ODF address its increased workload by reducing unnecessary costs and inefficiencies. It could also help to improve the alignment between existing resources and program objectives and priorities.

Evaluation of prevention and detection efforts can be improved

ODF takes some proactive steps to prevent and detect wildfires, but the agency does not systematically evaluate the costs and relative effectiveness of different strategies. Evaluating these strategies could help ODF focus its resources on the most cost-effective strategies to keep suppression costs and wildfire damages low. Better information about the money and staff time spent on different prevention and detection activities and fire causes could aid this evaluation.

More work needed to mitigate wildfire risks and target strategies

ODF3

Fuel Reduction. Photo by Oregon State University, CC BY-SA

ODF, private landowners, and federal agencies work to reduce wildfire risks posed by the accumulation of small trees and vegetation in forests resulting from decades of fire suppression, land use changes, past land management practices, and other factors. Despite these efforts, there are millions of acres of land in Oregon in high wildfire risk areas across all ownerships, including federal, state and private lands. Some of this land is highly important to our water supply. The resources currently dedicated to mitigation work are unlikely to meet this challenge. To reduce wildfire risks, some of these areas may need treatment through methods such as prescribed burning, thinning, or removal of forest underbrush in forests and around homes.

Recommendations

This audit recommends ways ODF can build on its current efforts and accomplishments, and make improvements to address current and future challenges. Our detailed recommendations for ODF management are included on Page 31. They include recommendations for collecting and analyzing better information on fire impacts and costs, developing a systematic, future oriented workforce planning process, and enhancing the agency’s business improvement process. We also recommend actions for ODF to improve wildfire prevention, detection, and mitigation efforts.

Agency Response

The agency agrees with the report findings and recommendations. The full agency response can be found at the end of this report.

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