Leadership Corner

Dealing with loss in the Forest Service

May 31st, 2019 at 1:30PM

The topics of death and serious injury, both in our personal lives and in our professional endeavors, are difficult ones to broach. And, even though we in the Forest Service prioritize safety above all, by the nature of some of the work we do in caring for the land and serving people, we are confronted with these topics with from time to time. For that reason we feel we must improve our approach to communicating and coordinating with one another, and family members, when confronted with a death or a serious injury to one of our own.

A photo of Deputy Forest Supervisor Liz Berger
Deputy Forest Supervisor on the Tahoe National Forest, Liz Berger. USDA Forest Service

This spring our intentions to improve our support around employee deaths and serious injuries was put to the test. Liz Berger, Deputy Forest Supervisor on the Tahoe National Forest shares her experience with the death of one of their own employees and how a community of support helped them work through a delicate and serious situation. Following Liz’s reflections, Chief Financial Officer Tony Dixon provides an update on the agency’s efforts to improve our communication and support in these areas.

On March 27, 2019, Tahoe National Forest helitack captain Daniel J. Laird was killed in a helicopter accident while on a prescribed burn operation on the Sam Houston National Forest, Texas. Daniel worked on the Tahoe National Forest for 23 years and was known for his leadership, professionalism and great sense of humor. The 41-year-old was woven into the fabric of forest life and beloved by all. He was a devoted husband and father who left behind his wife, Heather, and daughter, Evain.

The passing of Daniel Laird was devastating for the Tahoe National Forest, his family, and many others who worked with him over the years. As people who have dealt with a tragedy like this may attest to, the loss of an employee is the most difficult work experience there is. Those left behind focused on what they could do to help, which was taking care of Daniel’s family and taking care of fellow employees. I hope others can learn from the employees of Tahoe National Forest in the event of such a devastating loss. I would like to share with you some of our experiences. First off, ask for help. Tahoe National Forest received assistance during this difficult time from a variety of different teams, agency staff and outside organizations. We could not have met the needs of Daniel’s family or employees without this help. You are not alone. Ask questions, ask for support and ask for explanations throughout the process. This allows for better care of everyone involved.

To take care of Daniel’s family, Daniel’s supervisor and fellow helitack crew captain served as local and immediate family liaisons. A Region 5 liaison was on site in Texas to coordinate across regions and units. Next, the agency provided a Care Team. This early intervention team functioned as a centralized, virtual group of subject matter experts to support the local unit. The Care Team alleviated the administrative workload on the unit, such as coordinating Daniel’s dignified transport home and providing two additional trained liaisons to mentor the local liaisons and share duties. These liaisons guided the family though the agency’s processing of benefits and logistics that the Care Team and others were rapidly working through behind the scenes.

To take care of employees, a Critical Incident Stress Management/Peer Support Team also mobilized. Team leads arrived at Tahoe National Forest within about 48 hours of the incident and tied in with the local trained peer support team. They organized sessions, reached out to offer one-on-one support and assessed needs. Peer support sessions with licensed clinicians were offered in multiple locations across the forest, and one was offered for Region 5 employees. These sessions were well attended. I participated in a few sessions and learned about the importance of taking some time for me, too. The helitack crew hosted a barbeque in Daniel’s memory and the Honor Guard provided a heartfelt flag ceremony for all employees. All of these things helped employees take time to honor and remember Daniel and helped us with the grieving process. 

Taking care of Daniel’s family and our employees came together with the planning and implementation of the memorial events to honor his service. An incident management team, led by a Type 1 Incident Commander and comprised of Tahoe National Forest employees and incident management team members, took on this significant role. The Care Team, Honor Guard and many others were instrumental in this process. The memorial events allowed us to intertwine taking care of the family, our employees and everyone else who wanted to honor Daniel and pay their respects for his service to this country and our agency. We came together as one Forest Service in memory of Daniel and we will never forget him. 

Portrait of Tony Dixon
Tony Dixon, Chief Financial Officer, Washington Office, USDA Forest Service

Improving the way we communicate in instances of death and serious injuries
In the Forest Service, employee safety and well-being are among our highest priorities. We are working to maximize the safety, health and vitality of all employees by acting in accordance with our Codes and Commitments. It is our core belief that every individual is entitled to physical, psychological and social safety. While we make every effort to mitigate safety hazards, the potential for employee injuries or death is very real because the work we do is inherently dangerous. 

As a part of the larger effort to improve our work environment, national leadership recognized the need to establish a standardized approach to how we deal with death and serious injuries. Our goal in these cases is to provide a coordinated effort to assist employees, their families and the larger interagency community following a traumatic incident. Supporting our employees, working with our interagency partners in a positive and constructive manner and using outside resources is vital to a successful program.

Amber Watson and Kristel Johnson were approved by the agency’s Executive Leadership Team to serve in 120-day details to help us accomplish this enormous task. They revised section 1309.19 of the Forest Service Handbook—Death and Serious Injury Administration. It will be published soon. They also developed a toolkit that provides helpful resources, training sessions and website reference materials to better orient and inform all employees in the event of a tragedy. Their efforts will help Forest Service employees and their families, volunteers, interns, contractors, cooperators and the larger interagency community better navigate through traumatic incidents.

The development of a death and serious injury management program reflects our organization’s commitment to agency community by encouraging a more interconnected way of thinking. We are doing this by holding leadership and employee engagement sessions to refine the program’s framework.