L-580 participants

The Challenge

The first big question we got after the successful launch of our San Diego Megafires L-580 was: “Can you do this course where I’m from?” Hmm…. Not really. Wish we could, but kind of hard to pack up San Diego County in a suitcase for the field day.

The Course (NWCG L-580)

Together with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), we went to work on a new version that would retain the same core content and replace the field day with more opportunities to get hands on experience practicing strategic leadership and the intent-based planning process. This effort resulted Leading in Crisis: Strategic Leadership in Catastrophic Events and it is now available to be run anywhere with a suitable venue. This program retains its focus on the three big themes always voiced after very large-scale incidents:

  • Couldn’t think big enough to get ahead of events
  • Not prepared for non-tactical dimensions of the incident
  • Necessity of decentralized effort over a network of organizations

Beyond the technical challenges of the fire, flood, earthquake or hurricane, the Political, Security, Economic, Social, Infrastructure and Information (PSESII) dimensions present huge challenges to incident and emergency managers.

This course is about gaining and maintaining the proper altitude to be an effective strategic leader when faced with a large-scale crisis. It introduces new ideas and concepts, provides opportunities to interact with leaders from the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County, and to apply their lessons and practice developing strategic intent. We focus on what right looks like for:

  • the strategic leader
  • the group–the inner circle needed to make strategic decisions
  • the process needed to generate an effective common operating picture and strategic leader’s intent
  • the decentralized network of organizations and people needed to put strategic intent into action

Leading in Crisis: Strategic Leadership in Catastrophic Events is a continuing education and training course for the senior, strategic leader. The course involves 2-3 hours of pre-course work and 20 contact hours over two and-a-half days.

On day one, we explore gaps in the current strategic framework of incident management; present strategic principles, concepts and tools; and facilitate group discussion and exercises. Guest speakers who have been involved in large scale, complex events share their first-hand experiences and lessons learned, both personal and organizational. The second day is spent applying the concepts and tools in two hands-on exercises.  The first is the strategic planning for the San Diego county-wide impacts of the 2003 megafires, including the Cedar Fire, only recently exceeded as the largest wildfire in recorded California history. The second scenario involves a 7.3 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami inside the Puget Sound that affects Seattle, Tacoma and Everett, Washington.

For San Diego County based courses, the second day finishes with a reception at the home of Sandra Millers-Younger, author of the book The Fire Outside My Window: A Survivor Tells the True Story of California’s Epic Cedar Fire, which is both a poignant memoir and a veteran journalist’s narrative nonfiction account of the largest known wildfire in California history, a catastrophic event that crippled postcard-perfect San Diego and dominated international headlines in October 2003. Participants are provided with a copy of Sandra’s book, plus two other excellent books for strategic leaders’ continuing education after the course.

For the last half-day, participants learn concepts and tools to manage the implementation of their strategic intent at the campaign or theater level of incident management.


The National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s (NWCG’s) vision was a series of L-580 offerings to allow continuing education of senior leaders. The first L-580 Leadership is Action program was developed in 2008 by NWCG as a seminar at the Wharton Business School. Although the seminar is no longer extant, NWCG developed a second L-580, a staff ride of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg.

In 2013, a unique partnership developed and grew between MCS, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), utilities, non-profit and philanthropic organizations, private industry and local, state, tribal and federal agencies involved in emergency response within San Diego County to fund the development and delivery of an alpha program in early 2016. Subsequently, this version debuted in 2018.

MCS delivers this program in support of the IAFC.

Who should attend?

Senior incident managers, senior leaders of emergency response agencies, public utilities and other critical infrastructure entities; leaders in the agency administrator role, elected officials and appointees who would likely be involved in setting the strategic direction of a large-scale event.


  • Completion of Pre-course work
  • Students whose training is managed by an NWCG Geographic Area Training Representative are required to submit nominations for consideration on the NWCG national L-580 priority list


This program meets all requirements for L-580 Leadership is Action established by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG). Participants will receive a co-branded IAFC/NWCG Certificate.

The Department of Homeland Security has approved this program for use with SHSP and UASI grant funds.

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