Interview: Team Rubicon USA and the BSA Discuss Chain Saw Training and Possible Collaboration

Jacob “Junior” Nilz at a Disaster Training Camp in California following a wildfire

Recently, the BSA and Team Rubicon began discussing opportunities to collaborate on chain saw training.  The spark started with a message to the Health and Safety email box by a Team Rubicon volunteer with a Scouting background who was interested in learning more about the BSA’s chain saw program.  From this seemingly random start, the alignment moved rapidly in several exciting and interesting directions.  I had the opportunity to have lunch (my first business lunch since the start of the pandemic) with Jacob “Junior” Nilz, who serves as a Mobile Training Associate for Team Rubicon.  The following is a portion of the interview.

Frank Reigelman – What is your role with Team Rubicon (TR) and how long have you been on staff?

Jacob Nilz – I work with an awesome team to coordinate large-scale national Disaster Training Camps (DTC) across the nation to ensure that we have the trained volunteers to help people on their worst day.  Post-COVID, we intend to offer six DTC’s before the end of the year to make up for a lull in in-person events during the pandemic.  I started as a spontaneous volunteer responding to a tornado that struck Mayflower and Vilonia Arkansas in 2014, which was about 20 minutes from my home. Since 2014, I have responded to over 50 disasters and countless training events. I found a passion in training and service that led to full time employment with the best disaster response non-profit in 2020.

FR – How many trained sawyers are currently members of Team Rubicon (TR)?

Nilz – We currently have around 3,000 trained sawyers but we would always prefer more as long as quality is not reduced. That gives us the best ability to respond to a disaster knowing that careers and family obligations can shrink the pool of available sawyers at any given time.

FR – How would you compare the BSA’s chain saw training to TR’s program?

Nilz – The BSA’s Chain Saw Basic is comparable to the Team Rubicon’s Chainsaw Operator Level 1 in both content and timeframe.  TR’s program differs since we offer Level 2 and instructor levels for sawyers who desire to advance their skills and service.

Editor’s note – The BSA recognizes TR’s Level 1 acceptable to satisfy NCAP Standard FA-712, C.3.

FR – Can you summarize the overriding philosophy of TR’s chain saw program?

Nilz – Culture is king in Team Rubicon. In the chainsaw program it is a culture of safety. That culture and our “Scope of Practice” rules the action and behavior of every TR sawyer.  Our training instills a culture of safety for persons and property and service.

FR – The BSA standards provide options to obtain chain saw training.  TR’s level one certainly satisfies our basic requirements.  Are TR level one courses open to BSA members?

Nilz – Yes, TR would be interested in helping the BSA grow its ranks of sawyers. Scouters have that service heart, which is getting harder and harder to find these days. What I would like to see is Scouters sign up for Team Rubicon and go through our trainings. They can deploy to help those impacted by disasters, as well as be safer in their roles as Scouts. This would be a win-win.

FR – Your sawyers work in extremely stressful settings in the aftermath of natural disasters.  How do you prepare for those circumstances?

Nilz – There really is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for the first time dealing with the aftermath and listening to a homeowner who just lost everything. The best thing you can do is create muscle memory through training to instill the right culture. Don’t ignore the stress, lean on your fellow Greyshirts for support. We deal with a very real thing called post deployment blues. It is that time, a day or two after you get home, when everything catches up to you. Lean on your teammates… reach out.

FR – Can you point to one mantra that governs TR sawyers? 

Nilz – Scope of practice and culture of safety.  There is no shame in deciding NOT to cut a tree or limb and we stress seeking an experienced team member to consult and assist.  We mandate a 2:1 rule: there are always two sawyers for one chain saw.  No sawyer is permitted to operate a chain saw solo.  They must have a spotter.

FR – Speaking of culture, how do instill this in your members?

Nilz – It starts in even before our Greyshirts even get to the Chainsaw Operator Level 1 training.  There is no question what we expect and how we function in a disaster setting. We are a team, an organization that values it’s cultural principles. My favorite two words in our level 1 training is “perpetual student”. It is what I try and live by and what we instill in all of our operators.

FR – What is the most difficult principle to convey to level 1 sawyers?

Nilz – Helping new sawyers understand they can stand down from a situation without ramifications.  This is not a matter of pride – it is about getting the job done and keeping everyone safe.

FR – Why are TR members called “Greyshirts”?

Nilz – This is part of Team Rubicon’s origin story. After Haiti, Team Rubicon responded to a tsunami in Chile. They stopped at an airport to get some matching shirts and the only color they could find was grey. Our uniform became the grey shirt, a symbol of hope to those affected by disaster and a call to those that want to serve. Every member of this organization, staff and volunteer alike, are called Greyshirts. We have a saying “Earn your shirt”  and every day volunteers and staff a like strive to Earn their Shirt.

FR – Are all TR members veterans?

Nilz – No, but Team Rubicon roots run deep in the veteran community.  We welcome all who would like to volunteer and serve.

FR – Besides sawyers, what other disciplines are at the ready?

Nilz – The list is extensive.  We have members trained in heavy equipment, fire mitigation, flood response, first aid, home repair, incident command, site surveys and more. For more information or anyone that is looking to serve their community, visit our website