Friday, January 18, 2013

Digging Deeper: Problem Areas - TriData Report

In this installment of Digging Deeper, we'll look at the "Problem Areas" survey participants identified in Phase I of the Wildland Firefighter Safety Awareness Study (also known as the TriData report). As student of fire, analyze the following excerpts. Have we made changes or do the problem areas still exist?

Problem Areas (taken directly from the study)
There are widespread concerns that the organizational culture has undergone significant changes that contribute to a decrease in safety. The experience level of the firefighting work force and leadership is perceived to have dropped. That has many impacts, none were more important than in crisis decision making, which depends on experienced personnel making good decisions under stress. The experienced personnel leaving firefighting are not all retiring. Some are being driven out of firefighting by loss of incentives and lack of encouragement, and they are not being replaced fast enough by adequately qualified personnel.

There also are grave concerns that the high public visibility of wildland firefighting puts political pressures on field leadership that in turn influence strategy and tactics, and increase danger to firefighters. There is a perception that the situation is worsening as federal firefighting budgets and resources are declining without a concurrent lessening of public expectations. The trend continues toward more severe wildland fires, and more people being at risk in the urban/wildland interface. The increasing number of fires in the urban/wildland interface, coupled with the changes of tactics needed to protect structures; more pressure to perform and not retreat; and the lack of training on the risks around structures (e.g., hidden propane tanks, electrical wires) combine into a major concern. There is a demand for more knowledge about fighting fires around structures, and a need to further educate the public on mitigation measures they can take.

Among other key aspects of the organizational culture as it affects safety are the following:
  • There is a tendency to try to do as much as before with less resources, which sometimes pushes the envelope of safety. The safety issue is further exacerbated by declining forest health, accumulation of fuels from years of fire exclusion and lack of an adequately sized prescribed burn program. Fewer firefighters are available to handle more frequent and more severe fires while feeling less than fully supported, and while experience levels drop. This was considered another dangerous confluence, especially by the most experienced people interviewed.
  • Too many firefighters still feel uncomfortable in raising safety issues. They perceive that the organizational culture does not allow them to point out safety problems in the field without fear of retribution, despite assurances to the contrary. There has not been acceptance and practice of a philosophy like that used in flight operations (the crew resource management system), in which it is not only acceptable to point out safety problems, but one is expected to do so. On the other hand, there is concern about letting the pendulum swing too far the other way, and having crews frequently balk at assignments, with the potential for disruption of operations and increasing danger to those crews that remain.
  • There is a broad perception that to bridge the experience gap, some managers have been fast-tracked into positions of responsibility that are above their ability to handle safely. Some of those fast-tracked were among those raising the alarm. This perception was shared by 82 percent of the overall firefighter population, and by 84 percent of women and minorities.
  • There are feelings that seasonal employees are not adequately appreciated, trained or given incentives to return in the current organizational culture, which reduces the experience base.
  • There is a perception that firefighters today have less woodland experience and therefore are more prone to accidents. More scientists (‘ologists) fill positions, and a smaller portion of the workforce is interested in firefighting. It is no longer considered necessary for all or most to participate in firefighting. Those who do participate feel they do not get enough  encouragement, and may be given subtle or not so subtle signs that they are abandoning their real jobs when they go to fight fires.
  • There is not a high enough degree of confidence that key information gets through to crews during a fire, especially regarding weather, fuel conditions, and when requested resources will arrive. The culture is such that crews do not have a checklist of information they should expect, and they do not always ask for what they do not receive. A highly ranked communication problem was the lack of adequate exchange of information between crew shifts, and a lack of adequate briefings en route to fires and at fires, with too little input allowed or solicited from crew supervisors.
  • There is concern that the organizational culture allows red-card certification for some who do not merit it. The culture does not take the certifications seriously enough, and the experience standards for IMT positions are thought by many to be too low.
  • About a third of women and minorities reported feeling they get less information than others at fires − but overall, the women and minorities surveyed expressed the same safety concerns as all others. The response profiles of male, female, Hispanic, Native American, and other firefighters regarding safety issues were remarkably similar, to the point that it could be  considered a tribute to the change in organizational culture in the direction of fairness.
  • Equipment drew relatively little criticism except in two areas: radios and shelters. There is not yet universal provision of radios for each Type II crew or squad, and these are problems of signal clarity, interference and inadequate channels at times. Obviously all people must be able to be reached expeditiously for safe operations. The second major equipment concern was shelters, especially the lack of realistic training with them, their being viewed as a backup that allows one to take risks, and the confusion about what constitutes an adequately sized safety zone in which to deploy a shelter.

No comments: