Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Answering the Call Without Risking Your Life Risk

Poster: Because duty can take our people into dangerous situations, fire leaders reciprocarte their loyalty by looking out for their safety and well-being in all circumstances.


Risk: The possibility that something unpleasant or dangerous might happen
By Tom L. Thompson, Retired U. S. Forest Service

Watching the memorial for the Granite Mountain Hotshots last week, all I could do was again wish it weren’t so. Another 19 firefighters lost almost exactly 19 years after the pain and sadness that was experienced in 1994 when 14 firefighters were lost at South Canyon in Colorado. My mind revisited past discussions about why this happened, what went wrong, and how this could have happened. Then that word, “risk” came to mind.

In his remarks at the Prescott memorial, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden acknowledged that we should be thankful for firefighters, their lives for their neighbors and those who are endangered. He said, “They were risking laying down their lives every single time they answered a call.” I paused and thought about those words. Is this really our expectation and the message that we want to intend?” I think not. I hope not!

From what I understand, representatives from every hotshot crew in the country were at the memorial and I hope those folks did not take the message back to their crews that they are expected to take risks and we are proud of them because they do. I know that Vice-President Biden was probably very the wildland firefighter, but I hope we have enough confidence in our ability to fight fire safely that we do not have the expectation or send the message to our fire crews that they will be “risking laying down their lives every single time they answer a call.”

But if we do not have that expectation, it is still difficult to not consider to what degree taking unnecessary risk played in the South Canyon (1994), 30 Mile (2001), Cramer (2003), and Yarnell (2013) fire fatalities, each of these incidents and certainly others that have occurred. We understand the different views of risk. One is to take risk and one is to avoid risk. In wildland firefighting, the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders, the 18 Watchout Situations, the policies, the procedures, the safety equipment, the extensive training, and our many years of experience and entire safety system are
there to eliminate risk.

Admittedly, there is always risk to some degree. Driving the car, riding in an airplane, hiking, golfing, biking, boating, cooking, sky diving and virtually everything we do throughout our lives potentially involves some risk. But we manage that risk by wearing our seatbelt, driving defensively, taking cover in bad weather, wearing a life jacket, using care with sharp knives, using safety gear and virtually hundreds upon hundreds things that we do every single day.

We learn not to take risks as kids and try to teach our children about the risk of burns, falls, lightning and crossing the street. In the Forest Service, virtually every fire training course’s main focus is either about reducing risk or focuses on it to a large degree.

We learn from those who are more experienced. We learn about fire weather. We learn how to properly use equipment. We learn how to work together with others and how fire incidents are managed safely. We learn about personal responsibility and fire leadership. I was never in a fire session or briefing where anyone ever taught me how to take risks. Everything I learned in my 37 years with the Forest Service was focused on not taking risks.

Going the other way, however, is what appears to be an ever increasing tendency today in our society to get excited about taking risk. The X Games, NASCAR racing, walking on a cable across the Grand
Canyon, riding bulls, running with the bulls, skiing down from the summit of the Grand Teton, skateboarding, chasing tornadoes and the list goes on and on.

In reviewing the accident investigation reports for most of the fire fatalities mentioned above, a pattern is fairly clear on common factors that increased risk significantly and likely ultimately played
a part in the cause of the fatalities. The following are cited over and over again:
  • Key policies and procedures were not followed, i.e. 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and 18 Watchout Situations;
  • Failure to recognize or react to changing conditions (situational awareness);
  • Changing conditions were principally caused by approaching weather in mid to late afternoon;
  • Safety zones were either non-existent or too far or too difficult to get to; and
  • Command and control of the incidents were compromised because of leadership issues or communication failure.
In short, unnecessary risks were taken by not following direction and failing to recognize what was happening.

Reflecting back 19 years, the issue of risk was not directly spoken to in the South Canyon Investigative report, but the can-do spirit was discussed and identified as significant causal factor. The can-do spirit issue was perhaps another way of saying that we can do it in spite of the risks. The
South Canyon Report described it in just a couple of sentences:

Page 28, Attitudes (significantly contributed):
  • The can-do attitude of the smokejumpers and hotshots compromised the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and the 18 Watchout Situations.
  • Despite the fact that they recognized that the situation was dangerous, the firefighters who had concerns about building the west flank questioned the jumper in charge but chose to continue construction.
On the day of the Yarnell Fire in fall 2013, fire officials received word at 3:26 p.m. that heavy winds from a thunderstorm were moving into the area. At 4:47 p.m., the Granite Mountain Hotshots were trapped and deploying shelters as a last resort. What happened in that hour exactly will likely never be known, but we do know that as conditions changed they were too late in responding and the safety zone was too far away.

We have had many discussions about taking risk and how we project the concept to our fire fighters, especially those who are new and perhaps less experienced. As leaders, words and actions are very important. It is important that we make it very clear that we do everything we possibly can to eliminate risk to firefighters and to the public. Again, we have long tested equipment, procedures, policies and standard orders.

We train our folks to know how to use equipment safely, and understand basic procedures, policies and orders. We insist that people understand the standard fire orders and watchout situations. All of these are designed to reduce and eliminate risk. We follow these procedures, understand specific fire orders and use protective equipment because they have proven to reduce our risk. We evacuate, we curtail air operations and we withdraw or pull back. We do these things because the situation changes and to be safe we respond.

In 2005, Kelly R. Close from the Poudre Fire Authority in Fort Collins, CO, spoke at the 8th Annual Wildland Fire Safety Summit in Missoula, MT. His words capture the essence of our challenge. He described the situation we find ourselves in all too often.
 “We often tend to define success as the accomplishment of some pre-determined objective.
“We contain and control the fire as expected, accomplish the objectives as set forth in the incident action plan, and as usual, as expected, no one gets hurt. But sometimes success can just as readily be defined by one’s persistence in expecting the unexpected, anticipating failure, updating this continuous process of maintaining mindfulness with new information and ultimately preventing a serious accident when things don’t go as expected (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001).

“On fires such as Cramer or South Canyon, the fire environment dictated the fire intensity and growth. Sometimes Mother Nature has the upper hand, and ‘success’ might be simply recognizing this and getting out of the way.”

It is of utmost importance to make certain that the folks on the ground know that they are not to take risks, that they do not feel they are expected to take risks and that they do not have license to take risks. The job they do carries with it inherent risk but if they follow procedures, use good judgment and stay alert, they will be safe.

We expect them to make sound, conservative decisions, adjust accordingly and certainly not choose the path that has signs indicating increased risk posted every place you look. I hope and pray that they will not have the idea that they will be risking laying down their lives every single time they answer a call.

This view may not be shared by some folks in the fire organization and perhaps oversimplifies the situation, but as a line officer in the Forest Service for most of my over 37 years, I believe we need to be very clear about what we expect. Answer the call without risking your life!

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This article ran in  the National Wildfire Suppression Association's Fireline magazine, Winter 2014 and is reprinted with permission from Fireline and author Tom Thompson.

Tom L. Thompson retired in 2005 as Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service after a 37 year career that included assignments in Alaska, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, D.C.  He spent over 26 years of that time as a District Ranger, Forest Supervisor, Deputy Regional Forester, and Deputy Chief.  As Deputy Chief for the National Forest System he had overall responsibility for the all management programs on 151 National Forests and 22 National Grasslands.  For a number of years he was Chair of the agency’s fire Line Officers Team (LOT), a leadership presenter at Fire Management Leadership training in Marana, and a team leader on a number of national fire accident investigations and reviews. He also was co-team leader of the interagency Cerro Grande investigation in New Mexico in 2000. The views expressed are those of the author.

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