Thursday, May 12, 2016

Redaction - The Missing Common Denominator

Missing Common Denominator (m's missing)
Written by Rowdy Muir

The Missing Common Denominator
Written by Rowdy Muir

The purpose of a “Blog” is to get a discussion going. This article certain received a lot of attention. I want to thank all the many positive comments. Thanks to Chuck Maxwell with helping with proper language.

However, as a leader I need to own my mistake in misrepresenting some of the language.

First,  the numbers were to reflect fatalities and entrapment fires not that if you were in these categories that you had an 80% chance of death. 

Second, the numbers were to reflect all firefighters not just wildland firefighters.

So with that being said, here is the redacted version of the article. Again, please except my apologies.


I appreciate the article that was recently published in Wildfire Magazine “Common Denominators on Tragedy Fires – Updated for a New (Human) Fire Environment” written by Matt Holmstrom. There were three things in the article that captured my attention.
  1. 19% of fatalities or entrapments involve fire personnel in the first five years of their career. “This includes all firefighters not just wildland firefighter”
  2. 54% of fatalities or entrapments involve a Single Resource Boss
  3.  Most fatalities or entrapments occur between 14:48 and 16:42. “However there are many fatalities or entrapments that occur outside of this time frame”

This leads me to believe that if you are five years into your career, you are Single Resource Boss qualified, and that you are on the fireline between 14:48 and 16:42 the chances of the next fatality or entrapment would involve someone in those categories. I would like to suggest that there is one more Common Denominator that would bring these chances even higher.

It isn’t any different today then in 1910, when Edward Crockett "Ed" Pulaski gathered his local firefighters and headed in to protect the town of Wallace, Idaho and ended up being cut off from the flaming front. Trying to do the moral and ethical thing, protecting life and property. It seems that within our culture or tribe we have missed a very important aspect in the common denominators of wildfire tragedies: we have lost more lives in so called structure protection or protecting the home lands than anything else.

More specifically, the protection of structures and home lands by firefighters who have an emotional attachment to those structures or lands.

There is evidence that shows when you are emotionally attached or have ownership in something, you don’t always follow the book. You react and make decisions differently than you might when you are out of your communities, state, or geographical area.

The question was asked to Preston Cline, Director of Wharton Leadership Ventures, who works with the McNulty Leadership Program and The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania about emotional attachments and do people do things differently when emotionally attached?

Preston acknowledges that there is little to no neurological work in this area. However he suggest a couple of things.
  • One is the idea of intellectual stabilization. As an EMT, you need to be able to block out someone's screaming so you can stop the bleeding. You can intellectually rationalize that the pain is required. When you have to work on friends or children, however, it doesn't matter. You lose the objectivity because you don't want to hurt or lose your friend or a child.
  • Secondly, is the idea of the "other space." I can go out into the world and risk my life, because I know if it gets bad I can retreat to home. If "home," even metaphorically, is threatened, I have to fix that before I can do anything else. This notion is probably best expressed by Maslow's hierarchy of need. I can only be altruistic once water, food, and shelter are secured. Start messing with those, and I need to rethink everything.
  • Lastly, if you are a community member, you are part of a tribe. You need to show the tribe you have done everything you could so as to not lose standing.
I recently completed an exercise with a local EMS. The scenario was based on a wildfire starting on Forest Service land and making a run onto the BLM and then on to state and private land. During the simulation when the fire made its run onto state and private ownership, the local EMS and volunteer firefighters were having the discussion about closing roads and evacuating residences. My question to them was, “Are you closing roads to everyone and evacuating everyone”? The EMS Director replied, “No, not for us because we need to get in there and protect structures.”

I will suggest that in addition to the “Fire Orders” or “Watchout Situations” that there is an additional “Common Denominator” that can and will save lives if we only learn to acknowledge it.

History has shown that we have lost many agency firefighters who had an emotional attachment to the structures there were trying to save. Those firefighters are part of a “tribe,” and their hierarchy of needs real.

Here are at least thirteen incidents where this has occurred:

1959 - Decker Fire – (6) El Cariso Hotshots died in close proximity to their station
1977 - Cart Creek – (3) local Forest Service employees on their own District
1980 – Mack Lake – (1) local firefighter
1990 – Dude – (6) local Perryville handcrew members
1990 – Wasatch State Park – (2) local dozer operators
2000 – North Stansbury – (2) local handcrew members
2001 – 30 Mile – (4) local handcrew members
2003 – Cramer – (2) local Forest Service employees on their own District
2006 – Esperanza – (5) local engine 57
2006 – Devils Den – (1) local Fire Operations Specialist in his backyard
2007 – Neola North – (3) Retired District FMO his son and a local rancher
2013 – Yarnell – (19) local handcrew near their own duty station
2016 – Twisp River – (3) local engine members

And the near misses—Clay Springs in 2012, where 3 firefighter were burned doing initial attack next to their fire station and community. There are many more.

Just something to consider. If you have five or more years of service, are Single Resource Boss qualified, you’re on the fireline in the afternoon, and you are fighting a fire on your own district, in your own community, near your station, with an emotional attachment to the people or to the landscape and what’s on it—the chances of a fatality could be higher than the 80% mentioned above.

As the “Life First” safety journey continues to play out for the Forest Service, I will make this suggestion and challenge: As you have discussions with your cooperators and you talk among your peers and subordinates remind them in addition to the ”Fire Order” or “Watchout Situation”—there is one more “Common Denominator” –working in situations where you have emotional attachments. You think differently, you make irrational, risky decisions, your emotions take over –sometimes with very high consequences.


About the Author: Rowdy Muir is the U.S. Forest Service Flaming Gorge District Ranger, L-380 Lead Instructor, and former Type 1 Incident Commander.


No comments: