Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Innovation - Is the Risk Worth the Reward?

innovation image (gears with the word embeded)
(Credit: Geralt/Pixabay)
(This is the last in a four-part series.)
"A measure of the degree of freedom from risk or conditions that can cause death, physical harm, or equipment or property damage." - Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations

Risk is inherent in life. We can do risk assessment after risk assessment, but each results in an estimate. The difference between risk and uncertainty is infinite. Therefore, we are faced with asking ourselves, "How much risk am I willing to assume?"

The very reason insurance companies exist is to share risk...at a cost. You pay to transfer part of your risk to a larger group. We understand (maybe not like) the way insurance companies work, but what about risk associated with our job, in this case wildland firefighting?
“Wildland fire operations have inherent risks that cannot be eliminated, even in the best of circumstances.” (Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 10)
As stated above, there are risks on the fireground that cannot be eliminated. Some risks, like hazard trees, can be easy to detect; others, like cancer, PTSD, and worn out body parts, don't manifest themselves immediately, sometimes not until it is too late. We cannot transfer that risk to someone else, so what is the reward for the associated risk? Money? Sense of purpose? Adventure or excitement? Is the reward worth the risk.

Scientists are studying the health effects of fire operations on wildland firefighters which is good news. However, we have a culture that honors filthy PPE and dirt-caked firefighters, minimizes the impact of emotions, struggles with life balance and a high suicide rate, and has a skewed awareness of risk. How many firefighters will have to get sick or die before we gain a rational awareness of the risks associated with wildland firefighting.

STOP CANCER graphic: Clean your hood after fires. Always shower after every fire. Never place dirty PPE in living areas. Clean your PPE regularly. Exhaust is deadly. Remember to get yearly physicals.
(Although structural in nature, you get the point! Credit: unknown)
Let's talk PPE. Managers know firefighters don't like to carry excess "stuff." That "stuff" mitigates your risk, generally at no financial impact to you. When you don't use or wear it, you chose to violate policy and accept risk. In many cases, fireline supervisors condone the action .Is the risk worth the reward.

Is the assumption of risk part of the reason we have difficulty filling positions? As we learn more about the health effects, are fewer people willing to put their health and relationships on the line? Is the risk becoming too big for the reward? Have we failed to innovate enough to protect the very people we claim are our priority?

Skeleton firefighter in bed while supervisor tells him he has finally initiated a cancer screening policy
(Credit: Paul Combes)

The reward is specific to the individual. Rewards could include increased pay, but the health concerns remain. Better PPE might mitigate risk, but the cost to the agency is high as is the impact to the employee. Maintaining the status quo will not change the operating picture. We need out-of-the box thinkers and innovators who don't fear failure and challenge the process.
When you fear failing, often times you will make much more conservative decisions and breakthroughs don't come through conservative thought; they come from that very far reaching kind of thought. - Steven Justice, Advanced Development Programs, Lockheed Martin RET
Obstacles line the path to innovation. We have seen inclemental change in my 35 years in the wildland fire service. I am ready for big, bold change—change that recognizes the true worth of the wildland fire professional.

One Example of Innovation

Watch The Sun's report on the U.S. military's "super-soldier."

What emotions are you feeling? Were you angered we chose a military example? Is there trepidation technology will make humans less valuable, maybe even replace us on the fireline?

Maybe you saw potential in this new way of thinking. Innovators challenge current processes.  Threatening the current business model is hard for upper management to embrace, but leaders are innovators. Leaders challenge the status quo. Change is on the horizon. Will you be the barrier or the agent of change.

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper

Ponder the following questions:
  • Define what risk and reward mean to you.
  • Are you measuring risk based on what happened in the past without regard to the future?
  • Do you have a realistic awareness of the risk involved?
  • Are you taking more risk than necessary?
  • Have you developed a personal risk management strategy?
Check out these articles on risk:

Rewind: If you missed the parts 1, 2, and 3 in our series, be sure to check them out and watch the trailer for Blackbird - Legacy of Innovation.

Pam McDonald is a writer/editor for BLM Wildland Fire Training and Workforce Development and member of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee. The expressions are those of the author.

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