[This is an interview that Travis Dotson had with Mike Lewelling, Fire Management Officer at Rocky Mountain National Park. Mike manages a complex program and has an important perspective on growth and change in the wildland fire service to offer us.]
By Travis Dotson
TRAVIS: Is the wildland fire service better off than it was ten years ago?
MIKE: I’m so divided on that question. I see positives and negatives. If we’re talking about medical response, yes definitely we’re better off than we were 10 years ago. But it doesn’t matter where I go, who I talk to, everybody is talking about HR and the difficulty in hiring and how that is diluting our pool of professional people that we want. And then there is budgets, changing priorities from the top, and other things like that. So, are we better off than 10 years ago? It depends on what angle you’re looking at it from.
TRAVIS: Give me an example of the good and bad.
MIKE: One of the things as far as risk management goes is just the significant difference in perspectives and approaches between IMTs. There was a fire recently where the very first team got with the Agency Administrator (AA) and the AA said “We are not going into the timber. Trees are falling over for no reason. There is serious risk of people getting killed. We’re not going into the timber.”
Some hotshot crews looked at it and said “Oh man, if we can just dig this line right here, we can cut it off.” But the AA stuck to their guns. They said “No, it’s OK if it burns, it’s going to come out. We’ll wait for it.”
So another team comes in and it’s the same. A subsequent team was more aggressive and said “You know what, we can get through this and put this out.”
There is story after story of just the differences in teams and how critical it is for AAs to maintain consistency in team transitions. Two or four months into a fire, the home unit gets tired of the fire and eventually gets a team who says “We can put this thing to bed.”
TRAVIS: Yeah, we don’t control what team shows up in the rotation. The aggressive team could have shown up first. And it’s totally fair that local units get tired of dealing with a fire. That variation in styles might not be something we can eliminate, but we can improve how it is we prepare our workforce, including Agency Administrators.
MIKE: I am impressed with how our involvement with AAs is changing. I was able to be a part of the M-582 (Fire Program Management; Leading Complex Fire Programs) cadre as a table coach and it’s very interesting to see the different levels of Agency Administrators that are coming up. There’s some that have absolutely no fire experience and some that have a ton—and I don’t know which one’s better!
Agency Administrators also need their own team of people helping to make these risk management decisions so they don’t just hand the fire and all the decisions to the IMT. The concept of “Shared Risk” is vital to the decision-making.
TRAVIS: Is that progress? The way that we acknowledge the Agency Administrator’s role and our efforts to educate both our fire workforce and Agency Administrators on the process?
MIKE: Absolutely. I would definitely say that I’m real impressed with the new M-582. They include a Cerro Grande site visit. The Agency Administrators come out of there going “Wow, that was actually worth it for a week.” You try to get an Agency Administrator to go to a week-long training—it better be good.
TRAVIS: That feels like progress—we have Agency Administrators going on site visits!
But getting back to the areas that we can’t put in the “progress” pile. Do you have hope for us getting better at things like hiring?
MIKE: Honestly, no. I don’t have much hope. It’s been five years of “Oh, it’s going to be better.” And yet every year, it gets worse. We’re eating ourselves from within.
Whether it’s how we have to reconcile our credit cards to how we do travel to how we hire, each of these processes operate as a silo and there’s no consideration of how they impact each other or the whole. We are supposed to hire the best and brightest for a more professional, educated workforce that can make better risk decisions. It’s becoming more and more difficult to make that happen. And it is connected to risk!
TRAVIS: Sure. Say a bad thing happens on the fireline. Someone gets hurt. People often ask: “What risk decisions were made prior to and at what capacity do those decision-makers operate? What kind of training do they have?” and so on. Seems like you can draw a pretty straight line to hiring.
MIKE: Absolutely. One of the foundational considerations when evaluating a high-risk mission is team selection. You want the best team that you can get. If you don’t have much to pick from, you might be in trouble.
Medical Emergency Response
TRAVIS: Getting specific on the medical emergency response, tell us a little bit about your experience and background with that element.
MIKE: Here in the Park we have always had some sort of plan. Like “OK, if somebody gets hurt, we’re going to get them out of there.” But we never really dialed-it in—like exactly what are we going to do? Being able to answer the questions that got put in the IRPG after the Andy Palmer incident [https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/dutch-creek-tree-fel]:
- What will we do if someone gets hurt?
- How are we going to get them out of here?
- How long will it take to get them to a hospital?
On the Big Meadows Fire in 2013, we ordered an Incident Management Team and we were all trying to figure out the “Dutch Creek Protocol” together. We did all kinds of stuff that probably never would have happened in the past as far as EMTs, Paramedics on-site because it’s a very remote fire.
And you wouldn’t expect it, but we had a hotshot go down with sudden cardiac arrest! They were hiking to the line from spike camp and boom! They had an AED to him within minutes and they successfully restarted his heart and brought him back to life. 10 years ago, we would not have had an AED on the fireline.
And there’s nothing like sitting in ICP, hearing a call come in saying “no pulse, not breathing” and instantly, I know what that means. And I know that person is not going to survive and sure enough, “Paramedic on scene”—with AED. And they brought him back to life and he fought fire the next year.
That was an absolute life saved, no question. And no question it was attributed to changes made after the Andy Palmer incident.
I remember hearing about that incident and what I kept saying to anybody who would listen was “They had an AED in spike camp!” When I’m loading up for spike camp, I’ve never to this day said “Make sure the AED is in there.” I just don’t think that way.
MIKE: Yeah, no kidding. And really, I mean even to this day, it’s very common to NOT have an AED in spike camp.
I think about risk a lot. I was recently thinking about the term “luck”. The definition of luck is very similar to risk. And I wrote it down: “Success apparently brought on by chance rather than one’s own actions.”
I don’t think we’re going to be studying “luck management.” But, thinking ahead and positioning yourself in a way that has the most potential of being lucky. That’s very similar to risk management. Louis Pasteur said: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
TRAVIS: “Are you good or lucky?” A lot of people lean on that. I think it’s a great parallel to draw between luck and risk. It comes into play with blame as well. If something goes bad and we are thinking about “risk” it is somehow easier to assign blame. Whereas with “luck” we are more able to accept as is—whether good or bad.
MIKE: Yes, absolutely.
TRAVIS: Do you have any other personal experiences that have shaped your perspective on this?
MIKE: Yes. The San Antonio Fire [https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/san-antonio-fire-tree-strike-2018]. I was the lead for the FLA. What really stuck out to me for that one was: “How do you choose between multiple unsafe options?” The Type 3 Incident Management Team, the two Agency Administrators, hotshot crews, they all got together and looked at options for this fire and there was not a safe option to be had.
Every fire has some kind of risk. But this fire had high risk no matter what choice you took. Going direct, you’re going down in a hole, in timber, super steep slopes—not ideal. But going indirect was way worse. A lot more people at risk.
TRAVIS: And they’re also doing that in the shadow of a community that has some pretty vivid memories of big bad fires—the Cerro Grande Fire and the Los Conchas Fire (both located outside Los Alamos, New Mexico).
MIKE: Absolutely. So on the San Antonio Fire, some weather came in and it kind of parked the fire for a bit, giving them a chance to catch it small. But in doing so, when they decided that they were going to do a high-risk operation, they were like “OK, how can we mitigate some of the risk?”
They had four hotshot crews. They ordered a REMS (Rapid Module Extraction) team. They had the helicopter with short haul capabilities. They got prepared. Then two guys get hit on the head by a limb!
Those 60 hotshots packaged both patients and got them out before the REMS even had time to set up. They prepared because they knew they we’re going into a risky situation.
TRAVIS: Compare that scenario to a similar one pre-Dutch Creek (And Palmer’s tragedy incident). I feel like that looks different.
MIKE : Yes, I think it would be more like: “Hey, let’s go direct on this and we’ll just get after it.”
And the hotshot superintendents I know, they’re all for it. It’s not “Oh man, we’re being forced to put this ‘mitigation’ in place.” It’s more like “Hey, if one of my people gets hurt, I want to know that I can get them out.” Sometimes you get policies or procedures in place and people are kind of negative about it. But I haven’t heard too much negative chatter on this. We all want to take care of our people.
TRAVIS: Some folks debate the process, whether we should be using a military style “nine line” or the current “eight line” version. Should it be geared toward treatment or transport? Should it be standardized or let IMTs each have their own? That is the stuff folks nitpick. But I think you are right. Everybody is on the same page about if we’re going to put somebody out there and ask them to do the dangerous work, let’s be prepared to support them when the bad thing happens. And to me, one of the big changes is using the word when rather than if the bad thing happens.
MIKE: Absolutely. We had a fire this summer and I was flying over it. It was kind of a “peninsula of fuel” and there’s only about a quarter mile of line that needed to be cut.
If we didn’t cut that quarter-mile line, it would have turned into a rest-of-the-summer fire because it was going into an area that there is no way we could send people. And so during the briefing, we acknowledged this situation. We only have a quarter mile to cut but there are snags. There’s beetle-kill through there and it is a high-risk situation.
I trust the people who are going to be up there making the final decision. So once you get up there, make the decision about whether you can go for it or not. But just know that by this one high-risk operation, it’s going to save two months of additional high-risk operations and a lot more people at risk.
And we got some good feedback from the people who went up there. They said: “Thanks for setting the stage for us.”
TRAVIS: Sure, enabling them to make an informed decision with support and the capacity to respond. And acknowledging that, yes, somebody could get bonked out here and everybody is on the same page about that. I think that is difficult for some managers.
MIKE: Yes, absolutely. For managers to fully appreciate the risk and if the folks don’t want to do it, they’re fully supported.
TRAVIS: Yeah, on the operator end, if you decide not to go in, it’s almost like knowing you will have moral support. But if you DO decide to go ahead with the mission, it’s like having physical support: knowing we have a dialed-in medical plan and the capacity. There’s a ship on call and we know the phone number and we know the helicopter is actually sitting there on the pad, that kind of stuff.
MIKE: Yes, Absolutely.
TRAVIS: In the past, it was more of “Let’s go for it”. And it feels like a lot of that was just based on hope. Let’s hope no one gets hurt. Let’s hope nothing bad happens. I mean, it wasn’t exactly like that, but a lot of the attitude was just like, hey, man, that’s what we do. We deal with the unknown and if the bad thing happens to be somebody gets hurt, trust us, we’ll deal with it. We’ll improvise. And we did good a lot of times.
MIKE: Until we didn’t. Until it took two hours to get someone onto a helicopter.
TRAVIS: Unfortunately, that’s kind of how the fire service tends to do its learning.
So what are some other ways that we still need to improve in this area?
What We Still Need to Improve
MIKE: Well, I think just an overall support of the medical and evacuation mission. We kind of piecemeal it together right now. When hiring, our hotshot crews may think “Oh sweet, this person’s an EMT!” Or we say “Hey, let’s order a REMS module” or something along those lines. We don’t have actual positions, not like “We’re going to hire you and you’re going to be a GS six instead of a five because you’re an EMT” or be able to provide that kind of training. As a whole, the firefighting machine does not support it. It’s not funded or incentivized.
TRAVIS: Yes, hiring by hope: “I hope an EMT applied this year.”
MIKE: Right. And beyond that, maybe even improving the whole REMS. I’m not sold on that whole concept yet. But I think it’s good to invest in it and give it an honest try.
TRAVIS: On the REMS, I feel like we are at the beginning and it needs time to improve. It’s still more of an “idea” and people are adapting gear that was meant for other stuff to fit our situation. Eventually, we’re going to get to the point where we’re making situation-specific gear and protocols—that stuff just takes time.
I mean, five or eight years ago you could literally say the words “Rapid Extraction Module” and most people would ask: “What are you talking about?”
On the EMT and Paramedic front, there’s a lot of people feeling like “Hey, if we’re going to step into this realm and we really are going to take care of our own out there, then where is the agency sponsored EMT and Paramedic training?”
MIKE: Yes, absolutely. And then comes the debate: Are we a wildland fire service, or are we an emergency response service? Everything is complicated.
Biggest Positive Changes?
TRAVIS: Overall, what would you say are the biggest positive changes you’ve seen in our culture during your entire career?
MIKE: I think we are more mindful about how we manage fires now. I saw a map side-by-side of all the fires from the early 80s into the 90s and it’s all these little pinpricks of fires. And then you go into the 2000s to now and the footprints are a lot bigger. There’s a lot that goes into that. But I think part of that is not always throwing everything at every fire. Mother Nature uses fire to clean house and it doesn’t matter what we do, she’s going to do it eventually. So whether we put ourselves in the way of that or let it happen is an important decision. I think that, overall, risk management—how we respond to fires—is a significant advance.
TRAVIS: For sure. I’ve seen research showing that the best investment we can make is big fire footprints. That is what ends up being both a money saver and exposure saver down the line as well as an ecological investment, obviously. For so long, large fire footprints were only being pushed from an ecological perspective and now we’re talking about the risk benefits of changing our default setting away from just crush it. There is often an immediate and future benefit on the risk front (less exposure now AND a larger footprint reducing future threat).
MIKE: Yes. Absolutely. And every fire is different. Every day on every fire is different. And so you can’t make a blanket statement. And it’s tough. Around Rocky (Rocky Mountain National Park) we’re trying to set the stage with the public that, we’ve got beetle-killed lodgepole that goes right up to the Park boundary and we have communities down the gun barrel where we frequently have 70 mile-an-hour winds. As the Fire Management Officer, we have got to think outside the box about preparing. It’s no different than preparing for a hurricane or a tornado or a volcanic eruption. If you live where the natural event happens, you need to be prepared for it.
TRAVIS: Do you feel you have the capacity and the support to get better at that kind of planning?
MIKE: Certainly for fire response, getting the word out there that we are not going to be able to send firefighters into the middle of a beetle-killed forest. I’ve got a couple photos that help sometimes. I compare a green healthy lodgepole forest in which I wouldn’t hesitate to send people hiking three or four miles into that forest to put a fire out. And then I’ve got a current picture of this jack straw nasty mess. Imagine sending people through that when trees are falling for no reason? And so we’re slowly telling the story.
Your Goofiest Story
TRAVIS: Alright, that is all super good perspective and information. Now for the most important: What is the goofiest fire-related event you can recall?
MIKE: Oh man, there have been a few. This one sticks out:
I was dropping ping-pong balls at Whiskeytown. I was front seat. Before we took off, I was joking about getting airsick. I said: “I got my puke bag!” So I had my puke bag in my pocket and we’re flying and we’re dropping ping-pong balls and the pilot goes, “Hey, you got that puke bag?” I looked at him and I kind of laugh. I’m like, “Well, yes, but I’m good.” He’s like, “No, give it to me!” And I’m like, OK.
And so I gave him my puke bag and he starts hurling as we’re flying. You know how your body kind of convulses when you puke? He somehow bumped the controls and we just come screaming out of the unit. And thankfully, the PSD operator stopped dropping balls in the back. But yeah, he puked all over the place and then of course my puke bag had holes in it and so he hands it back to me and his pukes drip all over my legs. We ended up flying back over the fire and dropped the puke into the fire.
So, that was kind of goofy.
TRAVIS: You cannot make that stuff up.
MIKE: And it wasn’t that he was airsick, it was food poisoning or something. I don’t know how you can puke and fly at the same time. I’m glad we didn’t crash.
TRAVIS: Dropping ping-pong balls when the pilot gets sick—classic.
Do you have anything else on this whole topic of “growth” that you had other thoughts on?
More of a Learning Environment Now
MIKE: I guess just the whole learning process. Moving away from punitive, how that circles back around to risk management. I’ll never forget one of our NPS leaders throwing all of my friends under the bus during Cerro Grande and just how ugly that was. And from experiencing that to now, being able to be involved in some of the FLAs. I know that it’s definitely more of a learning environment now. For me, that’s been huge.
TRAVIS: Yes, for sure. In terms of progress, in general, I feel like we treat people better, specifically those who have been involved in some sort of really bad outcome.
MIKE: I agree. I feel like sometimes you wake up and you have the best intentions for the day and the bad thing happens and it changes your career—and even your life.
TRAVIS: And when that day happens to someone other than us, man, wouldn’t we want to be supportive and try to get some good out of it? Because that’s going to happen to them no matter what, their career/life is going to change. Now, what are we going to do to treat them and ourselves as “brothers and sisters” since we’re so fond of using that term?
MIKE: Yes. You’ve got to mean it.