The Change in Acceptable Risk Needs to Stem from the Top Down

This is Asheville IHC Reaction #14 – part of the Asheville Hotshots written reactions to  “The Big Lie”


I agree and disagree with many things in Mark’s essay “The Big Lie.” The best thing it does is that it seems to have lots of people talking, from ground pounders to fire staff and national office types. The essay addresses a few obviously very sore subjects with risk and safety being the hot topics.

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In my reaction to the Big Lie, I think Mark brings up some very valid points, that most firefighters and fire managers believe that if you follow all the rules that you cannot get hurt—and that’s just not true. But as Dave stated in his response that you can never account for every detail, you cannot account for human behavior and Mother Nature, there’s too much out of our control. I believe that too often being “politically correct” is what gets us hurt or into trouble. The quote from the ranger saying that they can’t tell 18-year-olds or new firefighters they might die in this line of work or recommend they have a will because it’s not “politically correct.” That’s the real lie. That’s the real disservice.

We need to look new hires right in the eye and lay out the risks and potential dangers they WILL be exposed to. Stop tiptoeing around the reality of the job and telling folks: “Yeah, 19 of us die every year but that won’t happen to you.” That’s where the family surprise comes from. Nobody actually thinks it will happen to them. Fire managers sending a hotshot crew a mile interior to take care of a political smoke, that in reality has no chance of impacting fire growth or causing any harm but an eye sore, and one of them getting killed is by no means acceptable! So why does that still happen? Then the same people that wanted the smoke taken care of ask why the crew was even in there in the first place!

Fire managers are setting these new hires up for failure by having them believe in this fallacy, that they have a “right” to a safe work environment. Fire managers are not only to blame, common sense and thinking for yourself goes a long ways. I have never once accepted an assignment thinking it was completely safe and free of risks even if someone told me it would be. Common sense tells me that working for the Forest Service in any capacity will have risks. Just taking a nature walk has the risk of injury from slips, trips and falls.

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Safety seems to be something that’s taken for granted more and more these days. During our “life first” engagement this spring, fire managers said that only zero line of duty deaths will be acceptable. Everyone in the room immediately knew that wasn’t possible. The only way that could happen is to never engage a fire again. The zero death tolerance is directly in the way of fire accomplishment objectives. I think the change in acceptable risk needs to stem from the top down.

People are forgetting that this job demands the utmost respect for fire, for wildlands, and all aspects of nature. I like the military aspects Mark addressed throughout the essay. Everyone knows the potential of risks and accepts that. They know men and women will die and do their best to avoid that—but they know it’s going to happen. I think this essay will get the topic of acceptable risk out in the open and hopefully talked about more. I am very interested in hearing what other crew members’ opinions are, and speaking to mine, which I am sure will be much more than I have written here.

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