Smokeless Danger

At the beginning of each year we summarize and analyze incident reports from the previous year.  Check out these previous summaries.  This year we will post individual topics here as we complete portions of the analysis.  Take a look, engage with the exercises, and give us some feedback.  The complete 2017 Annual Incident Review Summary will be out soon. 

By Travis Dotson

This is a graph of incidents reported to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. This particular graph separates the incidents by Activity (what were they doing when the incident occurred).

There are lots of interesting things to talk about in this graph, please show it to someone who cares and have a nice little talk about what it means to you both. Maybe even circle up with a few others and do the exercise at the end.


2017 Incidents by Activity Graph

I’m sure we all have plenty to say about the “top 3.” They consist of:

  • Chainsaw Ops
  • Driving
  • Physical Training

These are all things we do on a regular basis. Just these three activity types account for 58% of the total. That means in 2017, whenever a report was created and sent to us, more than half the time it was related to someone running a saw, driving, or doing PT.

Take note that none of these activities require a fire. For many of us these are activities we do every day. That’s telling. It means things we do a lot are things that bite us in the ass.

What am I getting at? It’s pretty simple. The “danger” isn’t necessarily hiding on the fireline, it’s stitched right into your daily activities.

Are the briefings before PT different than the ones before the big burn show on Division Delta? Of course they are. They are different activities. Plus, none of us could tolerate a big deal briefing every day before PT.

Maybe I should reframe it: which operation is more likely to go bad? That, of course, is a loaded question. You can slice and dice the exposure, frequency, risk, danger, possibility, hazard pie all kinds of crazy. You could make this a spicy dish with whatever flavor your over analysis happens to be. You could also use math, but I think you might need other numbers to do that. I don’t have the numbers or the math mojo to tackle it.

But I do know that I don’t think of PT as dangerous. Turns out I’m wrong. Imagine that.

Get together with the people you PT with and do this simple exercise:


Exercise (15 minutes) In small groups discuss the following questions:

Is PT really more dangerous than Firing Ops?

What is the danger of NOT doing PT?

Is your medical plan equally good for both operations (PT and Firing Ops)? – Should it be?

That’s all.

Now go PT.


8 thoughts on “Smokeless Danger

  1. I’m curious what the true causes of these incidents are. If I had a heart attach while driving would it be cars or driving that is the danger? In this light, I have made enough observations to lead me to believe that most PT incidents are related to those that only seasonally train with their coworkers and have quite sedentary lives otherwise. That would be the most likely health risk: pushing too hard to make up for the lack of training in the off season.


  2. A couple things come to mind:
    Firefighters receive formal, extensive training in pretty much every other risky activity on that list. The people in supervisory positions are required to have a certain level of experience/qualification. The same is not true of physical training. A poorly designed training program, especially when it isn’t individualized, can of course be dangerous. Why not have an NWCG course on physical training?

    High level athletes are exposed to exponentially more training. At the highest level, endurance athletes might be training 20-30 hours a week. I don’t have any hard research to back this up, but anecdotally it sure seems that the rate of incidents for those people during training is very very low. Why might that be? Why would 5 hours a week of exposure be enough to produce an incident? If a pro sports team had a similar rate of injury, let alone fatality, from training alone, that coaching staff would be long gone.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Also, regarding “What is the danger of NOT doing PT?”
    This is an important question and I appreciate that discussion. Certainly, the benefits of physical training can be many, but it’s a little misleading to assume that any PT is better than none. If our goal is to be the best we can be, just getting out the door and getting tired every day is not enough and we need to be honest about that. If your training program is for pure powerlifting or bodybuilding, it could actually be more dangerous for a firefighter to take part in that training than to do nothing at all. Even if the training has an appropriate level of specificity (a crew hike), it could still be dangerous to take part if proper recovery becomes impossible (you go to a hard fire, or go home to too much life stress).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Sorting the Lumps | Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

  5. This is goo information for annual refreshers, but I must admit that when I saw the sugject line I thought it was going to discuss the health hazards of chewing tobacco and dip which too many wildland firefighters use!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Frequency needs to be focused on more than statistical numbers, we PT far more that we conduct burn operations. If you were to look at these with a number of times performed vs. injuries sustained you would find that PT has far less incidents than your bar graph shows.

    Liked by 1 person

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