Aptitude — Why Don’t We Test for It?

By Travis Verdegan
Black River Falls Area Staff Specialist
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

A few months ago, I found myself wondering a few things related to aptitude assessment and decided to check with the LLC to see if they’d done anything with the topic that I might have missed. They got back to me that they hadn’t, but they wanted to take the bones of my email and turn it into a blog. I immediately set to work on it. But, like many things, I got sidetracked along the way, like by a few months. The upside of this sidetrack was that it allowed me time to consider things I hadn’t formed into complete thoughts.

There has been a lot of good discussion lately on risk management. The thing that continuously strikes me is that much of this talk circles around new processes or taking a fresh look at how decisions are made. I kept getting this feeling that we in many instances were overlooking the individual(s) making decisions in real time. Example: The “green” firefighter(s) seeing a rapidly evolving situation during initial attack without the benefit of an IAP or supervisor to bail them out in the moment.

I’m a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers. Recent events for that team have sparked a new rendition of the old debate: players vs. plays. In other words, what is more important: good coaching or talented players?

Ultimately, I believe in football and in wildland fire, both are important. I would classify a lot of the recent discussion related to risk as being focused on the plays. My following blog post is what I came up with to focus the conversation onto the players.

Aptitude — Why Don’t We Test for It?

Why don’t we assess aptitude for fire positions both in day-to-day hiring and in the qualifications management process?

My Post

I’ve often thought we could borrow a few more things from the military. Namely, the way we recruit/hire and compensate the workforce (a little tuition assistance commensurate to the risks we were exposed to as seasonals could have changed a lot for many of us), as well as setting an initial benchmark for an individual’s propensity toward certain aptitudes (specifically risk recognition and assessment).

To Build on the Latter

The military uses the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) to gauge the potential for future success in various aspects of service. If there was a component of aptitude assessment that helped predict ability to assess risk, then there may be a better way to place those people with the highest ability in vital positions and better promote them through the qualifications management process.

I know we have the Position Task Book (PTB) process sponsored by NWCG to provide a subjective analysis of an individual’s behaviors and competencies related to a qualification. As a person who plays a significant role in the qualifications management process in my home state, I have a love/hate relationship with PTBs. I love the intent, but I don’t know that we collectively work within it.

Case in point, survey a western hotshot crew to see if they have any bias, unconscious or otherwise, related to having a DIVS from east of the Mississippi. As with many biases, while there may be merit to this line of thinking, it should not be universally applied. What I’m saying here is: I’ve seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other for what it means to be a qualified DIVS—or any other position for that matter.

. . . we struggle when agencies start to feel the effect of retirement bubbles bursting. Almost overnight, innumerable years of knowledge, skills, and abilities walk happily out the door and those who remain are left to quickly fill the void.

Collectively, I’d say we do a decent job subjectively analyzing behaviors and competencies, you might think of the results like a bell curve. Within any bell curve there is going to be variability, and some of that variability is going to be statistically significant. On one end of the curve lives the effect of “elitism” and on the other, “fast tracking”.

In some instances, we struggle when we start to try to incorporate objectively quantifiable measurements into the process (i.e., fire size class, operational periods, number of babies, puppies, or kittens saved). In other instances, we struggle when agencies start to feel the effect of retirement bubbles bursting. Almost overnight, innumerable years of knowledge, skills, and abilities walk happily out the door and those who remain are left to quickly fill the void.

Use of some sort of aptitude-based testing would by no means paint the entire picture when it comes to individual performance assessment, but it might help curb some of the variability on either end of the curve.

On Hiring and Recruitment within Government Agencies

My own experiences with hiring include being ruled out for that elusive permanent position with the U.S. Forest Service at the last minute by HR because I was short by a week or two on time in grade. Hardly an assessment of anything other than the time I was able to work during the summer as a seasonal before having to go back to school each year. I’ve heard of plenty of other situations similar to this across a number of governmental agencies and know of a lot of good people who have moved on from the fire scene for various reasons.

My own experiences with hiring include being ruled out for that elusive permanent position with the U.S. Forest Service at the last minute by HR because I was short by a week or two on time in grade.

Like myself, I’m sure any one of you could list off professions of folks who used to be part of the fire scene. Doctors, lawyers, mechanics, and electricians to name a few. For many of these folks, if the traits they exhibited as a seasonal firefighter were any kind of indication, then they are now masters of their craft. We lose a lot of good firefighters and thankfully most of them are not lost in tragedy.

No doubt the realm of HR law within government is fraught with well-intentioned policies and procedures aimed at fair hiring processes. Using a component of aptitude assessment in hiring might bring a valuable element into hiring within the fire community. Beyond that, an innovative approach to recruitment/retention could go a long way toward keeping some of the ones lost to other professions.

Tying in Risk

I would be willing to bet that innate early risk recognition ability—the kind that could be applied intuitively without the use of complex computer models, ICS forms, or policy—could be found in those people with a strong aptitude for pattern recognition, regardless of their geographic location or what agency they work for. I’m guessing the military and others already have proven this. We have taken the approach of putting together our best and brightest minds to come up with the rules and policies to make the risk assessment easy for folks (i.e., the 10 and 18). Follow these and everything will be OK, the Big Lie.

What if there is a better way to put the right people in the right places to make the right decisions? What if some of those folks use that ability to assess their way right out of the “risks” associated with a career in government? What could a newly adapted recruitment process do for the wildland fire community?

I’m all in with the concept that we can never eliminate risk, but I do believe we can tip the needle closer to zero, even if just by one half of one percent.




High Vis?

By Charlie Palmer     chicken_hi_vis_jacket_yellow_chicken.jpg

I pored over hunting catalogs and websites. I watched video after video, and read hundreds of product reviews. I had made a vow with myself that this year was going to be different. Having drawn a coveted special permit in a hunting district known for its big bull elk, changes in my usual approach were going to be made.

Instead of hunting all over the state, my efforts were going to be focused in this one geographic area. Instead of my propensity for road hunting or not getting very far from the truck when I did decide to hike, this year the ventures would be farther afield and deeper into the backcountry.

And lastly, adjustments in my apparel needed to be made. For years, I have gotten by with a hodgepodge collection of camouflage clothing, none of it expensive or technical in its construction. My frugality on this front often left me wet, cold, and looking like some kind of militia reject.

So I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about high-end camouflage hunting clothes. Thus my previously described research efforts.

Having decided on a specific company and some of the products from them that I needed, I plunked down several Benjamins and checked this item off of my pre-season action plan.

Although significantly lighter in the wallet, my excitement about staying warm, dry, and better hidden this season began to build. Having spent so much time immersed in the finer points of concealment clothing, I could not help but think about another type of effective camouflage with which I was also quite familiar: the Nomex clothing that wildland firefighters wear. Let’s be honest. When it comes to blending into our surrounding environments, green or khaki fire pants and a dirty yellow shirt do a fantastic job of helping us stay less visible out in the woods. But is this what we want?

As someone who is intrigued by risk management, and the actions that humans can take to minimize or mitigate some of our exposures, I have watched closely as multiple other professions have embraced the usage of high visibility clothing.

Whether it be the construction trades, highway workers, railroads, airline ramp personnel, waste collectors, or various other public safety officials, hi vis clothing (often times coupled with reflective striping) is everywhere, it seems. They must be wearing it for some reason, right?

Interestingly, despite the surge in its usage popularity, there has been very little research done on its effectiveness. Furthermore, in the few studies that have been completed the results have not necessarily been conclusive. While a Danish study found that a sample of nearly 7,000 cyclists who wore a high visibility yellow jacket had a 47% lower chance of personal injury accidents when compared to those cyclists who did not wear one (Lahrmann et al, 2018), research from Nottingham University Hospital’s NHS Trust and Nottingham University concluded that cyclists wearing hi vis jackets actually had an increased chance of collisions (NHS, 2016). Investigators theorized that cyclists wearing high visibility apparel may be encouraged to take more exposed positions on the road. However, the study only reviewed 76 total accidents.

Wildland firefighting is risky work. Unfortunately, accidents and fatalities happen each and every year.  In how many of these mishaps was visibility (or lack thereof) a factor? Could hi vis flame resistant (FR) apparel help reduce these figures?  These are questions to which we currently do not have answers.

A little over four years ago, I submitted a proposal to the the US Forest Service Technology and Development Program recommending that an analysis/investigation of high visibility FR clothing for wildland firefighters be undertaken. Unfortunately, the proposal was rejected.

My idea vanquished, I put my interest in the topic onto the back burner, and I moved onto other projects. And there it stayed until I read the Horse Park Fire Entrapment FLA. A lookout running for her life. A lead plane frantically trying to find her for 40 minutes. Thankfully, all involved that day made it out safely, but it was a very close call. Would high visibility clothing have helped?

One of the lessons at the end of the FLA brought up this very question: Are there advantages to high vis flame resistant clothing in the wildland fire environment? I say it’s time to find out.

What then, if anything, can be done in terms of next steps? To me, it makes sense that further investigation is needed. This would require the assistance of the Technology and Development Program. Maybe I need to resubmit my original proposal?

Perhaps the analysis could start with a limited production of different versions of high visibility Nomex fire shirts with reflective striping (green, orange, green/orange combination). With hi vis FR fires shirts available, a small number of crews could voluntarily choose to wear them. They could then evaluate them on such things as effectiveness, user satisfaction, and ability to retain visibility after becoming dirty.

Or, perhaps I’m just barking up the wrong tree? Maybe those in the field have no interest or see no utility in high visibility clothing. And I’m okay with that if that’s their feedback. It just seems odd to me that so many other professions have adopted high visibility attire for their workers as a means of risk management and wildland fire has not yet followed their lead.

What thoughts do you have on this matter?


Lahrmann, H., Madsen, T., Olesen, A. V., Madsen, J. C., & Hels, T. (2018). The effect of a yellow bicycle jacket on cyclist accidents. Safety Science, (108), 209-217.

Nottingham University Hospitals annual report. (2016). Retrieved (October 26, 2018) from https://www.nuh.nhs.uk/download.cfm?doc=docm93jijm4n2243.pdf&ver=3305.

Ground Ignition Equipment Standards?

By Paul Keller


You now have an excellent, super-comprehensive “one-stop shopping” resource for insights and information on all ground ignition equipment standards and procedures.

Released this February, the 134-page “NWCG Standards for Ground Ignition Equipment” publication (https://www.nwcg.gov/publications/443) discusses everything from the advantages and disadvantages of using ATV/UTV torches to how to best transport flares and flare launchers.

Got a question about gelled fuel blivets, power torches, or terra torches? You’ll no doubt find your answer here. This 2019 document is an updated revision of the last 2011 version that now includes additional details for new equipment and manufacturer points of contact.NWCG Ground Ignition Cover

As stated in the publication’s introduction, its ground ignition standards include:

  • Ensure that all ground ignition operations are performed in a safe and efficient manner.
  • Provide a framework within which areas, regions, states, and local units can provide their own supplemental, site-specific guidance.
  • Provide the minimum standards and specifications for ground ignition equipment.
  • Provide basic information for each type of commonly used ground ignition equipment to aid with safe operation and to help with selecting proper equipment for the desired ignition results.

Publication’s Organization

“NWCG Standards for Ground Ignition Equipment” is divided into nine chapters: “ATV/UTV,” “Drip Torches,” “Flares and Flare Launchers,” “Fusees,” “Gelled Fuel Blivets,” “Plastic Spheres and Launchers,” “Power Torches,” “Propane Torches,” and “Terra Torches.”

Each of these chapters includes: an equipment description, operational advantages and disadvantages, sources of equipment, situations favorable for use, safety requirements, qualifications, equipment inspections and fuel mixing methods, operating (normal and emergency) procedures, maintenance and storage, and resources.

If you’re going to be implementing firing operations, this publication provides a great reference resource!

Here is some context related to this topic:

Ice Canyon RX Burn Injury

“The Terra Torch wand was leaking burn mix near the trigger. The operator got some burn mix on his right pant leg around the calf area, which ignited.”

Drip Torch Leg Burns

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 12.26.08 PM

“It happens often.  Second and third degree burns on the calf associated with using a drip torch.”



Fuel Geyser Awareness Project Updates

By Paul Keller

There’s updated news on the “Fuel Geyser Project” front.

The U.S. Forest Service National Technology and Development Program’s National Fuel Geyser Project’s ongoing efforts to minimize injury to employees from fuel geysering recently posted a range of insightful information on their activities. The “National Fuel Geyser Awareness” program is a function of the NWCG Equipment Technology Committee.

These updates include fuel geyser incidents in 2018, fuel geyser incidents by manufacturer, and by incident type. In addition, this map (below) has been provided that indicates where fuel geyser incidents occurred from 2015 to 2018.

Updated Fuel Geyser Map

The Technology and Development Program’s National Fuel Geyser Project awareness updates now include: Recent Accomplishments and Next Steps/Actions Planned. Other subjects include: Alternative Solutions and Risk Analysis; Implementation Risk Factors; and Fuel Solutions.

Fuel Geyser Incidents in 2018

There were a total of 28 fuel geyser incidents reported in 2018. Twenty-three of these were chainsaw incidents (21 with Stihl chainsaws and 2 with Husqvarna chainsaws). Four incidents occurred with fuel containers, and one incident occurred with a leaf blower.

Fuel Geyser Incidents the Past Two Years

From 2017 through 2018, fuel geyser incidents were reported during these activities: Chainsaw (43 incidents); Fuel Transport Container (6 incidents); Leaf Blower (3 incidents); Brush Saw (1 incident); ATV (1 incident).

Alternative Solutions and Risk AnalysisFHP

The National Technology and Development Program’s National Fuel Geyser Project members have also been studying potential solutions to prevent fuel geysering.

These alternative solutions that have been identified include: 1) Vaporless Refueling Systems; 2) Formalized Fuel Geyser Training; 3) Standard Saw/Requirements; 4) No Gas Chainsaws; 5) Specialized Fuel; and 6) Fuel Conditioning.

Fuel Solutions

The specialized fuel alternative would involve low volatility fuel. This solution would be three years out for potential implementation.

Fuel conditioning would reduce fuel volatility. The technology for this is not currently available. This may also violate emissions regulations.


A key recommendation of the National Fuel Geyser Project is to continue its field evaluation of vaporless refueling systems. This effort would include 50 test crews and 30,000 refueling cycles. It would occur from May through November of this year.

This field evaluation would be implemented on all handheld-engine powered engines (including chainsaws, string trimmers and blowers).

Next Steps

The following ongoing development efforts will continue in the near term:

  • Vaporless Refueling System – by Industry and the National Technology and Development Program
  • Saw Specification/Requirements – by the National Technology and Development Program
  • Training – by Saw Program/Office of Safety and Occupational Health (OSOH)

The National Fuel Geyser Project’s communication plan now includes a “National Awareness Campaign” and disseminating information on the “Implementation of Fuel Geyser Solutions”.

In addition, these action priorities will continue to be pursued:

  • Continue Fuel Geyser Reporting
  • Assess effectiveness of solution
  • Re-evaluate implementation strategy annually

National Fuel Geyser Awareness Website

For more information—or if you experience a fuel geyser that you would like to report—go to the National Fuel Geyser Awareness website: https://www.nwcg.gov/committees/equipment-technology-committee/national-fuel-geyser-awareness.