Chasing Spots

By Travis Dotson

Spot! 

We’ve all heard it. We’ve all yelled it. We can all feel the little push on our pulse and the tingle in our toes just hearing it in our head.

It can be calm or it can be chaotic, but no matter how it’s called out—it’s time to get serious.

Let’s look at the most common ways we holler this one word and all that gets communicated by the way we voice this attention getter.

Spots

The Heads-Up

This is the notification version—loud enough for people to hear but with no urgency conveyed. This is saying “heads up, we have spotting, but don’t worry about this particular spot because I just put it out.” This is purely a notification, information for our communal SA, just feeding the common operating picture for the greater good. That is a lot of information to convey with the volume and tone of one word.

A Little Help!

Then there is the come help me out version. It’s definitely loud enough for folks on either side of you to hear and has just enough urgency conveyed to inform others to come help. It’s usually clear that if everyone gets on it, it won’t be a problem—but, start steppin! You can hear it in your mind. Actually, try saying it out loud just to practice: SPAAAAHT! (Hopefully you are reading this in the break room at the station. Then you can see if you did it right based on people’s reactions.)

ALL HANDS! (Fixin’ to Go Over the Hill)

Last but not least, there’s the full-on scramble. This is a bellow from the bottom. It’s loud, urgent, tense. Just shy of panic. Panic is never cool, but getting everybody moving sometimes requires a little pepper in your pipes.

What we’re saying in this instance is “we’re probably not going to catch this one, but we need to haul ass, bust ass, and pray for the luck that so often smiles on us, cause this one has legs!” This is a serious shout. Don’t be messing around with this one. In fact, if you put this call out there and the situation doesn’t warrant it, be ready to catch hell. It’s a good way to get a nickname—“ole Freddy Freak Out over here.” But nobody is joking around when it fills the air. We come running. We don’t EVER hesitate to get there and jump in, get dirty, and do our duty—to help.

We all know this in our bones and we learned it quick, because if you don’t come running when it’s time to chase spots—you don’t belong here. AND, if you don’t call for help when it’s time to chase spots—you don’t belong here.

Did you catch that part? The part where you learned how to call for help?

You know exactly where I’m going.

You are Not the Exception

Why is it we are so capable of calling for help on the fireline but will literally kill ourselves before asking for help off the line?

Emotions regularly kick our ass. I know you think you are the exception—some sort of lone wolf emotion-master killer-ninja bad-ass, but you’re not.

Not if, but WHEN you are struggling with whatever hard sh*t comes your way—call it out. Just let one person know you got a few spots. Even if you are gonna stomp them out with your boot, it’s just a heads up. You never know how many more are out there and you never know when it’s gonna go from nothing to scramble mode.

When you are holding line for the crucial burn show, would you ever see spots and just ignore them? Just hope they don’t grow together? The answer is no, you wouldn’t, because you’re not dumb (although you have eaten some ridiculously rancid rubbish for absurdly low sums of money).

HandsAsk for Help

We are all capable of doing not-so-intelligent things. In the case of hotshot Olympics, the consequences are rather benign (aside from the emotional scarring of any happenstance spectators).

But the not-so-intelligent move of not getting help with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and post-traumatic stress gets real in a hurry.

That stuff will push your ass into a hole.

But that’s OK, because you know how to ask for help. Little spot, big spot, lots of spots—don’t matter. Call it out.

Ask for help, Toolswingers.


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This article is the Ground Truths column from the Fall 2018 issue of Two More Chains titled “Traumatic Transitions.” Please read the the rest of the issue available here:

https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/two-more-chains-fall-2018

What does a well-founded risk decision look like?

By Mark Smith, Mission-Centered Solutions

©Mission-Centered Solutions

This paper is the result of an ongoing dialog around risk I’ve had within the post-Yarnell Honor the Fallen group. One member posed the rhetorical but critical question: “Should we be risking lives for suppression efforts or not? “That prompted my response in The Big Lie essay on the levels of risk I think wildland firefighters operate in routinely, and how we could be more intelligently accepting that risk.

I have been doing a presentation the last few years called “Luck Runs Out.”  Where “The Big Lie” was more a problem statement, “Luck Runs Out” is meant to focus on actionable, practical steps forward for IMTs and Agency Administrators.  What follows started not as an essay but just a handout to go with that presentation, so it was meant to have the context of that larger presentation, although people have told me it reads okay on its own as a stand-alone piece. See what you think!


 

The difficult truth is that wildland firefighting is a high risk-endeavor. Consider the policy that all firefighters on the line carry fire shelters. It is an overt acknowledgment that each time firefighters directly participate in a wildland fire suppression or management activity, their lives are at risk. Moreover, the wildland fire environment is exponentially increasing in complexity, magnifying the risks. What is not keeping pace, however, is our sophistication to plan, operate and support within that complex risk-filled environment. Our tools fall farther behind each fire season.

In an attempt to address this challenge, leaders often make declarations like “No structure is worth a life!” While true, the statement lacks any meaningful guidance. In contrast, it is the job of any risk professional to determine exactly what risk level the structure is worth. And while that assertion may appear straightforward, applying the concept continues to confound senior wildland fire managers.

Where does a well-founded risk decision start? First, it must always start with clearly identified and prioritized values at risk (VaR). It is the “outcome” in “does the outcome justify the risk?” It is the “gain” in “risk vs gain.” It is the “purpose” in the “task, purpose, end state” of leader’s intent.

If the prioritized values at risk are not clearly considered, articulated and displayed for all to see, all subsequent risk decisions will be deeply flawed. They must be specifically discussed in the agency administrator (AA) briefing, and reconsidered during every subsequent objectives, strategy, and tactics meetings.

Second, we must conduct a meaningful assessment of the risks firefighters might encounter. The current risk analysis (ICS Form 215a) on the NWCG website reflects a 1970’s approach to risk. One lists the risks and then mitigations for those risks. It does not quantify the risk in any way, nor is there any discussion of the risk level after mitigation and whether that residual risk is acceptable.

Given what we know about the flaws of that form, its continued use will come to be seen as negligence and opens the agencies and their practitioners to increased liability as time goes on.

In order to see the truth of the risk levels wildland firefighters operate within and evolution required to make the best risk decisions, first consider the two axis, probability/severity model. Most incident management teams (IMTs) now use a modified risk analysis (215a) incorporating this model.

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Typical Probability/Severity Model

The attraction to this model is the simplicity of its Green/Amber/Red “traffic light” appeal. Unfortunately, it is not nuanced enough for the wildland fire environment. When you really do a solid risk assessment, so much falls in places like the “low end of high” or “medium-high”. It also lacks the sophistication of accounting for exposure, such as the number of operational periods, number of fuel cycles, number of people, and so forth.

It also fails to factor in the compounding cumulative effects such as multiple hazards added upon each other. For example, Division A is in high risk because of snags and falling objects, but also because of road conditions and aviation operations. That’s not just high risk, it’s now HighRisk3.

In the exposure curve below, the mathematical reality of just how harshly the odds change as you move up that probability axis is alarming. When you compound risks or factor in exposure, such as being fatigued AND being in steep rocky terrain AND being on Day 12 of an assignment, the percentages increase exponentially.

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Compounding Exposure Curve

 

A key step forward would be adopting a more sophisticated probability/severity matrix that takes these additional factors into account and more accurately depicts the risk spectrum in the wildland fire environment.

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More Sophisticated Probability/Severity Matrix

On the severity axis — You can do a few things on the mitigation side that might influence severity. A jumper’s Kevlar suit, for example, will help when smacking into a tree, but there is good chance the jumper will still break some bones. Similarly, a fire shelter might move the consequences from being a fatality to just being a burn victim, but nonetheless, a significant risk remains.

Given the inherent dangers in the wildland fire environment, severity is always going to be high if things go bad. Given the likely consequences, most of the operations on the fireline are going to be Medium or High risk. It is extremely rare to find a fire where all operations are in the Low risk category.

So most of the decisions concerning risk have to focus on the probability axis. For good risk decisions, a model like this should be part of the AA Briefing and on the wall next to the 215A for discussion. “Should we knowingly risk lives?” –- would more appropriately be re-phrased to “Should we put people where the likelihood of something bad happening is elevated?” You can see on the matrix how quickly risk escalates when you move from Remote to Unlikely to Possible.

One of the inherent challenges in risk management is, as humans, we can’t feel when the odds go from 1 in 1,000,000 to 1 in 1,000. But the universe tracks all that perfectly in real time. This is the discussion that should be happening in front of the 215A. Not just listing the threats and mitigations of rocks, snakes and lightning, but having the dialog and knowing that the real risk is somewhere halfway between the most probable fire and the worst-case fire. Judging how likely it is for an operation to encounter that next elevated risk level and considering the conditions that might precipitate it become essential.

When things move from Unlikely to Possible that’s a big jump, and leaders must reconsider that risk/gain calculus. Unless there’s a cabin in the woods full of babies, puppies and kittens, then the answer is clearly: No, we should not be putting firefighters in a place where the likelihood is moving into the upper end of Possible and the resulting risk Extreme.

Within the wildland fire environment, risk levels are routinely going to be medium or high risk. There probably isn’t anything humans can do to avoid that. We should have very high expectations of our AA and IMT decision makers in terms of critical thinking and their sophistication in making acceptable risk decisions, which means we need tools worthy of the actual risks that firefighters are taking in the current suppression paradigm. Under that current model, we are risking lives and consequently, we have a duty to make sure it’s being done intelligently.

In military special operations, a risk must be determined as necessary during the planning process in order to accomplish an objective. “If we do this, here’s the necessary risk we’re going to have to take.” At that point, the question gets asked “Does the outcome justify that risk?” if so, that becomes the acceptable risk. If not, then you try and mitigate risk down to the acceptable level. If you can’t get it there, it’s not acceptable and military operators look for another way to accomplish that objective with lower risk. In some cases, the objective must be abandoned all together because the risk is too high relative to the outcome.

The difference in special operations is that the small unit (i.e. crew) is heavily involved in the mission planning and the risk decisions. That’s not true in wildland fire –- an echo of why we still have Great Depression/chain-gang era terms like Crew Bosses in wildland fire job descriptions. In wildland fire, risk planning, mitigation and decision-making often occur absent those who will directly encounter the risk. This places a significant responsibility on the AA and IMT staff to discuss strategic and operational risks at the Common Operating Picture (COP) meeting each day, in reviewing the planned end state, and creating (or validating) objectives based on VaR. These strategic and operational risks must be further validated and refined at the strategy and tactics meetings, where the staff flesh out the necessary risks.

Once articulated on the 215A, it is incumbent among every member of the staff to ask the question “Are the residual risks we’re left with — post-mitigation — justifiable?

No tree is worth a life” only tells you what a tree is not worth. But what is it worth? What is the acceptable risk around protecting a tree? A structure? A subdivision? Clearly, the leadership’s responsibility is to make and communicate that decision, but absent a meaningful way to make the acceptable decision, operators are often left to interpret this ambiguous intent on their own.

The shortcoming isn’t a result of the absence of concern, desire or intent, but rather the lack of the necessary tools for wildland firefighters to make any kind of objective decisions about acceptable risk. And that’s because there is nothing that maps the priority of values at risk to the acceptable risks to protect them. We want that to be very clear. Very simple.

Below is an example of what that mapping might look like. As with many examples, things are missing and you may not agree with how the VaR have been prioritized, but that’s intentional. A finished, interagency version should be clear enough so that there is no misunderstanding or disagreement. It is part of the pre-determined playbook. Pending a “Red Book” version, this is an AA and an IMT responsibility to develop and communicate to all:

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EXAMPLE of possible Acceptable Risk Guidelines

This matrix provides clear acceptable risk guidelines for a category of VaR. Incident commanders would be able to make exceptions using the same authority they have now to adjust work/rest and other guidelines, but this removes the “What is a tree worth?” ambiguity.

The challenge remains, however, that without some metrics to assign to an identified risk, the assessment is still subjective. “Hmmm… It will take 2.5 hours to get someone from Division C to the hospital if they get hurt. How do you think that effects the risk level?

Some IMTs are starting to assign some numerical values to each of the hazards and risks identified. Example: “Under 1 hour medevac to a hospital is low risk, 1-1.5 hours + is medium, 1.5 + is high.

As a decision maker during my previous career in the military, I was introduced to a standard risk analysis/risk decision process in the mid 80’s. This example card below was used just for training events, which is why you do not see categories for Enemy Strength, Enemy Cohesion, etc. Imagine that being added to the card as projected incident behavior.

This card is a distillation of the probability/severity matrix, listing the routine variables encountered in training soldiers. This is a “Big Army” tool, so there’s no underwater/night diving type categories, just a plain vanilla tool to help quantify the discussion and get leaders a common operating picture around risk. In Special Forces, we had more sophisticated versions, taking into account such arcane factors as infrared crossover times, moon phase and illumination, solar flare activity, etc. Think 1000-hour fuel moistures and Haines Index.

Once you include the variables of fire weather and fire behavior, and adapt to other common wildland variables you could now have a probability/severity matrix in the AA briefings or tactics meetings and come up with some actual number values to plug into a modified 215A.

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Example Card of Risk Analysis/Risk Decision

This would provide a more quantifiable approach. Inevitably, there will always be situations that despite well-planned mitigations, we’ll still have a residual risk score of high risk. Let’s say a 25 using the above laminated card. This is when we must circle back to the beginning — the values at risk, the “purpose” in leader’s intent. By looking at the acceptable risk table example, you’d see that High risk is just not an acceptable risk to save three chicken coops and a hillside of PJ.

Now what? If we cannot lower the risk through alternate tactics, then we’ll need to back up to the previous C&GS meeting-Strategy. We’ll have to find an alternate strategy to lower that risk and still accomplish the objective. If we can’t create an alternate strategy to lower the residual risk to acceptable, then we need to back up even more and re-look the objective the strategy was meant to accomplish. This process would force decision makers to become way more strategic on suppression actions –- continue the evolution in engagement thinking that moves towards the best ridge versus the next ridge.

The problem with this kind of thoroughness is that it requires time. If an artificial deadline such as IAP production due to copier availability or other factor is driving the quality of our risk analysis, then the tail is wagging the dog.

The question remains, what if we have to accept high risk? Let’s use our earlier example OK, we’ve planned all these mitigations and we still have a residual risk score of 25, high riskbut this time, let’s use a different value at risk and the same acceptable risk guidelines. “The VaR is one of the primary transmission lines of electricity to Phoenix and it’s 114 degrees. High risk is acceptable because if that power shuts off some at-risk people are going to die.” That’s probably a very appropriate risk level.

Finally, in order to have a well-founded risk decision, it is essential to share the risk. Shared risk has been a recent buzzword in wildland fire, but it’s important to truly understand what it means. Shared risk means national leaders create the acceptable risk guidelines based on values at risk, such as the example table. This means they’ve shared the accountability and the risk of putting firefighters to protect the powerline in the example above. It means AA’s and IC’s make the prioritization of the values at risk part of the delegation and dialogue. This increases the quality of fire management interactions with line officers in pre-planning and once fires start.

The net result of this is that everyone involved—national leaders, agency administrators, incident commanders—share in the accountability. It means IMT’s conduct risk assessments with proper tools for the gravity of the job, use more objective criteria, and create leader’s intent with task, purpose and end state. By tying purpose back to a specific VaR, and making the decision on whether the risk is acceptable, now they share in the accountability.

But shared risk means it is also shared down to the operator level. This is way more than having a simple turndown protocol. In the current system, the turndown consideration is completely subjective. “I just don’t feel comfortable.” When operators receive a Division Assignment Sheet (ICS 204), they have no way of knowing what risk level they’ve been asked to accept, so they have no start point to go through the risk management process at their tactical level. A quality 204 would include this: Special Instructions: Risk Level – HIGH – due to increased density of snags in Division A.

If we routinely included the task, purpose, end state on a 204, then each DIVS and crew leader would also understand the VaR they’re being asked to protect. If we included Low, Medium, High, etc. on the 204 then they would know the risk level the IMT decided was acceptable for that VaR. If the acceptable risk guideline table was in the IAP, then they would have all the required ingredients for their own “Does the outcome justify the risk?” assessment at their level and — most importantly — to judge acceptable risks as conditions change throughout the shift. Even in a string of mop up shifts, low risk yesterday could be high risk today because of a wind event overnight. Now crew leaders and sub leaders too, are accountable for risk decisions. That’s what shared risk truly looks like.

Current tools and practices are lagging farther and farther behind the increasing complexity of the wildland fire environment. The growing gap means that more and more, we are relying on luck for success. The worldwide gaming industry’s $90 billion dollars of annual revenue is made possible by one universal truth: “Luck Runs Out.”

The evolution and use of a few simple tools could have a significant impact on the worthy goal of “significantly increasing the odds of everyone going home” at the end of the next fire season. Let’s move wildland fire’s risk management process from the 70’s and 90’s to the 21st Century.

Clean Yellow Shirt

By Madeline Scheintaub

There is a raggedy circle of people standing around a giant map. Look around. Green and JPEG image-240D8C2B7DF8-1yellow; stained green and dull yellow; green and yellow-grey; green and yellow mottled with black; and vibrant green and brilliant yellow. That last person, what are you thinking about them?

I am that last person and I often hear: You’re blinding me. Go hug a tree in the black. I also hear the subtext: You’re new. You don’t belong. You haven’t proven yourself. You’re not entirely welcome.

My brilliant yellow is an honest signal. I am proud to wear it. It says: I am newer to firefighting. It is not my full-time job. I’m new on this fire. The subtext is: There are probably some skills I’m still working on. I might not have the search images to reliably pick out the hazards. I might need or want some extra explanation. I don’t have lots of experience in fire to draw from.

In a first impression, bright yellow Nomex and unworn gear can be taken as an indicator of relative skill, experience and belonging. This is the challenge I put out there. Take that first impression and make it conscious. Now what are you going to do?

Dig a little deeper.

Is that person in the blinding yellow really new to fire, or just lucky enough to have some new gear to break in? Are they new to this fire? What is their role here? What are they bringing to the work we are doing together? Is there anything they need? How is knowing more about this person’s experience level going to make everyone safer and the work more productive?

Are you going to create distance? Are you going to push that person away as an outsider or a burden? Can you have togetherness in the fire community without making those at the edges unwelcome? If that person with bright colored gear intentionally dulls those bright colors, are you losing anything?

I am going to continue to wear my brilliant colors until they fade with time and experience. I hope you ask me about them and why I am choosing to be out here with you.

Who is on Your Crew?

By Lyndsay Alarcon, Helitack Superintendent1541799144541

Crew Resource Management (CRM) is the application of team management concepts in the wildland fire environment.  CRM originated as Cockpit Resource Management and was developed by NASA in 1979.  At that time, the majority of aviation accidents were caused by human error related to failures in communication, leadership and decision making in the cockpit.  The term has since been expanded from cockpit to crew with the fundamental goal being better decision making through how we interact with each other.  Who does “each other” include?

Although team management is not a new concept, CRM places a different perspective on the meaning of team.  It redefines team work to include all personnel needed to achieve the success of a mission.  Let’s use an example of a medivac to extract an injured firefighter.  The team would be comprised of the dispatcher flight following with the aircraft and making notifications, the medical unit leader organizing hospital care, the municipal firefighter serving as a line medic, the IHC crew constructing the helispot, the helitack crew and pilot, the mechanic who maintains the helicopter, etc.  Any failure in communication, leadership or decision making from any player directly impacts the success of the mission.

Our perception is embedded in the slogan, “Taking Care of Our Own”.  We tend to take this direction and think linear.  “My team” is my crew and as long as my crew is good, then I am good.  My actions only change when there is a threat to my crew.  If each person applied this thought, “taking care of their own”, how do we ensure overlap on an incident?

The reality is that sometime there isn’t any.  The Dutch Creek incident is an example of how the interaction of people can effect leadership, communication and decision making.  The cultural gaps still standing between CalFire and USFS even in the face of fatalities.  It is why so many individuals can see the rotating plume on the Indians fire and not say anything.  It is not that they don’t talk, it is that they communicate the message to who matters to them.  If we acted like the success of the mission depended on our partnerships, then we would value each other differently.

The 2018 season was costly.  We lost many, including hired contractors, agency partners and volunteers.  I can’t help but to wonder how they are supported beyond the mandatory briefings, the sack lunch and pay check.  Who brings them into the team?  How does that affect the moments when we need each other the most?  Starting day one, were they cared for as if they were truly one of our own?

Consider enlarging who you think of as “your crew”. It could make all the difference.

 

Most of Firefighting Sucks

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You should go read this piece by Amanda Monthei. She knows what’s up.
This is an excerpt:

“This night was pretty fun until it wasn’t, and then it straight up sucked. Not only did our line not hold—requiring three more days of work to contain it on the other side of the road—but many of us agreed that it was probably the worst smoke exposure of the summer. Smoke exposure is the worst part of our job, and its effects don’t go away once you reach fresh air. Your eyes will dry and the snot will stop, but you’ll still wake up feeling like you got black-out drunk and smoked a pack of Marlboros the night before. Your voice will be raspy. Your lungs won’t feel quite right. Your throat will be sore. You’ll have a headache.

That all said, this was probably one of the most memorable nights of the summer—probably because it sucked so bad. Most of firefighting sucks to some degree, but breathing smoke and nights that never seem to end rank right up there with the worst of it. The real question is why the hell we continue to do it.”


Go read the full article:

https://www.amandamonthei.com/blog/2018/10/27/in-defense-of-things-that-suck

What is YOUR Job?

By Megan MartinezScreen Shot 2018-10-29 at 9.26.32 AM

Can you work in fire and also take care of your non-work life and self?

I started fighting fire for the federal government in 1998, when I was 19.  I spent nine years as a temporary firefighter, and I’ve been permanent since 2010.  For a long time there was nothing I wanted to do more than go on fires.  I embraced the culture wholeheartedly.

I loved the sense of purpose and the camaraderie, and I was good at being a badass.  I tried to work at least as hard, if not harder, than anyone else.   I pretended to know things I didn’t, and I tried like hell to hide all weakness.  I talked sh*t about people who did any different.  I was all-in. Sound familiar?

For many years, my non-work life just wasn’t a priority.  I dated fire guys, and then married one.  It was okay for a while that sometimes our assignments kept my husband and me from seeing each other for most of the summer.  Then it started to seem ridiculous.  He got out of fire.  I stayed in, and got a job as a Fuels AFMO.

I took the job because I loved working on the proactive side of fire management. I was sure I could keep up the all-in game, at least for another five years. Instead, I found myself in a position where the job seemed never-ending. No one told me this specifically, but I knew I was supposed to run the burn program, manage contracts, write NEPA, and enter data, in addition to supervising, going on local and national fires, and acting as Duty Officer at the drop of a hat.  I knew it because I’d never seen anything different.

I also knew I was not allowed to question it, that no one would understand anything less.  I was still physically capable, and I don’t have kids, just a wonderful husband and friends, and a house and a garden, and a love for outdoor recreation and travel.  I did have a minor but important health issue that needed a predictable schedule to address. I also had been in denial about a staggering family tragedy for well over a decade, and it had resurfaced to weigh heavily on me.  Nevertheless, it was clear to me that I would lose everyone’s respect if I spoke up.

Then at my uncle’s funeral, I had a eureka moment:  I’m crazy to put work ahead of taking care of myself.  Still, I hemmed and hawed.  It was hard to give up my persona as a badass chick–I invested so much time and energy into that schtick that I didn’t know who else I was.  I finally did it though.  I asked for six months off from my PFT job as a Fuels AFMO. This took more courage than anything I’ve ever done on a fire.

Luckily, my supervisor supported me. But when I came back, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore.  My supervisor offered that I could focus on fuels duties, but it was perfectly clear to me that you’re either all in or you’re all out. I was no longer willing to be all in.

Spring before last I announced I was leaving and started looking into other careers.  My mind was made up, and I loved having a predictable schedule.  I enjoyed that outside of fire, there’s a lot less posturing.

What to do instead?  I have always described natural resource management as my ideal career.  Once I left my fuels job, I had been telling people I would like to work in vegetation management.  But there were no local vacancies, so I decided I would leave the Forest Service.

Signs

Then something funny happened.  I realized that I really care about my job.  Public land is amazing.  Making a difference is important to me, and what the Forest Service does matters.

What the Forest Service does in fire and fuels management matters because it sometimes protects human life and property.   But we’re a land management agency, not a municipal fire department, so that’s not our only job.  What we do also matters because it can promote healthy ecosystems, clean air and watersheds, and recreation and rural economies.

Maybe I could stay after all. This is what brought me to the question: “What is my job?”  Is it really true that I must be all in or all out?  I realized that I had a conundrum faced by many permanent fire personnel fortunate enough to have lives they care about outside of work:  If your job could entail endless commitment, how do you know you’re doing enough?

How many fires must you go on?  Does your sense of duty and fire retirement imply that you’ll be available for all local fires?  How about nationwide fires?

Is it your job to respond to mutual-aid fires in the winter?  Is it different if you work in California than if you’re in a quieter region, contentedly playing or working on your off-season life and collecting unemployment?

Is it your job to take care of the land on your home unit or to go wherever the action is hottest?

Is your job different if you have dependents than if you don’t?  I have heard more than one person say something like, “He can be Duty Officer—he doesn’t have kids.”

Is it your job to act like a cool guy?  What about to teach young firefighters how to act cool?

Is it your job to stand in the heavy smoke until someone tells you to stop, even if you standing there doesn’t buy anything?  Is it your job to tie-in the direct line even if a burning snag or widow-maker teeters as you work nearby?  Is it your job to tell others to do so? (I’ve done all of these!)

What if your body wears out before you hit your 20 years?  What is your job then?

Oh, and then here’s another can of worms:  What is the job of the U.S. Forest Service?  We have well-intentioned policies that rarely get translated to any ground-pounder.  (Is it your job to know policy?) We have the reality that nothing, absolutely nothing we do will prevent fires forever, juxtaposed with a culture still largely stuck in a time when preventing fires forever seemed both possible and desirable.

We tell our firefighters it isn’t their job to engage in high-risk structure protection, and then at times engage in areas with extremely slim margins for safety or retreat.  We sometimes fancy ourselves heroes for suppressing fires in areas that have only a minuscule chance of ever threatening infrastructure in forests or rangelands that might benefit from fire.  We sometimes expend huge sums—and risk life and health—to take on problems that are better solved by local government, by patience, or by nature.

There’s a lot of good to be said about Forest Service fire management.  We engage with something hard and dangerous, that is rapidly changing, politically volatile, and entails personal liability–all in a manner that is often organized and cohesive.  It’s well-meaning, too.  Although I think the conceptual leadership could be a lot better, I don’t doubt that many of the higher level decision-makers are good people. They have sacrificed a lot to get to where they are (and I know this is true of field-level personnel).

I don’t think any of this is easy, and I don’t have the answers.  But I do think it matters; the work matters and our lives outside of work matter.  With fire seasons growing longer, and more and more development in the WUI, the job won’t get any easier.

The choice to take care of our incredible natural resources, the public, private infrastructure, and our personnel will have to be deliberate.  We’ll have to choose to do things differently.  I used to think that change would come from up high, that I just didn’t understand enough to make sense of it, or make a difference.  Now I think any meaningful change will come from the field, from module leaders, AFMO’s, and local FMO’s.  First we’ll have to try and sort a few things out though.

What is your job?

 

Has Nothing Changed?

By Travis Dotson

SameOld

You should probably just go read this article:

What We Learned from the Yarnell Hill Fire Deaths

It’s written by Kyle Dickman.

The subject matter is of great interest to us here at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.

It has to do with wildland fire. It has to do with learning.

It has to do with a monumental trauma in danger of being rendered inconsequential.

Here are a few quotes from the article:


“Over time, the relationship between tragedy and rulemaking sewed into the culture the belief that firefighters die only when they break rules.”

“While these rules are well intentioned and do indeed save lives, he says they also impose a false sense of control in a wildly chaotic environment.”

“…there’s a relatively high probability that a tree eventually crushes you, you step on a bee nest, grab the business end of a chainsaw, or get burned. Yet somehow, most firefighters Smith polled believe they work in a low-risk environment—something more like a factory floor.” 

“..if the Forest Service admitted the incredibly high chance of death their people are exposed to, their firefighters—or maybe their families—might demand fair compensation.” 


You should probably go read it.

You need to think about this stuff.

We are spending lives every summer yet we are not clear on what we are buying.

Check it out:

What We Learned from the Yarnell Hill Fire Deaths

 

Honor The Fallen

By Travis Dotson

How exactly do we Honor the Fallen?

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It’s a tough question because it has a thousand right answers. One of the most important ways to honor is to learn. We are always in danger of squandering the bitter opportunity that tragedy affords us.

This video is a glimpse of what so many of us struggled with in the aftermath of the Yarnell Hill Fire. This is just a few fire folks walking the ground in January 2014 and grappling with how to advance our culture in the aftermath of devastation.

Take a look.

Making sense of bad outcomes is difficult, often impossible. But nobody wants the pain to be without benefit. Suffering without growth is tragic.

Let’s choose growth. One way to grow is to challenge long held beliefs. The window for genuine inquiry opens wide after disorienting circumstances – when we are shaken we struggle to re-balance. For many the re-balance means doubling down on long held beliefs, for others it requires a heart wrenching letting go of previous convictions.

What are some of your long held beliefs?

Are you willing to question them?

Are you willing to consider a new perspective?

And after all that, are you willing to actually alter your actions?

Growth is difficult.

Honor the Fallen

 

 

Old Boss Says…

The following letter is directly from the Redondo Escaped Prescribed Fire FLA

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TO: Current and Future Burn Bosses

FROM: An Old Type 1 Burn Boss

As an Old Type 1 Burn Boss, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a ton of great people and do what I believe is a lot of awesome work within our fire adapted ecosystems. This was my first time serving on Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) team. If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to participate on an FLA team. Please don’t wait as long as I did to get involved. Never stop learning, never stop communicating, and always strive to BE A STUDENT OF FIRE.

As a Prescribed Fire Burn Boss you operate in a very complex and ever changing environment. You spend months preparing for an event, and all along you need to be gathering situational awareness:

• Who will be on that hill at a specific time?

• Did I order enough blue houses?

• Will the food be on time?

• What piece of equipment will break down?

Oh, and don’t forget your day-to-day job requires a facility check next week and a hundred other things.

As a current burn boss, spend as much time as possible with future burn bosses. Teach new burn bosses to document everything, even if they think it is trivial. Why? Because to truly move forward with a learning culture, you have to be able to tell your story, and trust me, notes are golden.

As an Old Type 1, I want to share my experiences with you. Some learning was easy, some came the hard way. I’m sharing with you today with the hopes that you may learn from my scars.

• COMMUNICATION – COMMUNICATION – COMMUNICATION. Up, down, sideways. Never stop.

• Utilize the District as an ID Team to ensure your complexity analysis and burn plan is robust.

• Build an organization around yourself for support.

  •  This could be as simple as utilizing the type 3 militia.
  • Find the person that can locate anything, anywhere, and get them to assist with logistics.
  • Make sure you have plenty of drivers.

• Use an Incident Action Plan (IAP) and take the time to update all the blocks. The IAP will become your most critical piece of documentation.

• Invite overhead in at least two shifts prior to ignition. This will ensure everyone is familiar with the plan you’ve been working on for the past six months.

  •  Challenge these overhead resources to read the plan, to find what is missing, to poke holes in it – so that your plan becomes their plan, and is better for it.
  • Make time for a small command meeting before your first briefing. This will allow you to gauge the employees you have on hand and provide a chance to identify any resources/needs that are lacking.
  • CHECK RED CARDS.

• Partner with your dispatcher – they are extremely important to your success. Use ROSS to track assignment and qualifications of your people.

• Be in constant communication with your Agency Administrator (AA).

  • During the writing of the burn plan and complexity analysis, have meaningful dialogue with your AA. They are sharing the risk with you. If you can’t have a meaningful conversation or you don’t feel comfortable they are sharing the risk, STOP–THINK-TALK-THEN SIGN. Remember this is not about just checking a box.
  • If possible, have the AA on site for the entire event, or at a minimum during the critical shifts.
  • The AA is your partner during the burn; if you are not getting what you need, ASK – make some noise – get what you need.

• During the technical review process, ask for honest feedback and don’t take comments personally. Honest feedback helps you learn and makes for a better plan.

• Smoke is so very important, don’t just look at what the smoke is doing around the fire – look to where it will be that afternoon and where it will settle during the night.

  • Look at the area you could affect and double it.
  • Get the word out early and often.
  • Make sure you know who your smoke sensitive individuals are.

• Create a partnership with your district and/or forest PIO. Use the winter to provide information to the public and tell the good story about prescribed fire. Perhaps go with your AA and do some media interviews.

• Always look at ordering a FEMO for your prescribed fire events. This person is your weather and fire behavior documentation leader.

• Look at bolstering your fuels program. A strong fuels specialist will take your planning to a new level.

• REMEMBER:

  • BEING FLEXIBLE IS WAY TOO RIGID
  • YOU CAN ONLY BURN AS FAST AS YOU CAN HOLD
  • EVERYONE IS WILLING TO HELP, YOU JUST NEED TO ASK!

Thank you for all your hard work and never forget it is an honor to be a Burn Boss!

– Old Type 1 Burn Boss


Read the full report: Redondo Escaped Prescribed Fire FLA

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Chances Are…

Burning anytime soon?

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As you get the fuel mixed and the torches set…

Check this out:

 

Chances are…

You will get the job done.

You will be “successful”.

You will feel pressure to burn.

Unforeseen delays will put you behind the power curve.

You will not follow every aspect of your plan.

Problems will come from areas you least expect.

An emergency will highlight previously unknown communication issues.

Small problems will snowball.

The predicted weather will change and become unfavorable.

You will underestimate fire behavior.

You will not have to use your contingency plan…

If you do you will discover it’s inadequate.

If you read an escape RX review you’ll say “what were they thinking?”

As you burn this season, chances are you will be “successful.”

Are you good or lucky?


 

What do you think?