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?

Gloveless Idiots

By Travis Dotson

Some people don’t like the picture at the top of this page. Here is part of an email we received:

“The current Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website home screen pictures three wildland firefighters working in the black with handtools. From my perspective they appear to be less than 10 feet apart and two of them aren’t wearing gloves. Have NWCG standards on Line Construction and PPE changed?  I always speak up on these type issues since this is a pending Condition Yellow 9 Line IWI.”

Here’s another one:

“Just sharing that the header picture strikes me wrong, unless you are trying to show a lesson to be learned….no gloves and using hand tools seems out of place, given that we teach people to use gloves and keep their sleeves rolled down — am I missing something?”

So let’s talk about the picture, or rather the practice the picture captures — wildland firefighters working without gloves on. First of all, let’s do some acceptance around the topic:

  1. It happens. This picture depicts reality. This is how work gets done, whether we want it to be done that way or not.
  2. This is a divisive topic.

Number 1 is self-explanatory. Number 2 seems silly, but it’s true — we like to “Us and Them” the crap out of this hot potato. There is a bright line between the Glove Nazis and the Gloveless Idiots.

Glove Nazi’s have super clean Nomex, no tolerance for nuance, and certainly wouldn’t know which end of what tool is best used to fry grub worms (or why you would fry grub worms).

Gloveless Idiots are a bunch of babbling backwoods booger eaters who have no sense of cause and effect.

Well, we won’t get far if we believe either of those extremes will we? (But I bet you bought one of them anyway.)

OK kiddos, let’s sooth our hurt feelings and come back to the table for a little slice of compromise pie.

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Gloves protect our hands. Gloves make some tasks more difficult.

Individuals make personal decisions about risk all day everyday. (Insert your favorite daily risk decision example here. Most people use driving, so don’t use that one.)

When and where to put on gloves is the ultimate “efficiency / thoroughness trade off” dilemma. It’s a pretty tough nut to crack.

What if…

  • Every time you saw a photo of firefighters working without gloves on you thought: “Wow, those folks must have a very compelling reason not to wear gloves…I wonder what it is?”

What if…

  • Every time someone asked why you aren’t wearing gloves you thought: “Wow – this person really cares about my safety, that is so kind.”

More acceptance. Fewer assumptions.

What if.

 

Crash and Burn

The following is an excerpt from the Sheep Creek Burnover Report


The Sheep Creek Fire occurred on August 18, 2018. A helicopter crash in a remote area near Battle Mountain, Nevada ignited a wildfire, resulting in a burnover of a Type 4 engine on a Search and Rescue mission responding to the helicopter crash.

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The helicopter was on a reconnaissance mission conducting a chukar survey. With a pilot and two biologists on board, the helicopter crashed in a draw, igniting the wildfire and injuring two of the passengers. They self-extricated from the helicopter and climbed up on a rock outcropping to take refuge from the rapidly spreading fire.

Firefighting and rescue resources were dispatched from Lander County Dispatch, including Battle Mountain Volunteer Fire Depart, local EMS services and a medical helicopter.

Meanwhile, Elko Interagency Dispatch Center was coordinating with Central Nevada Interagency Dispatch Center on a response to the rapidly spreading wildfire.

Two firefighters responding to the helicopter crash in a Type-4 engine were burned over soon after the occupants of the crashed helicopter were evacuated.

The Facilitated Learning Analysis Team worked to make sense of the event focusing on command, communication and accountability; qualifications, equipment and training standards; communication between dispatch centers; and key decision points along the way. Through facilitated dialogue with those involved, the Team shared lessons learned and recommendations.


Read the full report:

https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/sheep-creek-fire-entrapment-2018

Are Your “Slides” Blinding You?

By Persephone Whelan


So there I was, snuggled on the couch in the early morning hours with my 3-year-old, sipping coffee, idly flipping through Facebook when a Hotchkiss Fire District video of the Horse Park Fire came under my thumb. I thought, “Wow. That’s some interesting fire behavior. Wonder what the story is there.” Then I was interrupted with a request for more Paw Patrol videos or something.

Later on that day, a buddy called me up. “Did you see that video from the Horse Park Fire?! What were they thinking?”

STOP RIGHT THERE!

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Do I have your attention? Maybe half of it while you sip coffee, eat a sandwich, ride down the road? I’ll take what I can get. I want to stir the pot and see what comes up.

Have you ever been watching a video or reading about a near miss or something particularly hairy on a fire and heard someone say: “If they just stuck to the basics they would have been fine.” Or “What part of ‘base all actions on current and expected fire behavior’ did they not understand?” Or “How could they not see that coming?” Have you ever had these thoughts or conversations?

Let’s talk about THIS.

But before I launch into a series of questions and ideas to “stir the pot” I need you to take a moment and suspend your personal beliefs. Ready? Here we go.

Setting Us Up for Failure

Why do we keep getting surprised? What do we expect arriving on scene of an incident?

I would like to propose that this is where we have culturally strapped on the blinders. Your “slides,” your past experiences on fires, may be blinding you to what is right in front of you—and the possible future.

Perhaps we need to let go of the Recognition Primed Decision Making model. YIKES! What did she just say? I’m proposing this model, this mode of thinking, is setting us up for failure. Time to leave the 80s in the 80s and challenge our ways of thinking today.

No one starts their shift with the intention of only having half their situational awareness. Everyone starts their day, their strategy, or their tactics thinking that they have complete SA. They make decisions based upon that information they feel they are getting or matching-up to previous situations they have encountered. Sure, this practice might initially seem to work—right up until that moment everything goes to hell and they are running, thinking: “Wow! How did I lose my SA?”

Do you think the individuals in the Horse Park Fire video or FLA started their day thinking: “Hey I want to see how close I can get to being burned-over without actually getting hurt.”  Or: “I’m going to totally ignore the Fire Orders and Watch Out Situations when I go scout this fire because they don’t really work for me.”

You do not lose your SA. I once heard someone say, losing your SA is only possible if you are unconscious. You are only a human capable of processing X amount of data. It’s HOW you process that data that matters the most.

Mindfulness

Allow me to drop a hefty word on you: Mindfulness. If you are starting to picture hippy music, incense, meditation, etc., please pause. I am talking about mindfulness in a science/nerd type of way, not in a “gentle or nurturing” Buddhist approach. I’m talking about HRO mindfulness. Navy SEALs have mindfulness training. You picking up what I’m throwing down?

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Why does all this matter?

Judgements happen when you compare what you are seeing to a model, experience or “slide” in your mind. Once you make a judgement, your perspective is tailored to that moment. How closely does this scenario match others I’ve encountered? What tactics work best?

This leads you down a path where you may not be “seeing” what is going on around you because you already have a perspective selected which tailors the inputs to your mind. Everything else just washes away. You have now lost your SA.

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How is This Moment Different?

Here is where I ask you to make one subtle, yet very important shift.

Instead of asking yourself: “How does this scenario, this IA, this Division, etc. match others I have encountered before?” Ask yourself: “How is this moment different?” Instead of asking: “What worked before?” Ask: “What options do I have?”

Be creative. Be curious. Tune into your senses. Use the environment and the tools you have to engage—constantly reassessing what is different. And what needs tweaking.

On the other hand, asking yourself “What is working?” is confirmation bias and a dark path to travel. That kind of thinking reaffirms what you already “think you know” and leads to mindlessness and not mindfulness.

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Stop Trying to Make a Square Peg Fit a Round Hole

I do agree with those people who comment “Why were they surprised?” But I have a different perspective. Is it not common to joke “What is normal?” I haven’t heard many firefighters arguing that conditions or fires are the same as they were 20 years ago. If our fires aren’t normal, why are we using “normal” tactics?

“We’ve always done X” is a weak argument. I think this is how people get surprised. Stop trying to make a square peg fit a round hole. Stop forcing tactics that used to work on our current situations. We are a professional, adaptable group that performs at a high level in chaos.

Seek opportunities to allow your brains to operate at that high level without putting blinders on the inputs. Talk among yourselves, ask questions and listen to each other. Most of all <gasp> be safe out there!

Want to Know More?

Want to try to understand where these crazy ideas came from? Check out these sources:

  • Conklin, Todd. “What is all this talk about Mindfulness – Ellen Langer is someone you should know.” Pre Accident Investigation Podcast 151. December 9, 2017. https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-52idj-7d8e50
  • TedX Talks – “How to tame your wandering mind” by Amishi jha.
  • Fraher, Amy, Branicki, Layla and Grint, Keith. (2016) Mindfulness in action: discovering how Navy SEALs build capacity for mindfulness in high-reliability organizations. Academy of Management Discoveries.
  • Dotson, Travis. Ground Truths “Experience Builds Bias.” Two More Chains. Summer 2017. Vol. 7 Issue 2. Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.