Drawing the Line of Duty

This is from the 2018 Incident Review Summary.


By Travis Dotson

We recorded the work-related death of 19 wildland firefighters in 2018.

lineDuty

But not everyone is on the same page about which ones should be considered a “Line of Duty Death.” Everyone agrees that if you are overrun by fire or get hit by a tree on the fireline—that is death in the line of duty. But what if a fire crew member doing project work begins convulsing, goes unconscious, and is pronounced dead at the hospital? What if a contractor gets home from a fire assignment and dies the next day due to complications from pneumonia? Tough questions. But for us here at the Lessons Learned Center we list them all because we are concerned with LESSONS—not numbers. Each of these tragic instances provides an opportunity for collective and individual solemn introspection.

Flag


Exercise

In small groups discuss these topics:

  • What does the term “Line of Duty Death” mean to you?
  • What are the lessons from a non-typical firefighter death?
  • Should we honor people differently based on how they died?

Random?

Here is more from our forthcoming 2018 Incident Review Summary.

By Travis Dotson


Strange things do happen out there on fire assignments. Some of them are certainly outlier occurrences, some of them are not. Either way, these instances often provide an opportunity to re-frame and think about hazards we may not have recognized.

randomrandomrandom

Check these events out – then do the exercise at the end.


Shooting

“The incident personnel watched with binoculars as one of the two individuals put a scoped rifle on a bi-pod and looked up the mountain toward them.”

Miriam Fire Shooting Incident


 

SepticTank

North Spring Fire Septic Tank Incident


 

BlastCaps

Blasting Caps Discovered During Mop-Up


CansExplode3

Owyhee Fire Can Explosion

Davis Fire Can Explosion


Exercise (30 minutes)

Study these incidents.

Individually think about a time you were surprised on a fire.

Tell each other your “surprise stories.”

Discuss this question:

If we blame all surprises on “poor SA” –

what lessons are we missing out on?

How We Roll

Here is more from our forthcoming 2018 Incident Review Summary.

By Travis Dotson


In 2018 we collected 17 reported Rollover Incidents. Mostly Water Tenders and Dozers (5 each). The others were chase vehicles, an Engine, a UTV and an ATV.

Almost all of the rollovers involved slipping off the road shoulder.

We move big heavy things around on dirt roads under difficult conditions while stressed and tired.

We sometimes slip off the road.

Rolls

Got a Dozer or a Water Tender in your Task Force?

Heads up.

5n5


Here are a few clips from reports:

“…he began to feel the back of the Tender pulling him sideways as the Tender began to slide off the road.” Cougar Creek Fire Water Tender Accident

“…dozer slipped off the edge of a logging road and tumbled down end-over-end…” Sugar Pine Fire Dozer Rollover

“…passenger side front wheel traveled off the edge of the road, and the engine departed the roadway, and rolled.” Fawn Fire Engine Rollover

“There were three slip locations, spread over several hundred feet, where Dozer 1 left the trail prior to the rollover.” Ferguson Dozer Fatality

“…it left the road on the downhill side and rolled over.” Miles Fire Water Tender Rollover

“…he became distracted and the truck drove straight off the road.” Ferguson Fire Water Tender Rollover


This is from the 2016 Incident Review Summary:

2016_Rolls


 

Exercise (30 minutes)

Study the quotes above.

Individually write down your answer to this question:

What are all the reasons you can think of why we might “slip off the road”?

Compare your list with others.

Discuss ways to prepare for and prevent rollovers.

 

 

 

 

Tree Trauma

By Travis Dotson

“Hit by Tree” events are a difficult topic. We have had a series of tragedies in recent years. We’ve endured eight fatalities in the last four years.

We’ve had one hotshot die in “Hit by Tree” incidents each summer for the past three years.

Each instance is heartbreaking. These events are sometimes difficult to process because there is often a feeling of inevitability around the issue of wildland firefighters being struck by trees.

How do we make these events matter?

8in4

Eight “Hit by Tree” Fatalities in four years.


Not every time a firefighter gets hit by a tree results in death. In 2018 we received reports of 16 non-fatal incidents. Each instance is terrifying.

How do we make these events matter?


TaylorCreekRLS

“The butt end of the tree hit the faller as it jumped backwards off the stump and swung uphill almost 25 feet.”
Taylor Creek RLS


 

SanAntonio2

San Antonio Fire FLA

From the FLA:

The limb struck Joel on the left side of the hard hat at an “angle smearing the hard hat off his head.” The branch also hit Memo hard on the back, knocking him to the ground.

The story here is a description of several hotshot crews engaged in direct attack on a fire in extreme terrain with numerous snags, and steep slopes with rocks rolling down the hill like a bowling alley.

Why were they exposed to such risk? Why were they even there? What happened? Did someone mess up cutting a tree? Did someone walk under a bucket drop? Did they lose situational awareness?

What do we learn when there is no glaring mistake made?
No “Human Error” that caused the accident?

After a thorough review of this incident, the FLA team has come to a potentially confounding conclusion: That in the case of the San Antonio Fire accident, Line Officers, IMT members and on the ground firefighters did just about everything right.

But wait, firefighters got hurt really bad…WHY?


During a chainsaw training session, a Fire Captain who is an Advanced Faller (C-Faller) Cadre Member was struck by a grounded tree limb that was under tension. The Fire Captain remained unconscious with agonal respirations as they completed an assessment of his injuries. The Fire Captain suffered significant injuries to his head, neck and chest that required hospitalization.


Exercise (30 minutes)

Study the events above.

Identify what has the most meaning for you.

Write down a few notes on WHY your selection has meaning.

Compare your answers with others.

Discuss these Questions:

What makes an event have meaning for us individually?

What makes an event NOT have meaning?

Chainsaws and Drip Torches

We are working on the 2018 Annual Incident Review Summary.  As we compile the summary we’ve got some highlights to share with you.  Read this.  Do the Exercise. (Maybe include it in your Refresher Training.)  Give us feedback.  The final version of the 2018 Annual Incident Review Summary will be out soon!


By Travis Dotson

The list of things we get hurt doing is pretty much just a list of things we do. So, is what we do dangerous? Or is what we do safe and it’s the way some people do it that brings on the danger?

OR is black and white, all or nothing, either/or, no middle ground thinking ridiculous and especially problematic on the fireground?

In 2018 we collected 16 different reports of incidents related to Chainsaw Operations.

Is that:

  • Proof of the numerous poorly trained operators out there?

OR

  • Flat out amazing that the number is so low given the amount of time we spend running saws?

Didn’t we just talk about false dichotomies?

At least we get to choose the perspective we take.

So here are some numbers, lessons, and an exercise.

Make them mean something.


 

SawOps

2018: Out of 16 “Chainsaw Ops” incidents, 10 were “Hit by Tree” and 6 were “Saw Cuts”

 


chaps

“The poison oak vine grabbed the chain and pulled the cut tree down into the chainsaw bar, pushing the bar into the sawyer’s leg about four inches below the left knee. The saw’s teeth grabbed the sawyer’s saw chaps and rolled them from the outside inward.”

Taylor Creek Chainsaw Cut


FiringOps


“During the burnout operations, a sudden wind shift and explosive fire growth happened and at about 1733, personnel were cut off from their escape routes. Most of the firefighters were able to move back to their vehicles to exit the area. However, six individuals farther down the dozer line were forced to run in front of the advancing flame front, through unburned fuels to a nearby dirt road for approximately one mile…”

Mendocino Complex – Ranch Fire Burn Injuries and Vehicle Damage


CrewBurn2

“I hurdled over the fence, the tool in my pack caught the fence, I fell face down.”
Camp Fire Entrapment Burn Injuries


BurnedPack3

While conducting firing operations a hand-throw firing device ignited in a pouch on the firefighter’s web gear.
Edison RX Firing Device Incident


Exercise

Write down your answer to these two questions:

1. What makes chainsaws dangerous?

2. What does “Playing with Fire” mean to you?

Discuss your answers with the next firefighter you see (hopefully you know them).

Two More Chains – The View From Here

TMC1

The View from Here

Our normal ops were interrupted by the recent 35-day “Government Shutdown.” Given the short window to produce the winter issue of Two More Chains, we decided to use it as an opportunity to share and highlight a new publication from the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC): “The View from Here”.

This publication presents a collection of 16 essays from various authors. Most of these essays originally appeared in Two More Chains or were featured on the LLC’s Blog. They all share a common theme: How and why we must alter some of our most ingrained practices and perspectives.



From the Introduction of ‘The View from Here’:

This collection of essays—divided into three key categories: Risk, Culture, and Operations—daylights qualities and practices in the wildland fire service across a broad spectrum, from outdated and unwarranted to honorable and profound. We must acknowledge our current culture and its shortcomings while using its strengths to lead change.

The main intent is to provide awareness for those decision-makers operating at crucial levels who are empowered to influence how we interact with fire across the landscape.

We must align our perspectives related to risk and exposure if we are to advance our collective interest in the well-being of our workforce and our landscape.

To fully appreciate the task at hand, we must also fully acknowledge the culture that supports and shapes the work as it’s currently performed. This collection is intended to illuminate the complexity of interacting with wildland fire while revealing the simplicity of shifting perspective. Common understanding will lead to actions that will ultimately advance our collective well-being.


Use ‘The View from Here’ to Stimulate Group Discussion and Learning

These essays provide ideal material for group dialogue and learning.

Select one essay at a time for everyone on your staff to read. Set a time and discuss it together. What are the key takeaways? Has your perspective changed? Will you change your behavior? How will you take follow-up action related to the topic?

Where Did Our IRPG Come From?

By Brit Rosso

A few months ago I came across my pile of old Incident Response Pocket Guides (IRPG). For some reason I’ve kept all of my previous versions. I now started to wonder why. I’m not a hoarder, at least I don’t think I am. Anyway, there I was, staring at all of these old IRPGs. It made me think about the history behind this tool that we all take for granted.

IMG_1498

IRPG versions through the years (1998-2019)

I just happen to know someone who was directly involved with the development of the IRPG. His name is Jim Cook. Back in the day, Jim was my Hotshot Superintendent. Later in his career Jim moved on to become the Training Projects Coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho. I decided to reach out to Jim and ask him what he remembers about the genesis and history of the IRPG. Here’s what Jim had to say:

Jim_Cook_Award_033005_blog

Jim Cook receiving the “Paul Gleason Lead by Example” award from Mark Linane in March 2005.  

“In the early 1990s we were developing the Look Up, Look Down, Look Around course (Look3). The course was a collaborative effort that involved a number of senior Hotshot Superintendents that were frustrated with the original S-390 course. One of the objectives for that effort was to meld the Look3 fire environment indicators with all the rules of engagement (10/18/LCES/Common Denominators/Downhill Checklist, etc.) into a pocket-sized reference book. This became the little orange Fireline Safety Reference booklet which was first published by NWCG in 1992.”

IMG_1876

These are several versions of the Look3 or L3 guides.

“About this same time the Los Padres Hotshot Crew was developing a similar pocket reference. Their idea was picked up by Bob Becker (U.S. Forest Service R5 aviation staff) and he expanded on it with aviation and other references. Then Becker proposed it to the Regional Office and sometime in the mid-1990s it was issued by the U.S. Forest Service in Region 5 for use as an initial attack response guide. I don’t remember the exact title, but it was about the size of the current IRPG.”

20181214_123152

An early version of the Initial Response Pocket Guide developed by Bob Becker in the early 1990s. 

“So somewhere in the follow-up to the TriData Study that grew from the 1994 South Canyon Fire, the Red Book effort started, which caused a review of the Fireline Handbook. And honestly, I don’t remember the exact players or which NWCG committee chartered the formal products, but it was a time fertile for skunkworks. During this time, Mark Linane, the Los Padres Hotshot Superintendent, suggested that Bob Becker and I get together to float a proposal up through Paul Broyles, the National Park Service Fire Safety Officer, and Shag Aldrich, the U.S. Forest Service Fire Safety Officer, to sponsor a pocket guide that fell in between the Fireline Handbook (which was mostly focused on large fires) and the Red Book (which was going to be focused on local unit SOPs). We used the Look3 Fireline Safety Reference and the Region 5 response guide as the foundation to start from.”

“I do remember a lot of back and forth with the Fireline Handbook revision group and the Red Book development group regarding what should go where. And there was a debate whether this new pocket guide should be strictly a reference for initial attack or if it should be more comprehensive for responding to all-risk (as it was called then) incidents—from the title and content you can see how that debate played out. I also remember that we used the Alaska Handy Dandy and the S-520 Fireline Handbook insert as important references. The review draft was circulated in 1998 and the first NWCG approved edition of the IRPG was available to order in the NIFC warehouse in 1999.”

IMG_1878

The 1998 draft of the IRPG and a copy of the first edition from 1999. 

“I had the privilege to oversee the evolution of the IRPG for its first ten years, through 4 revisions. From the beginning, the intent for the IRPG was to keep it relevant to the various missions of operational wildland firefighters and to keep it to shirt pocket size. The unofficial goal was to keep it under 100 pages. It started out there, at 90 pages or so. But with every revision it grew. Now it is up to 120 pages, I think.”
“Of course, any product like this brings out everyone’s pet rock. Which is why the IRPG was originally envisioned, because the Fireline Handbook became known over time as the Fireline Hand “Brick” as everything got shoved into it. Most of the changes and additions we did to the IRPG were normal updates. But there were some very memorable issues that brought out a lot of geographic and interagency angst. Some of the more memorable change debates included the Risk Refusal protocol, Safety Zone guidelines, Interface Firefighting tactics, Falling procedures, and Incident Complexity indicators. And my favorite change: Getting the cover color switched from yellow to orange for the last revision I worked on.”

IMG_1880

Fireline Handbooks were big.

So there you have it. I do want to publicly thank Jim for this outstanding firsthand history of the IRPG.

Most folks fighting fire today have always had the IRPG tucked into their pocket since their first fire. There are others of us who remember the days when all we had was the Fireline Handbook, which usually ended up stuffed in a Red Bag or back in the truck.

It’s always good to know your history. This is just one of the many ways to be a Student of Fire. Tell us what the IRPG means to you, and how you use it out on the fireline.

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.


Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 8.27.57 AM

 

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 10.41.25 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 10.42.51 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 10.43.00 AM

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:

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 10.45.24 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 10.46.55 AM

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.