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.

 

“Just Let Me Finish”

By Travis Dotson

This is about a firefighter physical training fatality. Let me tell you why this scares the crap out of me. This PT description sounds very familiar.  We get up and go for a group run fairly regularly. You might point out that this instance is different because it’s a structural department. That is exactly why it scares me even more. These folks are medically trained to a much higher degree than any wildland crew out there.

And he died.

Read this and reflect on your own PT program.

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Typical PT Run

Are you ready?


The following is an excerpt from the NIOSH report “Fatal Exertional Heat Stroke During Physical Fitness Training“.


On April 20, 2009, a 26-year-old male career Firefighter Trainee began a 2-month firefighter certification program. On April 29, 2009, the Trainee participated in a 4.4-mile jog as part of the physical fitness portion of the program.

The temperature 73 degrees °F with 87% relative humidity.

The 36 students began the day (Day 6 of the program) with physical fitness training consisting of stretching and jogging two laps around the track (1/4 mile per lap) as a warm-up exercise. At about 0610 hours, the group began a 4.4-mile run/jog in formation on neighboring streets. The group was led by a FD vehicle and followed by a FD squad. Four instructors participated in the run, which lasted approximately 1 hour, 10 minutes.

A Captain led the group, calling cadence while another Captain ran in the back of the class. Nearing the end of the run, students were instructed to break formation and sprint to the finish line, approximately 1/8 mile. Three students were lagging behind, including the Trainee. Two nearby classmates went to encourage the Trainee, who was stumbling and seemed disoriented. When asked if he was okay, he said “just let me finish.” The Trainee stopped running and began walking in an unsteady gait. A class officer, a FD Captain, ran over and helped the Trainee lie down with assistance from the other students. Water and a medical bag (containing oxygen, blood pressure cuff, and a glucometer) were retrieved. According to the students, the Trainee was pale, sweaty, shivering, incoherent, and unable to communicate.

911 was called (0727 hours), and an ambulance was dispatched (0728 hours). A paramedic on the scene found the Trainee to be unresponsive, with a rapid pulse of 170 beats per minute, a rapid breathing rate of 24 breaths per minute, and low blood pressure of 60 mmHg by palpation. Ice packs were placed on the Trainee’s skin, oxygen was administered, and an intravenous (IV) line was placed. His blood glucose level was normal (95 milligrams per deciliter [mg/dL]).

The ambulance responded at 0730 hours and arrived on scene at 0739 hours. Paramedics found the Trainee unresponsive, with essentially no change in his vital signs from 0729 hours. A 12-lead electrocardiogram (EKG) revealed sinus tachycardia (rapid heart rate) with inverted T-waves (a nonspecific finding). A second IV line was placed, and the Trainee was given fluids to treat dehydration and heat exhaustion. His axillary (under the arm) temperature was 103.4°F, and four new ice packs were placed on his skin. The ambulance departed the scene at 0752 hours en route to the local hospital’s ED. En route, the Trainee’s blood pressure increased to 80 mmHg systolic (by palpation), but his fast pulse and respiratory rate remained unchanged. He remained unconscious throughout the remainder of the 19-minute transport.

The ambulance arrived at the hospital’s ED at 0811 hours. The Trainee’s vital signs revealed a blood pressure of 106/52 mmHg, a heart rate of 150 beats per minute (tachycardia), and a respiratory rate of 24 breaths per minute. He was sweating heavily and had a core body (rectal) temperature of 105.3°F. The initial diagnoses were hyperthermia, severe dehydration, and heatstroke, followed by heatstroke complications including the following:

  • Rhabdomyolysis (breakdown of muscle fibers resulting in the release of myoglobin into the bloodstream)
  • Acute renal failure due to rhabdomyolysis
  • Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) (a blood clotting disorder)
  • Electrolyte imbalances (low potassium and calcium)

He was treated in the ED with ice packs, cooling fans, cool IV fluids, and cold towels. Despite this treatment, his rectal temperature was 104.7°F 3 hours after his arrival in the ED, and 101°F 12 hours after his arrival in the ED.

The Trainee was transferred to the intensive care unit where IV fluids and cooling blanket therapy continued. Over the next 4 days his mental status improved; however, many of his organ systems (i.e., muscles, liver, kidneys, and blood coagulation) began to fail from heatstroke complications. On May 3 his neurological status declined, and he began to have respiratory failure that required intubation. A computed tomography (CT) scan of his brain revealed marked cerebral edema with herniation. After consulting with the family, the physician removed the Trainee from life support on May 4; he died 41 minutes later.


Read the full report here:

Fatal Exertional Heat Stroke During Physical Fitness Training

 

Unconscious With Agonal Respirations

This is an excerpt from the 2018 “Chainsaw Training Limbing Accident Green Sheet“.


The instructor was diagnosed and treated at the trauma center for a concussion, head laceration, pneumothorax, broken ribs, and a C-5 vertebrae fracture.


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Recreation of the position that FC1 was initially found in.

C-Faller field training on April 24, 2018 started at 0830 hours at CAL FIRE Bear Creek Fire Station in the Tulare Unit. All cadre members and students met for a daily safety briefing, IAP review, emergency procedures overview, identification of training groups and the completion of pertinent documentation (IIPP-6). Following the meeting, all cadre members and students proceeded up Balch Park Road approximately 21 miles to the training location. Once at the cut site, the predesignated groups proceeded to their predetermined cutting areas. Each group worked in areas that were pre-identified to ensure the safety of all personnel. Each group included an Instructor (C Certifier), a Proctor (C-Faller) and two to three students.

One group working at the top end of the training grounds had rotated, and was working one-on-one with their students. The Proctor (P1) had taken his students (S2) (S3) to an opposing slope adjacent to the other half of their group to cut. The area P1 identified provided him a clear view of the area where the other members of his group would be cutting, and was at a safe distance. The Instructor (FC1) from his group had identified a tree to be felled by the student (S1) under his tutelage. The tree was a large, dead Ponderosa pine at the toe of the slope. The tree measured 36 inches in diameter at breast height (DBH) and stood approximately 115 feet tall.

S1 assessed the tree and determined that it was to be felled up-slope to prevent it from obstructing a watercourse downslope, and FC1 agreed. FC1 and S1 discussed the hazards, the type of cut to be made, identified two escape routes, and cleared (swamped) the base of the tree for access and egress. Once a complete size-up of the tree was completed, and the identified escape routes were established and validated, FC1 directed S1 to begin his cut. S1 proceeded with his undercut, and readied himself to put his back cut into the tree. As is standard, and policy, S1 yelled, “back cut, up the hill” to alert the other members of his team, and any approaching personnel of his intention to fall the tree. After validating that he had been heard, S1 proceeded with his back cut.

The tree began to fall in the intended direction of the lay. During the fall, the top portion of the tree brushed the limbs of the oak tree (as FC1 and S1 had discussed) causing some oak limbs to break loose and fall to the ground ahead of the tree. As the tree came to rest on the slope, it split into three sections after contacting ground liter and terrain. The bottom section of the tree measured 45 feet in length at the break. The second section measured 47 feet and had landed atop the fallen oak limbs, and the third section (top of the tree) measured 23 feet, and was entangled at the base of the oak tree in a near-vertical position.

Once the tree was felled, S1, under the direct supervision of FC1 assessed the area for hazards such as hanging limbs or other collateral debris. S1 yelled “clear” after confirming that the oak limbs that had been brushed during the fall had been grounded. S1 planned to limb the felled tree and to flush cut the stump. FC1 advised S1 that he would assist in limbing the tree due to the length, and that he would start limbing from the first break in the tree toward the tip, and that S1 could start by cutting the stump flush, and limbing from the base up to the first break. S1 agreed, and FC1 proceeded to ascend the hill.

FC1 reached the first break in the felled tree and began to limb the pine. FC1, wearing full PPE including helmet, chaps, gloves, eye and hearing protection proceeded to limb the felled tree with his chain saw. FC1 had limbed approximately 24 feet of the felled tree when he encountered the large oak limbs that both he and S1 had witnessed get broken free from the oak tree by the falling pine. The limb had multiple forks and had come to rest beneath the felled pine tree in a near-vertical position. The limb measured 8 inches in diameter at the break with multiple forks ranging in size from 3-5 inches in diameter. The length of the limb, including the forks ranged from 5 to 17 feet in length. FC1 proceeded to assess the bind of each pine limb and cut it free with his chain saw.

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Overview of the accident site (not to scale)

Unbeknownst to FC1, when the pine broke the oak limbs loose, and they fell ahead of the tree, the broken end of the oak limb contacted the ground first (likely due to weight) and stuck into the soil approximately 18 inches deep. This suspended the limb and the multiple forked branches of the limb into the air only to then be contacted by the falling pine as it came to rest on the ground. As the pine came to rest, it lay atop the broken end of the oak limb and placed the entire load of the felled pine onto the limbs. This downward pressure and the fact that the oak was a live tree allowed the limbs of the oak to bend under extreme pre-loaded tension and pressure. The felled pine tree limbs also directly contacted multiple sections of the oak limbs providing for additional tension.

As FC1 proceeded to limb the tree, he reached the oak limbs and with a single, partial cut released the full, pre-loaded tension of the upper portion of the oak limbs. This violent release of tension projected the limbs of the oak downward and outward, contacting FC1 on the left temple area of his helmet. This contact propelled FC1 backward off the felled pine, and downslope into a field of tree litter. FC1 was knocked unconscious by the initial impact.

P1, S2 and S3 all heard a loud “crack”, and since they were training within view of FC1 and S1, they each turned toward the sound. P1 immediately noted that FC1 was down, and could hear his chain saw idling. S2 and S3 were also able to see that FC1 was down, lying on his left side. P1 yelled FC1’s name as he proceeded to his location. P1 traversed approximately 500 feet across slope to reach FC1’s location. S2 and S3 also made their way to FC1.

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Uphill view from the base of the tree showing the debris field

P1 was the first to arrive and found FC1 unconscious with agonal respirations and an actively bleeding head wound. At approximately 1429 hours, P1 reported “man down” to the designated C-Faller Course Safety Officer (SOF) via the assigned tactical frequency. With the report, the SOF instituted the “Incident within an incident” (IWI) protocol in order to collect accurate and sufficient information. P1 reported “traumatic head injuries with entrapment”. The SOF immediately contacted the CAL FIRE Tulare Unit ECC (Visalia) to report the injury. He ordered an air ambulance to the CAL FIRE Bear Creek Fire Station (pre-designated medivac location in the course IAP) and an Advanced Life Support (ALS) ground ambulance to the scene.

Meanwhile, P1 was not able to fully access FC1 because the oak limbs had fallen and was lying on top of FC1. P1 noted that there was still so much tension on the oak limbs that he was unable to lift them. By this time, S1 had made his way up the hill from the stump having heard the loud crack, as well. He assisted P1 in cutting the still-tensioned oak limbs from above FC1 so that they could further assess his injuries.

FC1 remained unconscious with agonal respirations as they completed an assessment of his injuries. Both S2 and S3 arrived to assist in the care of FC1. All personnel at the site worked to control the bleeding, and care for the injured FC1. After approximately 2-3 minutes, FC1 regained consciousness. He was confused, and became combative with the personnel working on him. Moments later, FC1 began to communicate with personnel, and started to breath normally.

Personnel worked to maintain cervical spine (c-spine) precautions, and to control the bleeding from his head wound. FC1 was placed in a c-collar. He again became combative, and kept attempting to get up. The personnel at the site continued to reassess FC1 for additional injuries. Due to the rural location, and extended ALS care and transport times, the SOF determined that FC1 would be extricated to the road above the accident site, and be transported in a CAL FIRE vehicle to meet up with responding ALS resources.


 

What “strikes you” most about this scenario?

Lessons about limbing?

or

Lessons about medical response capacity during training?

Please comment in a respectful way.

Engrained into My Thoughts and Actions

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2016

The South Canyon Staff Ride was without a doubt one of the most influential experiences of my wildland fire career. It is one thing to sit in a classroom and learn about a tragedy fire from PowerPoints and write-ups. However, talking to the individuals involved, putting yourself in their shoes, and walking on the same ground they walked on, provides for a completely different level of involvement. The South Canyon Staff Ride engrained me with lessons that I will have for the rest of my life.

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Many people can read the book “Fire on the Mountain” and look at what happened on those days and say things like: “This could have been done different,” or “Why didn’t they (those involved) do this instead of that?” But, until someone actually gets up on the hill, works through facilitated scenarios with people of varying backgrounds, and hears what firsthand survivors saw and felt, they will not be able to fully grasp exactly what happened.

This is what makes the South Canyon Staff Ride so amazing and why it is one of the (if not the most) standout lessons of my fire career. Being able to hear the things the survivors have to say will stay with me forever.

As part of Redding Interagency Hotshots, I went through and did the preliminary staff ride work of reading “Fire on the Mountain”, the South Canyon Investigation Report, and the South Canyon Fire Behavior Assessment. We also prepared small briefs, which we (both as a crew and individually) presented to over 80 people. I first read “Fire on the Mountain” during my first year of fire back in 2008. I have gained a fair amount of fire experience and knowledge since that time. Reading “Fire on the Mountain” a second time brought about an entirely new meaning to me and how I look at and how I operate in the fire environment.

We also had the integration portion of the staff ride in which we were able to go around the room and hear over 80 different take-a-ways from more than 80 different people. It didn’t matter if someone was in their second year of fire or have been fighting fire for 30-plus years, every person had a varied take-a-way. Being able to share these points-of-view with each other was invaluable.

By far the most standout aspect of the South Canyon Staff Ride is being able to listen to the survivors of the South Canyon Fire. Being able to put myself in their shoes and hear exactly what was going through their heads is something that will be engrained into my thoughts and actions for the rest of my career in fire. All in all, I feel that any firefighter who has the chance to participate in the South Canyon Staff Ride will without a doubt benefit personally and professionally.

 

Finest Learning Experience of My Life

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2016

There are a number of aspects I consider key in becoming a proficient, knowledgeable, and accomplished wildland firefighter. Some help with professionalism or presentation, others focus on safety or cohesion. The list is as long as it is diverse.

Redding 9a

Some of the more beneficial skills are those that directly relate to the tasks performed and conditions experienced by firefighters. These are best attained from real in-field situations and observations; however, such authentic conditions usually aren’t readily available. Given this circumstance, firefighters must substitute another method of acquiring experience and knowledge. This is where training, both tangible and literary, plays a major role.

A large portion of a wildland firefighter’s knowledge and experience comes from training scenarios, notably more so to the newer the firefighter. Because of this, not only should proper training be considered fundamental, it demands to be taken seriously. This is supported by the undeniable fact of how inherently dangerous the career of wildland firefighting will always be. Many lives have been and continue to be lost in this career. While tragic, each lost life brings with it a wealth of information. The more details that are available about the tragedy, the more the situation can be analyzed. Truths and facts can be determined, decisions and observations can be re-traced.

While a good amount of information can be gained from simply reading a summary, each enhanced level of material adds significance: the addition of images, survivor interviews, video footage, etc. A couple of the most impactful incorporations involve walking the grounds where the fatalities occurred and talking with first-hand survivors.

The South Canyon Staff Ride is a perfect example of a quality staff ride and all that can be gained from the study and examination of a fatal tragedy. Firstly, there is a substantial amount of information the attendee must be competent in prior to the actual staff ride. This assures that those attending will fully understand the event beforehand, allowing greater focus on learning points and direct interactions.

Next, during the staff ride, attendees hike out to the fire grounds and encounter firsthand the topographic conditions specific to that event. This takes perceptions to a higher level. Rather than estimating scale, steepness, or ruggedness from a grainy photograph, people walk the ground and can physically comprehend the conditions presented by the terrain.

Lastly, there is the interaction with survivors. A book or report can only contribute so much insight, a photograph or video so much detail. Having persons who were present during the event can grant personal observations and provide direct answers to questions otherwise unnoted or unanswered. This does not just add another level of resources for information, but presents a degree of connection to those involved and the events that occurred.

I strongly believe that accident reports, whether fatal or not, are great learning points that are rich in information. Humans adapt and survive by learning what not to do, starting from infancy. Whether from personal experience or human history, we learn from our mistakes and take corrective action. This is exactly how accident reports should be handled. We cannot learn from the past if we choose to ignore its events. South Canyon is a solid learning experience and has provided vital knowledge and policy changes to back this claim. This is further strengthened by the inclusion of the staff ride.

After reading and watching all of the required materials before the staff ride I had a strong general understanding of the event. I knew people’s names, fire spread rates and patterns, timelines, the terrain as seen from images. But it was nothing more than a good learning case, much like all the other reports that can be read; there was no tangible connection. That connection occurred over the course of the entire staff ride. I walked the ground that all involved walked. I felt the effects of the elevation, terrain, and weather. I ran the same handline as those who perished. I felt the isolation of the mountain. I engaged in scenarios on the mountainside. I stood where lives were lost. I imagined the hopeless struggle for survival and fears manifested by all that day. I fully immersed myself on that mountainside to maximize my understanding and education.

Helping me along my journey, during the field day on the mountain and the many Q&A sessions throughout the staff ride, were the actual survivors from the tragedy. They provided multitudes of additional information and insight I would have never known from just the literary resources. They described what they saw, thought, and felt—how it affected their lives and what they learned. By hearing their first-hand experiences, having them answer sensitive questions, and clearing-up any confusion I had about the events, there was an emotional connection I captured that allowed me to walk in their shoes and feel what they felt as best I could.

In its entirety, the South Canyon Staff Ride was an event I will never forget. Walking the ground, talking to the survivors, engaging in scenarios, made it one of the finest learning experiences of my life. It was an event I took very serious and gained plenty of knowledge and understanding as a result. And I feel confident in stating that all other attendees, present, past, and returning, feel the same.

The South Canyon Staff Ride is an experience that others should be able to participate in. It perfectly combines the literary transcription of events and lessons learned with the firsthand insight from survivors and onsite field exercises and scenarios. It is something not to be forgotten or overlooked for its value and importance concerning the career and safety of wildland firefighters. Nothing is to be gained from not studying our past tragedies. It was a significant learning experience for me and I wish the same for others in the future.

Should Be Mandatory

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2015

The South Canyon Staff Ride, as well as any other staff ride, is a tool every firefighter can benefit from. I feel it’s a valuable experience that should be mandatory. What you get out of a staff ride is so much more than what you get from any book, case study, or from watching a documentary. Walking on a hill where something tragic took place really puts things into perspective. It gives an understanding that I feel no other form of learning material can offer.

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The South Canyon Staff Ride can directly impact anyone as a leader. After reading the required material and hearing about the fire for years, hiking on the hill put you in a leadership role. Going over strategy, tactics, and decisions in your head as well as verbally were a valuable learning experience for me.

The tactical decision games kept you thinking and kept your head in what was going on throughout the hike up. I know we didn’t have the usual stresses that come with the job like fatigue and an extreme fire environment, but it put us in the moment as best as it could.

The staff ride made you think and think some more. For instance, what would you do if you were a superintendent? Or if you were a crew member? Where would you be as a lookout? Would you use multiple lookouts? What would you say with what you were seeing and when would you speak up if the situation made you uncomfortable? Dozens of questions and concerns kept the mind moving.

The staff ride created a mental slide that you will never forget, a slide you can hopefully refer to in a later situation. As a future leader, I have a tragic experience I can play off of without having a tragic experience, to lead a crew and make appropriate decisions if the occasion arises.

This experience will benefit the crew members I will work with in the future because after being at the site, I will be able to help paint a clear picture when we discuss the events that took place at South Canyon.

The passion the Subject Matter Experts displayed was amazing. It kept me completely locked into everything that was being said by them. The SMEs showed strength, guts, and courage to relive and share their experience. How they all come together to strongly encourage the message of safety and influence firefighters to be students of fire, year after year, is a great reason to be a recipient of the Paul Gleason Award. It was somewhat of a star-struck moment for me as I watched and listened to the very same individuals I’ve read about, watched on documentaries, and heard people talk about.

It was truly an honor to be part of this staff ride. It’s a proud moment that I can share with others throughout my career.

It’s an unfortunate event that changed the way we think as firefighters and the outcome is so sad. But it makes me feel safer in what I do knowing I can reflect on this event and it will allow me to make appropriate decisions in the future. Staff rides are important for firefighters and I hope we continue to make sound decisions with an emphasis on firefighter safety. I can’t thank enough the facilitators, the SMEs, and all the personnel involved in making this staff ride possible. It’s something I will never forget. With that being said, continue the great work, stay safe, and thank you again.

 

 

The Beating Heart Within Us

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2016

Being a Redding Hotshot is an incredible training opportunity. That is the priority reason that I endeavored to become one. I am now into July of the 2016 fire season. I have performed training now as a firing boss (t) and as a crew boss (t). I have received a multitude of classes that otherwise would have placed me firmly in the lower half of a wait list on my home unit.

Redding 7

Of all the training and all the experiences that I will take with me from this season on the Redding Hotshots, I believe that participation in the South Canyon Staff Ride is the most valuable and precious. Earlier in the training season, we also attended the Rattlesnake Fire Staff Ride; it was a very good precursor to South Canyon.

As is necessary for all staff rides, preliminary study was undertaken to best understand the facts and sequence of events. Unlike South Canyon, however, the Rattlesnake Staff Ride takes place over a single day. In that single day we walked the ground, discussed decisions and actions that occurred, and performed tactical decision games.

The final element of all staff rides is the integration. This is where you coalesce all that you have learned and distill it all into a “take away” message. For the Rattlesnake Staff Ride I distilled a message derived from the results of the tactical decision games. This message was that when a sudden change is observed and a call to action is obvious, it is appropriate, prudent, and necessary to take the time to engage your mind, and others, before you engage physically. It is also at this time that you can go to the crosses and make peace with the memories of those who have passed away, and the terrible fate that has become your lesson. I certainly remember the 15 fallen firefighters who perished in 1953. To the extent that is possible, as an emotional being, I reached back into that time and tried to be there with them. It is not easy.

The South Canyon Staff Ride transpired over three highly organized and orchestrated days. On the evening of arrival we convened in a room where time was conscientiously allotted to allow the participants, group leaders, and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to create an abbreviated cohesion. This was invaluable as, unlike anything I had ever experienced, the SMEs were survivors of the tragedy.

1994 is still recent history to today’s wildland firefighter. Those living breathing people in that room and eventually on that same mountain with us, where 14 brothers and sisters died, were actually there. It was astounding. They wore the same PPE, carried similar fire shelters, and used the same radios, helicopters, hand tools, and chainsaws that we carry today. They used the same procedural approaches, Incident Command Structure, and safety protocols that we use. They were real and they felt real. There were questions. Everyone had questions and there were answers. I heard some of the most visceral and vulnerable answers to tough questions that will ever be heard.

My mind was awash with the events of July 6, 1994. A connection was established and reinforced in a way that cannot be replicated by anything less than the full force of what that program is. At the end of the field day we regrouped in a dining hall were the integration of the experience occurred. The range of experience levels in that room was all the way from entry-level firefighters to seasoned fire managers. And everyone had a novel and insightful contribution to the integration ceremony. Normally, one would not use the word “ceremony” with staff rides. But this was more than a staff ride.

I distilled the experience into this message: That a lesson cannot be truly assimilated into the core of one’s being so as to influence thoughts and actions unless there are strong emotional underpinnings. In the future it would be smart of us to try and behave, teach, and listen to the best of our abilities with attention paid to the beating heart that we each have within us. Make an emotional and intellectual connection to the messages you want to matter.

 

This Has Been Me Before

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2013

Participating in the Redding IHC South Canyon Staff Ride was a definitive moment of my career both in fire and with the U.S. Forest Service. In spite of all that has changed after the South Canyon Fire and over the past two decades, firefighter fatalities continue to occur every year. Firefighting is still an inherently dangerous job with many unpredictable and unforeseen hazards that sometimes result in tragedy.

We strive to see everything and anticipate all possible disasters but to say that we can foresee and mitigate every single pitfall we encounter on a daily basis is to believe that we can predict and control the future.

Redding 5

In this dynamic and dangerous environment, my best defense against disaster is knowledge—knowledge of myself, my crew, and the environment around me as I build and constantly reevaluate my situational awareness. A great deal of the training to recognize situations, develop self-awareness and knowledge that we use from the first day we take Basic 32 came from the South Canyon Fire and studying human factors that played a role for every firefighter on Storm King Mountain on July 6, 1994.

While we may gain intelligence about fire behavior and modeling or advances in technology to aid our efforts in the future people are still people, imperfect and capable of mistakes, and many lessons learned from the South Canyon Fire are timeless.

If I fail to learn from the lessons fought and paid for by those before me then I am destined to repeat their fate. I will never forget after walking that mountain that it can so easily be me when I’m tired or stressed that misses important information or just a seemingly small detail that may turn out to be a crucial misstep later when time is compressed and decisions must be made quickly.

As we walked the West Flank Fireline with Eric Hipke he recalled that many firefighters had serious misgivings about constructing that line. Walking the line back from Lunch Spot Ridge toward Zero Point, I thought—as I had many times that day—“This could have been me. This has been me before.”

As we hiked, my crewmates and I discussed how many times we have been on fires like this and been nervous, had that gut feeling or hair rising on the back of the neck, and we just put our heads down and kept digging. Or we voiced our opinion which was ignored, or mocked as weakness and fear. So we put our heads down and dug or laid hose.

As we approached the last stretch of line on the staff ride, an incredibly steep pitch dotted with clusters of crosses, Hipke stops to point out a spot he remembers and give us more context of what happened as he hiked up that last stretch with the fire on his heels. He talks again of the gut feelings people had expressed earlier that day and pauses, recalling that Roger Roth was standing almost exactly where his cross stands and said earlier that day that this line wasn’t safe and they shouldn’t be there.

I will never again ignore my gut, put my head down and dig. Intuition is often the recognition of what I can’t quite put my finger on logically but somehow innately know is true. I will always listen to that feeling in the future. As a leader, I will also strive to foster an environment for others to express their misgivings and opinions as they may see something I have missed.

I have also learned during the Redding Hotshot training season that sometimes the simplest things are the most impossible to achieve, while those that seem the most impossible are actually the easiest goals to accomplish.

The South Canyon Fire, a seemingly small fire in plain sight of a neighborhood where homeowners constantly wanted action taken, was actually a complicated situation. The fire was challenging to access through the East Drainage, in terrain difficult even for smokejumpers to jump, and the apparently straight-forward task of cutting line on the West Flank was fraught with difficulty and struggle with rugged terrain, complex topography, and heavy fuels.

This situation was another lesson for me that walking away from a strategy becomes infinitely more difficult with every hour of work and every drop of sweat we invest in a piece of ground. I must always be willing to take a step back, look at the big picture objectively and reevaluate tactics and strategies. If a plan is no longer viable because of changing conditions or simply isn’t working, sometimes the best thing to do is walk away and make a bigger box. As Don Mackey said the morning of July 6, 1994: “No piece of line is worth dying for.”

On the first night that engines scouted to find access to the fire, someone shined a headlamp up the West Drainage and decided it was impossible to hike. Brian Scholz, Captain for the Prineville Hotshots in 1994 and gracious enough to recount the experience for us on the staff ride, had even asked if he could take half the crew waiting to be flown to the fire and hike up the West Drainage. But he was told that route was impassable.

Our second day hiking into Storm King, we followed a trail up the West Drainage that took less than half an hour at an easy pace. This path even seemed much safer to me than traveling up the East Drainage, which took hours for the local crews hiking into the fire. The seemingly impossible was actually the simplest answer. Even a small detail such as how we arrive at a fire can shape our perception and tactics.

The resources for the South Canyon Fire all arrived at the top of the fire whether they had hiked, jumped or been flown in and their plan was thus to cut downhill and underslung line to get around the fire. This is a lesson for me in the future to consider all options and again be willing to change tactics when considering the big picture, as well as to find out if something is really impossible or simply hasn’t been done before.

Our last morning in Colorado was filled with the hustle and bustle of 20 people coordinating for a single purpose. Check-out of rooms, get the buggies ready, and be ON TIME so we can leave. We loaded up, hoping for a call on our drive home to our dream assignment out of region somewhere exotic like New Mexico. Not long after leaving we took an unexpected exit and the quiet buggy was suddenly full of whispered speculation. We unloaded at a park with a dedicated memorial for the firefighters who lost their lives on the South Canyon Fire.

After weeks of planning and days of driving and intense training on Storm King Mountain, taking the time to stop and look at the faces and read the biographies of each life lost was one of the most poignant moments of this experience. Each person on those plaques reminded me of a fellow firefighter. They were a lot like my fellow crewmembers—athletic, some with a passion for firefighting and the Forest Service, all with a strong love for the outdoors and genuinely good people, men and women that I would like to have met.

After studying them and talking about them for weeks I feel like they are old friends who I haven’t seen in a while, people that had potential to be the future leaders and trainers of my generation and though they are gone, they continue to lead through training like this staff ride.

I have learned so much and been heavily impacted by what they went through on that July day. For me, safety means that we firefighters are the highest values at risk—these names and faces—every time we head to a fire.

On our last night as a large group each participant at the staff ride shared one thing that they had learned and taken away from this experience. One comment that a few people repeated stuck with me: Know your stuff, be the best at your job, and above all take care of your people because those are real lives and my son or daughter might be on the crew that you are leading.

I will never forget the lessons learned from participating in the South Canyon Staff Ride. They will continue to influence my development as a leader and a person for the rest of my life. Thank you for the time, effort, and support that you have contributed to make this invaluable experience possible.

 

 

An Overwhelming Emotional and Sobering Experience

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2015

Participating in the 2015 South Canyon Staff Ride was a truly rewarding opportunity and one that I am grateful to have been given. The lessons that I learned will carry further into my life, both professionally and personally.

Redding 6

This staff ride really was unique in that the SMEs were people who had actually been a part of the original event. They come back year-after-year to share their stories, living history right from their mouths. All of the conference group leaders and support staff go the extra mile to help facilitate the best learning environment possible. The pre-study materials and the integration night were both valuable components that really make the most out of the event. I cannot imagine a more in-depth approach to learning than I experienced on this staff ride.

Participating in facilitated tactical decision games allowed for me to really see the scenario unfold and how my decision process would progress. Communicating with the people in your group and working through problems, mitigating them in real time, utilizing tools like LCES and the IRPG was a valuable hands-on approach.

As I sat at the tree that marks the top of the West Flank Fireline I asked myself: “What more could I do to prepare myself for this situation? Physically, did I train hard enough to give myself the best chance of escape? Mentally, do I challenge myself to think about complex and evolving incidents? Emotionally, how do I handle stress and fatigue? What could I do to become more resilient to these factors of decision making?”

As a crewmember of the Redding IHC, I was assigned extra study into the movements of the various smokejumpers assigned to the South Canyon Fire. Giving extra focus to one particular group really allowed me to explore another perspective. I also had the opportunity to present a briefing to the entire participant group at the “Lunch Spot” which focused on what the smokejumpers were doing during a set timeframe. I chose to focus on the human factors that I could draw out from the pre-study materials, because I felt like they often get overlooked as we analyze the tactical decisions made on fires.

Moving across such a historical piece of ground was at times overwhelmingly emotional and brought further into perspective the need to make sound and timely decisions. Putting my boots in the footprints of wildland fire history was a sobering experience. Looking at the crosses on the hill reminds me to be thankful for all we have learned from the sacrifices of those who came before us. We operate in a high-risk environment frequently to protect people, property and natural resources. It is not simply a job but a way of life and I take pride in my contributions.

I benefitted greatly from participating in this staff ride and am appreciative for all of the people that believe enough in the future fire leaders to make it possible.

I Made a Key Flaw

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2017

In May I was honored to be allowed to go and participate in the staff ride with the Redding IHC for the South Canyon incident. After reading the books and all of the incident reports over numerous years I thought I would have an extensive grasp on the events and the strategies that took place on this incident. But, in fact, as I would soon come to find out, I was full of misinformation that I had derived from my readings. By this I mean that I thought the mountain was going to be steep and rough country due to the limited access and how thick the vegetation was. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Redding 2

 As I stood at the overlook spot looking out across the drainage toward the fatality site and then over toward the lunch spot I noticed what appeared to be a hill. It wasn’t a huge steep drainage with a giant mountain rising up and out of it. This sight made me stop and realize that all of my beliefs were in fact completely wrong. The biggest eye-opener for me was not the timeline or even the people involved, it was the geography.

 The lessons that I learned in May through this staff ride I am going to carry with me through my career. I learned to ground truth the fire and its access points. Like how the south drainage was supposed to be impassable but yet the day after the staff ride we went and walked up it from the highway with no problem. I also learned that they fought this fire the same way that I would have being that my career is in aviation. I would have started from the top and worked down just as Don Mackey and all of the others had done.

The best thing about this staff ride was actually getting to meet the survivors and learn with a hands-on walk through the events—from blowup to escape. It was a real informal and key learning strategy in that I was getting to hear firsthand from Eric Hipke and what he was seeing, what they were doing during their escape, and what was going through his mind.

I was shocked when I found out that there was no sense of urgency until they were near the top. It was amazing that they were only walking, they never ditched their packs, they never ran, and they never pulled out there shelters at the beginning. They just had a sense of bumping out. We are taught now in fire to ditch our gear, pull our shelters and run.

Well, it gets so chaotic that when we did the run from their beginning hike-out point I still took off running with my pack on. Then Tyler Harris yelled “drop your packs” four different times. It wasn’t until the fourth time of hearing him that it finally sank in to drop my gear. As I threw my pack I instantly took off.

It wasn’t until the top when I was hacking and coughing trying to catch my breath with my lungs burning that I realized I had made a key flaw. In my haste and the chaos of the moment I threw my pack but did not take my shelter with me. I’m going to remember this throughout my career. If I ever have to drop my pack I will grab my shelter because if it can be this chaotic during an exercise how chaotic is it going to be in a live scenario?

This all prompts me to ask the question: “When is the right time to ditch your gear, and to take off sprinting for your life?” This is something that is going to be answered on an individual basis based on your own PT, body type, and experience level.

The final Q and A while sitting on the top of the hill allowed for both Redding IHC and Horseshoe IHC to ask about situations going through our minds as well getting firsthand feedback and direct answers to our questions from the individuals who experienced it. It was a moment of tranquility and relaxation as both crews were learning from the answers and feedback from Eric Hipke, Bryan Scholz, and Kip Gray.

The staff ride was a huge success, an eye opener, an amazing opportunity to participate in, and a life event that I will hold on to and never forget. The lessons that I learned and the information gathered, I’m going to carry throughout my career and use them in everyday real-life situations.

I would like to thank the key personal who put in countless hours year after year for putting this on and improving it each year. I always wanted to go on this staff ride and now that I have it is safe to say it surpassed all of my expectations and will allow me to be a better firefighter, co-worker, leader, and human being.