Aptitude — Why Don’t We Test for It?

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

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

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

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

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

Aptitude — Why Don’t We Test for It?

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

My Post

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

To Build on the Latter

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

On Hiring and Recruitment within Government Agencies

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


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


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

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

Tying in Risk

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

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

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

Discuss!

 

 

High Vis?

By Charlie Palmer     chicken_hi_vis_jacket_yellow_chicken.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What thoughts do you have on this matter?


References:

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

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

Ground Ignition Equipment Standards?

By Paul Keller

torch1

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

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

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

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

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

Publication’s Organization

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

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

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


Here is some context related to this topic:

Ice Canyon RX Burn Injury

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

Drip Torch Leg Burns

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 12.26.08 PM

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

 

 

Fuel Geyser Awareness Project Updates

By Paul Keller

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

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

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

Updated Fuel Geyser Map

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

Fuel Geyser Incidents in 2018

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

Fuel Geyser Incidents the Past Two Years

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

Alternative Solutions and Risk AnalysisFHP

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

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

Fuel Solutions

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

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

Recommendations

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

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

Next Steps

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

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

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

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

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

National Fuel Geyser Awareness Website

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

 

Who Uses Lessons?

By Travis Dotson

If you haven’t seen it yet, please look at the 2018 Incident Review Summary.

Cover

We compile this 10-page report every year. It’s kind of a big deal to us here at the Lessons Learned Center because, well, it’s the lessons (pretty much what we do). It for damn sure is not ALL the lessons from the past year. But it’s the topics we chose to highlight based on reviewing incident reports all year (year after year).

We get it wrong sometimes. That happens when you try to simplify complex things.

But, so what, imperfect tools are still useful (ever used a McLeod?).

Please answer the four questions below:


Thank You!

Please use the lessons.  We care about all of you.

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 fire crew member 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).