Socks Matter

By Alex Viktora

I used to work for the National Park Service. One of the sweetest things about working for the NPS was the official socks.

That’s right. Socks.

As a member of a wildland fire crew, I rarely had much need to be in official NPS uniform, so my annual uniform allowance was spent on socks. Brown wool socks. If you wear them with shorts, you look like…well…German?

I bought so many of these things, I still have a cache of unopened wool socks in my closet.

As most firefighters can attest, keeping your feet in good shape is super important. The NPS uniform socks—most of which are a milk chocolate-colored wool blend—were awesome socks on the fire line.

I’ve always known this.

But what I just now learned is this: These sock could save me from a serious burn. Come to think of it, they probably already have.

My Leg Had Fire Swirling Around It

In maybe my third season, I was on a prescribed fire somewhere in Utah. I’d been running a torch for days and days during our typical spring burning. I usually carry the torch in my right hand, and so my right pant-leg was, uh, pretty dirty. It wasn’t drenched or dripping, but it was certainly flammable—as I was about to find out.

On this particular shift, I was the guy way up the hill, with torches strung out down the hill below me.

We came to a place where we had to hold-up firing for a bit. For some reason, someone rang me up on the radio. I answered the call. As I did so, I moved maybe 10 feet downhill from the line of fire that I just laid in ponderosa litter. (If you’ve never burned in ponderosa needle litter, you’re missing out. Mmmm….Pondo litter!)

This line of fire backed slowly towards me. And as I yammered away on the radio, the fire inched closer and closer to my right leg.

Suddenly, I looked down. My leg had fire swirling around it.

I thought: “Wait—I’m on fire?” What a bizarre realization!

I put the fire out and I can’t say for sure how it all happened. One thing’s for sure: Putting that fire out took longer than I woulda guessed.

My Nomex turned that telltale yellow/brown. And I had some ‘splanin to do to the boss. My damaged ego was the worst of my injuries. My leg was barely as red as a sunburn.

Did my socks help prevent a serious burn injury? Turns out, they may have.

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Tips on What To Do If Your Pant Leg Catches on Fire

The folks at the National Technology Development Program in Missoula have done some recently released great work to describe what happens when Nomex catches on fire. And it turns out, wool socks could be a key part of avoiding a burn injury.

Check out this new video for some cool tests:

 

Here’s a few specific tips on what to do if you find yourself with your pant leg on fire:


Testing Results and Accident Observations

  • Swatting at burning fuel can increase the fire intensity.
  • Stop, drop and roll does not readily extinguish fuel fires on clothing.
  • Fuel-soaked clothing burns hotter and for a longer duration than clean clothing.
  • Wool-blend socks provide significant protection to the wearer from thermal burn injuries caused by burning drip torch fuel.
  • Pouring water from a readily available water bottle onto the clothing is an effective way to extinguish the fire.
  • Dropping the pants to the ankles removes heat from next to the skin.

Next time you’re shopping for socks, consider some woolies that come up above your boots. Turns out, even the lovely brown ones might save your skin.

Do you have a story like this? Do you own any green Nomex pants that aren’t as green as they used to be?

 

 

Lessons from the Knoxville Mobilization Center

How Thorough and Creative “What If” Thinking Led to Safety Successes

SERBy the 2016 Fire Safety and Learning Teams, U.S. Forest Service Southern Region

 [Note: As part of the historic 2016 fall fire season in the Southeastern United States, the U.S. Forest Service deployed teams throughout the Region to capture learning opportunities.]

IMT personnel at the Knoxville Mobilization (MOB) Center during the 2016 fires in the Southeast were proactive.

Instead of saying: “We had an accident and then we changed our procedures,” they thought through intricate scenarios about how things might go wrong—so that they would go right.

The intent here is not only to share the specific lessons, but also to encourage this type of thinking.

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Procedures and Innovations

  • High visibility vests were worn by all command and camp help for safety and to also ease recognition of leadership.
  • One-way traffic was established at ICP to streamline the mob/demob of crews.
  • Safety was emphasized during loading and unloading buses and boarding planes. They eliminated access to the active runway through the positioning of buses. 
  • Driving in the area was particularly dangerous. Crews were informed not to try to convoy.
  • They reduced the potential for off-duty incidents by having crews turn-in rental vehicles the night before they flew out and established hotel shuttles. They were also mindful of housing crews in areas that had restaurants and laundry facilities nearby.

Communication

  • The Emergency Phone Number for the airport ambulance was conspicuously posted around the MOB center so that people would NOT call 9-1-1. Calling 9-1-1 would have sent an ambulance from the city, which was much farther away.
  • Intake materials were printed in Spanish and English.
  • They also set up a text message system and email account to communicate with crews about departure times.
  • To enhance and ensure optimum communication between the IMTs and airport, one person was assigned as a single point of contact.
  • This liaison was extremely important in working with airport personnel to get access to secure areas. For example, the secure snow bay was used to keep crews dry during loading and unloading, which helped with safety and morale.
  • The liaison formed relationships with the pilots and flight crews, which allowed the opportunity to weigh-in early and fly when ready instead of sticking to a rigid schedule.
  • The liaison worked with the rental car company and the airport to identify alternative parking options to accommodate the high volume of rental vehicles being returned at the same time.
  • The National Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation spoke to incoming crews on the apron which provided a clear boost in morale, and emphasized Life First.

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Adaptive ICS

  • IMT personnel were flexible about roles and tasks. When it was time to load or unload, everyone in the ICP, except for Finance, would put on a vest and go help.
  • They weighed crews in the night before they were scheduled to fly and allowed them to shed excess weight in a less stressful environment.
  • They assisted fire victims by donating excess items that had been shed to the Red Cross.
  • They ordered a 10-person module for the MOB center specifically to streamline loading and unloading of cargo and personnel.

How Do You Manage “Aggressive Kindness” on Incidents?

Although volunteers and individual acts of kindness provide wonderful support, if a mechanism is not in place to deliver this support, it can create a unique kind of challenge.

SER

By the 2016 Fire Safety and Learning Teams, U.S. Forest Service Southern Region

[Note: As part of the historic 2016 fall fire season in the Southeastern United States, the U.S. Forest Service deployed teams throughout the Region to capture learning opportunities.]

During the 2016 fires in the Southeast, communities rallied together to support emergency responders. These emergency responders reported an outpouring of community support unlike anything they’d ever seen.

One Incident Commander said that you had to be careful to avoid being overheard saying something like “my hands are cold” because the next day you would walk out and find 200 pairs of gloves out by your truck.

Restaurants in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee organized breakfast donations for every morning briefing. Crews reported having a hard time refusing cash donations from members of the public. Some of these people had lost their homes, yet they were concerned for the health and safety of the firefighters in the area.

In addition to such individual acts of kindness, volunteer organizations also worked tirelessly to support emergency responders during the severe 2016 Southeast fire season. DollyLocal as well as national celebrities also gave their time to encourage this type of giving.

Dolly Parton set a positive tone by releasing a PSA filmed with Smokey Bear about wildfire prevention and local giving.

These examples of giving truly support the notion that Southern hospitality is more than a colloquialism.

Helping to Make Giving as Effective as Possible

Although volunteers and individual acts of kindness provide wonderful support, if a mechanism is not in place to deliver this support, it can create a unique kind of challenge.

During these types of “disaster” events, people need an outlet for their thankfulness in order for their giving to be as effective as possible. At one morning briefing, hundreds of sausage biscuits were donated. They were delicious and everyone left with an extra biscuit for their pocket—but many were not consumed.

While gifts may be more difficult to manage, voicing thankfulness, like the letter below, is always warmly appreciated.

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Three Suggestions for Managing Kindness on Incidents:

  • Create a volunteer “welcome center” to streamline the efforts of volunteers.
  • Discuss the phenomenon of “aggressive giving” during a morning briefing so that people can be aware and discuss strategies that might be useful, particularly within the affected area.
  • Finally, because most state and federal employees are not allowed to accept financial contributions, we must also be thoughtful about preparing our employees with strategies to re-direct this public giving to the appropriate outlets. Creating a pocket card or handout for Division Supervisors that lists locations for donations at the local level, and contact information for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation or other national organizations are examples of these outlets.

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Don’t Let Your Language Fool You: Risk “Transfer” is Not Risk “Mitigation”

Last week we featured writing from the Asheville Hotshots. This week we highlight several unconventional lessons generated by other folks in the Southern Area. The writing in this weeks series was originally submitted through Rapid Lesson Sharing.  In coordination with the submitters, several of these submissions have been adapted for this Blog.

Nice work Southern Area – way to set the bar on sharing lessons and perspectives!


If we can change our language we can change how we think about things—and therefore interrupt old ways of thinking that may undercut safety.

SER

By: 2016 Safety Liaison and Learning Teams, U.S. Forest Service Southern Region (Note: As part of the historic 2016 fall fire season in the Southeastern United States, the U.S. Forest Service deployed teams throughout the Region to capture learning opportunities.)

 Thinking and Speaking are Intertwined

It is one thing to say that our thoughts affect our speech, but it is quite another to recognize how our speaking shapes our thinking.

For example, the “Forest Service 2016 Wildland Fire Risk Management Protocol” suggests that we should consider replacing the commonly used phrase “initial attack” with “initial response” which implies a more “deliberate, thoughtful approach.” (Click here for the 2016 protocol document.)

The logic behind this suggestion is that if we can change our language we can change how we think about things—and therefore interrupt old ways of thinking that may undercut safety.

Thinking, Speaking, and Risk Assessment

One specific example of how language can train our thinking in unintended ways is when we use the word “mitigation”—when what we have really done is “transferred” risk. Even though “mitigation” means that we lessen the severity or likelihood of a potential outcome, we often function as if we have zeroed-out the risk completely.

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A Familiar Topic, a New Example

In December 2016, the Maple Springs Fire was burning from a developed area outside of Robbinsville, North Carolina into the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. Control lines outside the wilderness boundary were secured.

The Agency Administration and Incident Management Team began discussions about how to proceed with the portion of the fire located within the wilderness boundary. They wanted the fire progression stopped. Two possibilities were discussed.

The first was to put three crews in the wilderness using direct handline to secure the active fire edge. The second was to use water scoopers over a period of a couple of days to continually drop water on the edge and slow the fire’s progression.

The decision was made to limit the risk to the greatest amount of people (the fire crews) by using the aircraft to limit fire spread. However, the IMT expressed concern that this would not “mitigate” risk but rather “transfer” it from the crews to the aerial resources.

To be sure, while this decision mitigated the risk to the greatest number of individuals on the ground, it transferred risk to pilots in the air—where the magnitude of loss could be catastrophic if something were to go terribly wrong.

While both severity and likelihood were taken into account in this decision making process, the exact criteria by which the decision was made is not as easy to discern.


In the comments, share your own examples of when risk isn’t actually mitigated but really just transferred.

Ready…GO!

The Change in Acceptable Risk Needs to Stem from the Top Down

This is Asheville IHC Reaction #14 – part of the Asheville Hotshots written reactions to  “The Big Lie”


I agree and disagree with many things in Mark’s essay “The Big Lie.” The best thing it does is that it seems to have lots of people talking, from ground pounders to fire staff and national office types. The essay addresses a few obviously very sore subjects with risk and safety being the hot topics.

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In my reaction to the Big Lie, I think Mark brings up some very valid points, that most firefighters and fire managers believe that if you follow all the rules that you cannot get hurt—and that’s just not true. But as Dave stated in his response that you can never account for every detail, you cannot account for human behavior and Mother Nature, there’s too much out of our control. I believe that too often being “politically correct” is what gets us hurt or into trouble. The quote from the ranger saying that they can’t tell 18-year-olds or new firefighters they might die in this line of work or recommend they have a will because it’s not “politically correct.” That’s the real lie. That’s the real disservice.

We need to look new hires right in the eye and lay out the risks and potential dangers they WILL be exposed to. Stop tiptoeing around the reality of the job and telling folks: “Yeah, 19 of us die every year but that won’t happen to you.” That’s where the family surprise comes from. Nobody actually thinks it will happen to them. Fire managers sending a hotshot crew a mile interior to take care of a political smoke, that in reality has no chance of impacting fire growth or causing any harm but an eye sore, and one of them getting killed is by no means acceptable! So why does that still happen? Then the same people that wanted the smoke taken care of ask why the crew was even in there in the first place!

Fire managers are setting these new hires up for failure by having them believe in this fallacy, that they have a “right” to a safe work environment. Fire managers are not only to blame, common sense and thinking for yourself goes a long ways. I have never once accepted an assignment thinking it was completely safe and free of risks even if someone told me it would be. Common sense tells me that working for the Forest Service in any capacity will have risks. Just taking a nature walk has the risk of injury from slips, trips and falls.

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Safety seems to be something that’s taken for granted more and more these days. During our “life first” engagement this spring, fire managers said that only zero line of duty deaths will be acceptable. Everyone in the room immediately knew that wasn’t possible. The only way that could happen is to never engage a fire again. The zero death tolerance is directly in the way of fire accomplishment objectives. I think the change in acceptable risk needs to stem from the top down.

People are forgetting that this job demands the utmost respect for fire, for wildlands, and all aspects of nature. I like the military aspects Mark addressed throughout the essay. Everyone knows the potential of risks and accepts that. They know men and women will die and do their best to avoid that—but they know it’s going to happen. I think this essay will get the topic of acceptable risk out in the open and hopefully talked about more. I am very interested in hearing what other crew members’ opinions are, and speaking to mine, which I am sure will be much more than I have written here.

Saying/Thinking/Pretending We are Safe Does Not Make It So

This is Asheville IHC Reaction #13 – part of the Asheville Hotshots written reactions to  “The Big Lie”


After Reading the “The Big Lie,” I 100 percent agree with what Mark Smith has to say in regards to the lies pervading our “safety oriented fire culture” and the many examples he uses in his essay. The two primary examples which I related to were: “The lie that wildland firefighting is safe” and “Every individual has the right to turn down unsafe assignments.”

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Exactly right, just by memorizing 10s and 18s and telling ourselves—and everyone else—we are safe does not mean it is truly so! Additionally, the caveat that we can turn down assignments if they are unsafe sounds good in theory, but I have seen time and time again instances where this is totally not the case. Outside factors, such as peer pressure, fatigue, over confidence, and “macho” attitudes muddy our judgment as both individual firefighters and especially as IC’s (which is even worse!)—as does the over emphasis on/and the unfounded belief that we are safe.

What I mean is, we learn now in an ultra-safety oriented fire world, and hear nothing but this day in and day out. We hear “life first” and see our initial suppression actions changed from “Initial Attack” to “Initial Response”. This is the main rub I had last year with the Chief’s Letter, and the renaming of IA to IR. We spend more time in mandated classroom safety and sensitivity training than in tactical fireline scenarios and boots on the ground project work or real-world training. Like Smith mentions, we will never reach our wanted goal of zero fatalities in this inherently dangerous job, but it is something we should strive for each day as individuals and as crews. The main point I relate to is acknowledging the risk, and using it to our advantage—not ignoring it or pretending it’s less than it is. These are the only ways to succeed in “defeating the Big lie” as Smith says, not playing word games to rename what we do!

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In fact, I think the renaming of IA to IR does us greater disservice and places us at greater risk. By attacking the fire at a small incipient state, we put less total personnel in harm’s way (2-5 firefighters for a Type 5 incident), we are working on an incident with potentially less overall heat, and we might likely get the fire caught before it becomes a larger incident. Large incidents place exponentially more firefighters on the fire lines, aviation resources in the sky, vehicles driving roads, and all of them in an environment for complacency-related injury.

An aggressive, decisive action in attacking the fire and cutting off the “head of the snake” so to speak, is much better than “responding” to an emerging incident, analyzing it for safety and all of the hoops we sometimes jump through, talking about it some more, and then taking action. All the while, a fire that could have been caught, is now off to the races. This is not to say any IC or firefighter should not use the safety-related training and tactics, 10 and 18s, and all of the great mental SA slides they have. They should just do it in a proactive and aggressive manner. Action for action sake accomplishes nothing. But, in my opinion, controlled, directed and aggressive action in attacking a fire keeps us safer and achieves greater results.

Overall, I feel, as Smith does, that we are too safe for our own good sometimes, and that saying/thinking/pretending we are safe does not make it so, it in fact makes us quite the opposite!

In the future, I hope that fire organizations uniformly embrace the direction that Smith aspires to, “a culture whose leaders have the critical thinking and risk decision tools worthy of people getting a very dangerous job done with limited means to do it.” What we can best hope for is a “critical balance of safety, efficiency and effectiveness in a high risk environment” and leave it at that. We can be action orientated and aggressive in fighting fires, and be damned proficient and safe while doing it. All the while, we must also recognize that what we do is unsafe and our brothers and sisters will die doing it.

No One Wants to Believe It Can Happen to Them

This is Asheville IHC Reaction #12 – part of the Asheville Hotshots written reactions to  “The Big Lie”


After reading the Big Lie I was definitely on the same mindset as Mark Smith—no one wants to believe it can happen to them. I agree with the part of the essay that says “There is acceptable risk. There is no acceptable losses.”

There is only so much we can predict, manipulate, influence, and control on fire situations. Whether it be suppression or prescribed, we base a lot of our actions on expected fire behavior and forecasts—but how often is the weatherman right?

 

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The point is that we put ourselves out in these high-risk environments because it is our job and certain tactics or strategies have worked for us in the past until they don’t and we have a casualty.

Within every incident there is an investigation to figure out how things could have been avoided. But I feel as though not every situation will be avoidable. People need to be aware that you’re constantly working in a moderate to high-risk environment not just on fires but even back at our home units, doing projects such as falling trees which is one of the most dangerous things we do.

I feel like if we inform people on “The Big Lie,” people within the fire culture will be more vigilant while being on the job and incidents will stay low. We have talked about how losses are inevitable. But by telling firefighters that we are constantly in a moderate risk environment we will keep people on their toes and keep injuries and deaths down.

You Can Do Everything Right and Still Be Killed in This Job.

This is Asheville IHC reaction #11 – part of the Asheville Hotshots written reactions to “The Big Lie.”


There are a lot of points that I agree with in “The Big Lie.” Things like fire is inherently dangerous, that a zero fatality goal is unattainable, and how much risk is acceptable. One of the major points that I’ve been hearing and talking about for the past couple of years is that fire is never truly safe. I’ve been lucky enough to have avoided going to a funeral of a firefighter that I know personally for 8 years now. But I can see that the day that I help lay a friend to rest is fast approaching. It’s hard to get any job done and be completely safe. You can do everything right and random things will still happen.

 

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I don’t know if I just got lucky with my overhead or if the culture is truly shifting to one of accepting that fire is dangerous. Personally, I think it’s a little bit of both. But regardless, for the past few years I’ve had more and more discussions about acceptable risk and the fact that fire is really truly dangerous. The biggest eye opener was talking with my current captain about the Esperanza fatality incident. He worked on the Los Padres National Forest for a number of years and knows the fatality site well. When the event happened, he recalls his captain at the time saying something to the effect of “They did everything that I would have done, I wouldn’t have changed anything”. Hearing that from my captain and listening to his thoughts on the entrapment was a major event that cemented the idea that you can do everything right and you can still be killed in this job.

 

When I worked in California we had the U.S. Forest Service Safety Journey program that we were required to participate in. Numerous times throughout the event the presenters maintained that the goal of the agency was a zero fatality environment. This was rebuffed by the fire shop as a whole that that particular goal was unattainable. So it seems to me that the issue of the Big Lie is being more perpetuated at the Forest management level and above. The fire community as a whole generally accepts that fire is dangerous and that people will die.

One of the major issues on fire is that because of the public interest we get told that firefighter and public safety is the number one priority, and then turn around and tell a group of guys to go walk 1,000 plus feet into solid black to drop a candle because the public can see it from the road at night. But no one is able to tell me how much risk is too much. However, if I turn down an assignment because of safety or lack of experience concerns, no one bats an eye—so we have improved in that regard. But if fire managers are going to keep putting lives and personnel at risk to accomplish tasks that don’t make sense from a suppression standpoint—in order to let the public keep their warm and fuzzy ideas of the world—then I get the feeling that we are going to keep having accidents and fatalities no matter what we do.

So all in all, I’m seeing the Big Lie being perpetuated more at the managerial level than at the suppression level. I have a feeling that this is stemming from managers not understanding what it is that the suppression folks are doing and that most of the time the suppression folks are not wielding a brush, but a sledge hammer. There is an element of finesse in fire. But, for the most part, we use broad strokes and most managers don’t have the background or the experience to know that because generally they don’t deal with the fire side of things very often. If you go into any District office I guarantee that the fire shop is going to be run very differently and almost at odds with the rest of the departments. I have a feeling that this is what is creating the Big Lie because I’m sure in Range you can put up miles of fence and have zero fatalities, in Timber you can cruise acres of timber and have nothing happen, in Wildlife you can catalog hundreds of nests and not have an injury, but in Fire it’s hard to get a 0.01 acre fire to do what you want let alone have no injuries. I think that this is where the disconnect is occurring.