Close Call Stories – Trusting Intuition

This post uses a video from:

THE SMOKEY GENERATION: A WILDLAND FIRE ORAL HISTORY AND DIGITAL STORYTELLING PROJECT

The Smokey Generation is a website dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing the stories and oral history of wildland fire.


By Travis Dotson

“I still kick myself for this…”

Ever felt that way? We all have. That is called hindsight. When we look back it’s easy to see what we should have done.

How do we take a “bad feeling” into pro-active mode?

“It’s so hard to put your finger on that bad feeling.” Yes.

“Talk about it, get it out in the open…maybe you’re not the only one.” Action.

Be able to say this: “Here’s my worst case scenario for the day and it’s sure going that way right now, maybe it’s time to talk about it.”  Bam.

Thank you for the wisdom Dan.

 

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.

1

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.

mob1

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.

mob4

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.

1

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.

2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 12.12.13 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 12.08.04 PM

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.

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?

 

devilsden

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.

I Hope More People Come to this Realization.

This is Asheville IHC Reaction #3 – part of the Asheville Hotshots written reactions to  “The Big Lie”


My initial response to this essay was complete shock, but not to the intent of the author, but more to the reaction of those that believe otherwise. I find it difficult to rap my thoughts around anything besides the reality that wildland firefighting is a dangerous occupation. The shear nature of fire is anything but predicable and if people or the public don’t understand that before undertaking the task or voicing their opinion on the matter then they are simply wrong.

I know that there’s always the chance that I could be killed and so does my family. We have accepted the dangers and that is why I have extreme respect for the foe that wildfire is. If a person feels otherwise, I urge them to witness the power of a wildfire for themselves. A fire ripping up a mountain slope or across a plain really puts the perspective of how small you are and out of control fire really is. Bewildered is the best word that comes to mind. Yes there are times and situations where the danger is reduced but that doesn’t justify the probability of a serious emergency not occurring.

I have personally been in a serious emergency situation while I was on a hotshot detail back in 2015. It was at the very end of the shift and the incident that occurred never should have happened and it almost cost a man his life. (If anyone is interested I will elaborate on the discussion further but not in this paper.) That was my only experience on a shot crew and I was glad I had the chance to experience how a shot crew should not be. I do, however, fear that the mentality of these individuals is only shadowed by other FFT1 and FFT2 crews around the county. (I can elaborate on this too.)

2radios

People need to see and understand that no fire or property is worth the life of a firefighter. We as an organization have to be more involved and recognize that fires are always going to be a natural part of the landscape and with that knowledge build an awareness for ourselves and the general public that reduces the risk of our men and women on the frontlines. It really pisses me off when I watch firefighters risking their lives trying to salvage someone’s home or property. These people build their homes in areas prone to fire danger and in areas so remote you’d need a helicopter just to reach the grounds. Now why in the hell are we in these places trying to protect these structures? These people have homeowners insurance and their property can be replaced, a life cannot.

I can only hope and pray that more people come to this realization after reading “The Big Lie” essay and it generates a different train of thought on how people view wildfires and the dangers they present. I would like to see more people voicing their opinions in the future.

 

Are Some IMTs Making Emergencies Harder to Manage?

By Jayson Coil, Battalion Chief Special Operations and Wildland Fire, Sedona Fire District, Arizona

I have a rule about not setting things on the top of my toolbox when loading-up for an assignment. This rule was developed after a new coffee cup and a BK radio slid off the toolbox and into traffic as I was leaving. So, I conducted my own little AAR as I filled out the damaged equipment report and realized that even though I intended to put them both in the front seat, there were distractions that prevented me from doing so.

On incidents, standardizing helps avoid bad outcomes by creating a shared understanding and expectations. When I think about how we make decisions and apply our training and experience to avoid costly errors, this standardization makes sense.


Do you remember what direction Wagner Dodge gave the rest of the jumpers when he realized the fire was below them?


When faced with a high stress, serious consequence situation, we do not engage in a strict comparison of options. In fact, we typically have incomplete information that requires us to continually reassess and validate the decision as the situation becomes clearer. So, we fall back onto our training and utilize recognition primed decision making (RPDM). And if the slide in our head—even if it’s a slide we developed in training—lines up with the reality we are facing, we make higher-quality decisions.

Do you remember what direction Wagner Dodge gave the rest of the jumpers when he realized the fire was below them? He told them to drop everything heavy. This was not anything they had practiced. Different crew members interpreted the order to mean different things. Because of this and other tragic events, we now incorporate “dropping your tools” into shelter training and conduct exercises on static and dynamic deployment. So at least in that example, we have demonstrated that we recognized developing a standardized approach to a critical task and practicing to proficiency makes sense.

Developing Good Checklists

There’s another reason why I think we should ensure that all IMTs follow a standardized approach. It has a lot to do with airplanes. When United Airlines Flight 173 ran out of fuel over Portland, Oregon and ten people were killed, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) listed the probable cause as: “The failure of the captain to monitor properly the aircraft’s fuel state and to properly respond to the low fuel state and the crewmember’s advisories regarding fuel state. This resulted in fuel exhaustion to all engines. His inattention resulted from preoccupation with a landing gear malfunction and preparations for a possible landing emergency.”

From this event and the subsequent work to reduce human error, crew resource management (CRM) was developed. In fact, CRM was one of the first books included in the wildland fire leadership development program. In CRM they recognize that checklists, such at the medical incident report, are effective ways to develop reliability and consistency. A good checklist establishes common ground, provides for standardization, serves as a cognitive aid, and reduces error.


We did our AARs and serious accident investigations and we took steps to standardize and improve. But, not every IMT has adopted the new standards. I don’t understand why.


So, I have explained why I believe we should train the way we perform in the real world and how the lessons learned in CRM can be applied to real life. If you think about my poor coffee cup and radio, a checklist that ensures nothing is on my truck before I pull out is a good thing. It would be even better to establish a standardized practice of never putting anything onto my toolbox. Also, I bet most of you know someone who has been hunting and leaned a gun against their vehicle only to drive off. That is a little off topic, but another practice to avoid. Trust me.

I Don’t Understand Why

A more serious example is the process improvements we have made for managing medical emergencies on fires. After Dutch Creek, we developed new protocol and the 9 Line. In 2014 we got a new med plan, the ICS-206WF, which included the medical incident report (MIR). We even added the MIR to the IRPG so everyone would have the same script to follow when reporting an emergency.

We did our AARs and serious accident investigations and we took steps to standardize and improve. But, not every IMT has adopted the new standards. I don’t understand why. Some IMTs still use the old ICS206 and some change the reporting requirements so they do not align with the MIR and the IRPG. Is their behavior aligning with the teaching of good CRM or what we should have learned from Dutch Creek? I don’t think so.

When there is high stress, new priorities, incomplete information and difficult environmental conditions, we are not going to take the time and consciously align our behavior with the model that a particular IMT has chosen to adopt. Sorry, but that is not how people behave.

Those people in the field who are managing the emergency will use their intuition, experience and training. If an effective and coordinated response that provides the greatest possibility for a positive outcome is the goal, we all need to align. To put it another way, if one of our top priorities is to increase the likelihood that an emergent event that threatens the life of a firefighter is handled as effectively as possible, then we need to follow the standard on every incident.


If an effective and coordinated response that provides the greatest possibility for a positive outcome is the goal, we all need to align.


The people we place in high-risk environments should know the training they have engaged in to effectively manage an emergency will apply. Sure, it’s more difficult for the MEDL to get all the information and it also takes up a few more pages in the IAP, but I fail to realize how either one of those issues trumps consistency and clear expectations for the crews in the field.

The way I see it, we have lots of things we can change, including: briefing times, the order of briefing, how far the toilets are from the sleeping area, if we are going to let crews spike out, collar brass, no collar brass. The list goes on and on. With all that ability to change stuff, let us all agree to leave the ICS206 WF and MIR standardized. Deal?

Who Mixed the Fuel?

3:1, 1:1, 3:2? What’s the right ratio for burn juice?  If you don’t have an opinion on drip mix you must not be very cool.  The more adamant you are the more likely you are to talk loud about how everyone else does it wrong – no matter the topic.  Wait…what were we talking about?  Oh yeah…drip mix.  Amanda Stamper shares her view on the matter, and gives us a bit of a history lesson as well.


Torch Mix

By Amanda Stamper – Oregon Fire Manager, The Nature Conservancy

A recent podcast about drip torch leg burns got me thinking about drip torch fuel mix ratios. It is no coincidence that I make this association. Last October my pants caught on fire while I was burning gamble oak in New Mexico. After having learned during briefing about how to properly extinguish Nomex on fire by grabbing your pants with a gloved hand and pulling them away from you to extinguish rather than smothering the burning fuel against your skin, and just before my pants combusted, we engaged in lively debate about the proper drip torch mix ratio. And I thought the mix was too cool!

 

Torch

So what is the proper drip torch mix ratio? Does the likelihood of one’s pants catching fire change with different fuel mix ratios? Have you ever wondered how bio-diesel might work in a drip torch? How were burns ignited before the various combustible liquids were at our disposal? These and other questions arise the further one probes.

Ask Ten Fire Managers

Ask ten fire managers from across the country for the ratio of diesel to gasoline in drip torch or slash fuel mix, and you are bound to get at least two if not three or four different answers. Not sure about the ratio of agreement vs disagreement, but suffice to say that drip torch mix ratios depend on the fuels, burning conditions, and perhaps nothing more than past practice of the organization or local area.

Where longevity of combustion is more important than temperature, as in pile burning or broadcast burning for reduction of larger diameter fuels, a higher percentage of diesel may be desired. More diesel than gasoline is perhaps the only cardinal rule when it comes to mix ratio, with somewhere between 3:1 and 4:1 being the most common. The most volatile mixture, according to the U.S. Forest Service, is 3:1, and is recommended for use only in appropriate fuel types (such as grass) during periods of high humidity.

 

A 5:1 fuel mix ratio is reported to have been used on the Saddle Prescribed Fire, where a burn injury associated with pants igniting occurred in 2012. My pants caught fire with the 4:1 ratio being used on the burn in New Mexico, that I had deemed cool given that I had long been using 3:1. Is longer-burning fuel a contributing factor? Does gasoline vaporize more readily and thereby contribute less to pants igniting? More research to this end may be needed.

More on Bio-Diesel

As for bio-diesel, it works just fine with drip torches and has been utilized in both hand pile burn and broadcast burn situations since early 2006. The Medford District BLM has used over 1,200 gallons of bio-diesel in slash mix during prescribed fire operations to date. The mix is made by using 99% bio-diesel and regular unleaded gasoline in a 3:1 slash fuel mixture. Bio-slash fuel burns similar to regular petroleum diesel/gas mix, but with less toxic wick smoke, with more of a cooking oil smell instead of sulfur or diesel fumes. The liquid is also less toxic for personnel and the environment during mixing and handling. The cost when using the “off road” discount is comparable to diesel #2. Bio-diesel has a solvent effect on the slash tanks and drip torches and seems to prevent sediment build up, as well as a slightly higher flashpoint than regular diesel.

Other Firing Devices

Before flammable liquids were being used in wildland fire operations, fire was ignited using materials largely obtained from the same environment being burned. Among the most notable in North America is the fatwood from longleaf pine, from which the fat lighter used for setting the woods on fire is made. The rich and resinous smell of its smoke only adds to the pleasure of burning.

Fire-stick farming refers to the burning practices of Australian Aboriginals to enhance the productivity of the land., Many wooden matches have been struck and tossed by sheep herders on their way down from the mountains to rejuvenate meadows for grazing. Recreational burners everywhere use lighters if that’s all there is.

Would you feel comfortable throwing matches instead of dot firing? What are some other traditional or unconventional firing devices that we could and should be using?