Suicide: Behavioral Health Advisory

The following is an advisory circulating in the wildland fire community.


Ribbon2Fire and Aviation ManagementRibbon2

Behavioral Health Advisory

 

Subject: Caring for our own: Suicide Prevention and Behavioral Health

Distribution: Fire & Aviation personnel, Nationwide

Discussion: Suicide rates are increasing in this country, and while we do not have specific numbers, tragically, suicide affects our employees. Suicide does not discriminate on the basis of gender, age, background or profession.

Help‐seeking is often perceived as “weakness” to be avoided at all costs. This stigma, by its very nature, promotes silence and discourages asking for help when it is needed. Reducing stigma—making it OK to not be OK, and OK to seek help—is the first step. By openly addressing the topic of mental health among our employees, we can embrace the notion that this issue is no different than any other injury or disease.

Our workplace is a critical partner in preventing suicide. We have an opportunity to give people a sense of purpose, hope and community, all of which are psychological buffers to distress. Take the time to connect with each other. Each of us has the ability to make a positive difference in someone’s life. One life lost is too many.

Risk Factors

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Heavy alcohol or drug use
  • Witnessing traumatic event (s)
  • Major physical illness or injury
  • Loss of a close relationship
  • Isolation or lack of social support (e.g. off‐season, retirement)
  • Knowing others who have died by suicide

Warning Signs

  • Sudden withdrawal from social contact
  • Persistent feeling of hopelessness
  • Increasingly reckless behavior
  • Mood swings/ Change in behavior
  • Having a suicide plan (me, place, method)

There is hope. It is important to talk about suicide. Help is available.

Get Help Now

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

800‐273‐8255

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/


Veterans Crisis Line: Confidential support available 24/7/365 for veterans and their families and friends, regardless of enrollment in VA health care.

800‐273‐8255 and Press 1. Text message to 838255

https://www.veteranscrisisline.net (online chat available)


American Addiction Centers Firefighter & First Responders: Peer support for behavioral health and substance abuse.

888‐731‐FIRE (3473)

https://americanaddictioncenters.org/firefighters‐first‐responders/


Treatment Placement Specialists: Individualized behavioral health assistance program (BHAP) with intake specialists trained to work with first responders.

877‐540‐3935 (Or see the map on the website for the TPS in your area.)

http://www.treatmentplacementspecialists.com


What You Can Do

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF AND OTHERS. Monitor and manage mental health, just as you would physical health. Do not be afraid to ask for help and seek medical treatment. Thoughts of suicide can occur in anyone. It is not their fault, but rather a need to treat a mental health issue.

TALK OPENLY AND ACTIVELY LISTEN. Peer support goes a long way to protecting mental health. Open communication is especially important for the survivors after a firefighter suicide occurs. Listen actively, let someone who is seeking your help talk at their own pace and ask them open‐ended questions.

SHOW COMPASSION: Psychological risk is an undeniable part of the job. Be patient and supportive; do not judge or stigmatize individuals experiencing a mental health challenge.

BE DIRECT. If someone seems at risk or shows warning signs, ask “Are you thinking of suicide?” and “Do you have a plan?” Recognizing a potential suicide is critical to preventing it.

BE PROACTIVE: If someone you know has a suicide plan, connect them with a higher level of care as soon as possible. If it is safe for someone to stay with them, do not leave them alone. Call 9‐1‐1 immediately.


To download a printable version of this advisory please click here:

https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/suicide-awareness-and-prevention

Screen Shot 2018-08-07 at 11.07.55 AM

To download a printable version of this advisory please click here:

https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/suicide-awareness-and-prevention

When You Have to Run

By Travis Dotson

You should read this one. It’s straight up scary.

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 9.26.28 AM

We’ve talked about this before, how normal ops can get sketchy in a second.

Here it is. Real-deal run for your life type stuff.

First fire of the season. First shift.

Just scouting a road. Just serving as Lookout.

Normal ops.

Watch this:

Read the report to get the full details.

Read the section on lessons – discuss the questions posed.


Get full report here:

https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/horse-park-fire-entrapment-2018

Underslung Heroes

By Travis Dotson

Remember the Cerro Grande Fire in May of 2000?

  • 230+ Homes Destroyed
  • 18000 People Evacuated
  • Nuclear Facility Threatened
  • Damage Cost – One BILLION Dollars
Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 11.13.01 AM

Burned homes from the Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos NM.

Nothing too outrageous by today’s standards I suppose. But consider this:

It was an escaped prescribed fire.

That’s a huge deal.

So, who were these clowns playing with matches on the doorstep of a nuclear laboratory right in the middle of the southwest spring winds?

Well, here is one member of this lousy light-it, fight-it, and lose-it team—in fact, this goofball was in charge when the fire went over the hill:

Paul Gleason.

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 11.09.41 AM

Paul Gleason

Hmmmm . . . Paul Gleason. Why does that name ring a bell? I feel like there’s some sort of big-deal significance associated with that name. Oh, wait. Isn’t that the dude who came up with LCES?

How did this happen? Like any other tough day on the line, there’s one slop-over kicking their ass and the Burn Boss (Gleason) suggests they make the magic name change (convert from RX to Wildfire—the most oppressive game of semantics we play).

So, they convert it. Now it’s a wildfire and Gleason is the Type 3 IC. Next comes the most common of all common tactical decisions. Direct or indirect?

We all know the direct or indirect dilemma is a fairly standard operational decision that needs to be made, just like it was that day. In the context of what eventually happened, this particular direct/indirect decision has gotten quite a bit of scrutiny. I think you should let Gleason walk you through it himself – watch this video: (Go right to 11:30 – 15:00 for the direct/indirect decision)

 

Are You Really Willing to Go There?

The “Bad Apple”. There’s one in every bunch, right?

Are you really willing to go there? Are you willing to boil this entire series of events down to a simple case of: “They should’ve turned left”?

Are you willing to say you would have made a better tactical decision than Paul Gleason?

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 10.46.51 AM

The Bad Apple Theory

Paul Gleason said: “I had a preconceived bias against underslung line.”

I don’t like underslung line, either. Do you?

Crucial Decision Points

Yet, this is exactly the type of decision we love to crucify folks with using the perception-twisting kaleidoscope of retrospect omniscience.

As we look back at bad outcomes we create a story and in that story are critical turning points. Of course, these turning points are given significance only through reference to the eventual outcome. Who cares if they went direct or indirect if no houses burned down?

So now we have the story and identified the crucial decision points. We all love to customize these crucial points in our never-ending quest for the adoration of our peers via gaudy display of operational virility. Peacocks we are. We all want to be recognized for our “unique insight.” (In fact, I’m even on this quest myself right here within this article. But everything I’m saying has been said before. Damnit, now I have to find another route to self-esteem!)

What I’m really saying here is we love to parry the “They should have gone direct!” blow with the oh-so-clever “Well they never should have lit it!” mindset. Touchdown! The Monday morning quarterback brings home the bacon every single time!

Newsflash: That is not a clever insight. Neither is its simple sister: “Why were they even there in the first place?” Oh, how we love to toss that one out in relation to the latest entrapment, especially if it is related to structure defense. Again, not clever or even remotely insightful. We all know exactly how we get where we get because we all get there on every fire. We just walk away by the grace of Big Ernie.

The Comfort of Finding Fault

Let’s see here, where were we? Oh yeah, throwing rocks at Paul Gleason for making the wrong decision. Or not stopping the ignition. Or not listening to the weather service. Or listening to the weather service. Or not praying hard enough.

Maybe it wasn’t Gleason. Maybe it was somebody else.

Did you just feel the relief as we moved the crosshairs? Ahhhh, the comfort of finding fault—it feels so natural. I mean, who are we kidding? A prescribed fire that torches a town? SOMEBODY must have screwed-up. It’s not like that was the plan! Please feel free to pause here and let the comfort of that last sentence wash over you.

It should be unsettling to acknowledge how cozy that self-righteousness feels.

The Bad Apple, there’s one in every bunch.

Paul Gleason and Eric Marsh

Let’s time travel our target shooting session.

Hmmm, what year should we jump to? How about 2013? It’s so easy. Eric Marsh might not have been Paul Gleason, but he’d led his crew on a hike off a fire more than once. Bad Outcome = Bad Apple? Try giving Marsh the leeway you give Gleason.

Does it feel any different?

Apples and oranges, you might say. (Considering our current context, that’s kind of funny.)

But is it really that different? An operational decision with an unintended outcome. What if the personalities were reversed? What if Eric Marsh was the Burn Boss/ICT3 at the House Burner RX and Paul Gleason was hiking his crew to the ranch when they were overrun by fire?

Would you make sense of those outcomes differently than you currently do?

I’m guessing you would. You might try a little harder to see what you aren’t seeing, actively asking yourself: “What am I missing here?” But that Bad Apple bucket is enticing isn’t it? It’s a lot less work to just toss the bad operator in and move on. Especially if they are dead. Especially if they weren’t “Agency”. Especially if they didn’t have the right kind of buckle. Especially if, especially if, especially if . . .

Stand Accountable

We are all amazing firefighters. We are all bad firefighters. It just depends on the day and the circumstances. And the outcome.

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 11.39.54 AM

“I had to face the fact that there were times that I made decisions that led to the eventual outcome of this fire.” – Paul Gleason

I know the Bad Apple theory is appealing. And it might even be true sometimes. But don’t get lazy and use it without putting genuine heartfelt inquiry and introspection into the matter. Acknowledge the shifts where you were the Bad Apple. Acknowledge the future shifts where you will be the Bad Apple.

Everyone says: “We all make mistakes.” I think we all make decisions using everything we have learned and experienced to this point. I think we all care deeply about the people next to us. I think we all want to learn from tragedy and heartbreak. I think we can do better.


“There is no way to get around how uncomfortable it is to stand accountable for your decisions” – Paul Gleason


 

Listen to the related Lessons Learned Center Podcast:

Bad Apples

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.


Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 1.22.20 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 1.22.42 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 1.22.06 PM

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.

Redding 1

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.

Redding 8

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.