Chasing Spots

By Travis Dotson

Spot! 

We’ve all heard it. We’ve all yelled it. We can all feel the little push on our pulse and the tingle in our toes just hearing it in our head.

It can be calm or it can be chaotic, but no matter how it’s called out—it’s time to get serious.

Let’s look at the most common ways we holler this one word and all that gets communicated by the way we voice this attention getter.

Spots

The Heads-Up

This is the notification version—loud enough for people to hear but with no urgency conveyed. This is saying “heads up, we have spotting, but don’t worry about this particular spot because I just put it out.” This is purely a notification, information for our communal SA, just feeding the common operating picture for the greater good. That is a lot of information to convey with the volume and tone of one word.

A Little Help!

Then there is the come help me out version. It’s definitely loud enough for folks on either side of you to hear and has just enough urgency conveyed to inform others to come help. It’s usually clear that if everyone gets on it, it won’t be a problem—but, start steppin! You can hear it in your mind. Actually, try saying it out loud just to practice: SPAAAAHT! (Hopefully you are reading this in the break room at the station. Then you can see if you did it right based on people’s reactions.)

ALL HANDS! (Fixin’ to Go Over the Hill)

Last but not least, there’s the full-on scramble. This is a bellow from the bottom. It’s loud, urgent, tense. Just shy of panic. Panic is never cool, but getting everybody moving sometimes requires a little pepper in your pipes.

What we’re saying in this instance is “we’re probably not going to catch this one, but we need to haul ass, bust ass, and pray for the luck that so often smiles on us, cause this one has legs!” This is a serious shout. Don’t be messing around with this one. In fact, if you put this call out there and the situation doesn’t warrant it, be ready to catch hell. It’s a good way to get a nickname—“ole Freddy Freak Out over here.” But nobody is joking around when it fills the air. We come running. We don’t EVER hesitate to get there and jump in, get dirty, and do our duty—to help.

We all know this in our bones and we learned it quick, because if you don’t come running when it’s time to chase spots—you don’t belong here. AND, if you don’t call for help when it’s time to chase spots—you don’t belong here.

Did you catch that part? The part where you learned how to call for help?

You know exactly where I’m going.

You are Not the Exception

Why is it we are so capable of calling for help on the fireline but will literally kill ourselves before asking for help off the line?

Emotions regularly kick our ass. I know you think you are the exception—some sort of lone wolf emotion-master killer-ninja bad-ass, but you’re not.

Not if, but WHEN you are struggling with whatever hard sh*t comes your way—call it out. Just let one person know you got a few spots. Even if you are gonna stomp them out with your boot, it’s just a heads up. You never know how many more are out there and you never know when it’s gonna go from nothing to scramble mode.

When you are holding line for the crucial burn show, would you ever see spots and just ignore them? Just hope they don’t grow together? The answer is no, you wouldn’t, because you’re not dumb (although you have eaten some ridiculously rancid rubbish for absurdly low sums of money).

HandsAsk for Help

We are all capable of doing not-so-intelligent things. In the case of hotshot Olympics, the consequences are rather benign (aside from the emotional scarring of any happenstance spectators).

But the not-so-intelligent move of not getting help with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and post-traumatic stress gets real in a hurry.

That stuff will push your ass into a hole.

But that’s OK, because you know how to ask for help. Little spot, big spot, lots of spots—don’t matter. Call it out.

Ask for help, Toolswingers.


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This article is the Ground Truths column from the Fall 2018 issue of Two More Chains titled “Traumatic Transitions.” Please read the the rest of the issue available here:

https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/two-more-chains-fall-2018

Clean Yellow Shirt

By Madeline Scheintaub

There is a raggedy circle of people standing around a giant map. Look around. Green and JPEG image-240D8C2B7DF8-1yellow; stained green and dull yellow; green and yellow-grey; green and yellow mottled with black; and vibrant green and brilliant yellow. That last person, what are you thinking about them?

I am that last person and I often hear: You’re blinding me. Go hug a tree in the black. I also hear the subtext: You’re new. You don’t belong. You haven’t proven yourself. You’re not entirely welcome.

My brilliant yellow is an honest signal. I am proud to wear it. It says: I am newer to firefighting. It is not my full-time job. I’m new on this fire. The subtext is: There are probably some skills I’m still working on. I might not have the search images to reliably pick out the hazards. I might need or want some extra explanation. I don’t have lots of experience in fire to draw from.

In a first impression, bright yellow Nomex and unworn gear can be taken as an indicator of relative skill, experience and belonging. This is the challenge I put out there. Take that first impression and make it conscious. Now what are you going to do?

Dig a little deeper.

Is that person in the blinding yellow really new to fire, or just lucky enough to have some new gear to break in? Are they new to this fire? What is their role here? What are they bringing to the work we are doing together? Is there anything they need? How is knowing more about this person’s experience level going to make everyone safer and the work more productive?

Are you going to create distance? Are you going to push that person away as an outsider or a burden? Can you have togetherness in the fire community without making those at the edges unwelcome? If that person with bright colored gear intentionally dulls those bright colors, are you losing anything?

I am going to continue to wear my brilliant colors until they fade with time and experience. I hope you ask me about them and why I am choosing to be out here with you.

Who is on Your Crew?

By Lyndsay Alarcon, Helitack Superintendent1541799144541

Crew Resource Management (CRM) is the application of team management concepts in the wildland fire environment.  CRM originated as Cockpit Resource Management and was developed by NASA in 1979.  At that time, the majority of aviation accidents were caused by human error related to failures in communication, leadership and decision making in the cockpit.  The term has since been expanded from cockpit to crew with the fundamental goal being better decision making through how we interact with each other.  Who does “each other” include?

Although team management is not a new concept, CRM places a different perspective on the meaning of team.  It redefines team work to include all personnel needed to achieve the success of a mission.  Let’s use an example of a medivac to extract an injured firefighter.  The team would be comprised of the dispatcher flight following with the aircraft and making notifications, the medical unit leader organizing hospital care, the municipal firefighter serving as a line medic, the IHC crew constructing the helispot, the helitack crew and pilot, the mechanic who maintains the helicopter, etc.  Any failure in communication, leadership or decision making from any player directly impacts the success of the mission.

Our perception is embedded in the slogan, “Taking Care of Our Own”.  We tend to take this direction and think linear.  “My team” is my crew and as long as my crew is good, then I am good.  My actions only change when there is a threat to my crew.  If each person applied this thought, “taking care of their own”, how do we ensure overlap on an incident?

The reality is that sometime there isn’t any.  The Dutch Creek incident is an example of how the interaction of people can effect leadership, communication and decision making.  The cultural gaps still standing between CalFire and USFS even in the face of fatalities.  It is why so many individuals can see the rotating plume on the Indians fire and not say anything.  It is not that they don’t talk, it is that they communicate the message to who matters to them.  If we acted like the success of the mission depended on our partnerships, then we would value each other differently.

The 2018 season was costly.  We lost many, including hired contractors, agency partners and volunteers.  I can’t help but to wonder how they are supported beyond the mandatory briefings, the sack lunch and pay check.  Who brings them into the team?  How does that affect the moments when we need each other the most?  Starting day one, were they cared for as if they were truly one of our own?

Consider enlarging who you think of as “your crew”. It could make all the difference.

 

Most of Firefighting Sucks

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You should go read this piece by Amanda Monthei. She knows what’s up.
This is an excerpt:

“This night was pretty fun until it wasn’t, and then it straight up sucked. Not only did our line not hold—requiring three more days of work to contain it on the other side of the road—but many of us agreed that it was probably the worst smoke exposure of the summer. Smoke exposure is the worst part of our job, and its effects don’t go away once you reach fresh air. Your eyes will dry and the snot will stop, but you’ll still wake up feeling like you got black-out drunk and smoked a pack of Marlboros the night before. Your voice will be raspy. Your lungs won’t feel quite right. Your throat will be sore. You’ll have a headache.

That all said, this was probably one of the most memorable nights of the summer—probably because it sucked so bad. Most of firefighting sucks to some degree, but breathing smoke and nights that never seem to end rank right up there with the worst of it. The real question is why the hell we continue to do it.”


Go read the full article:

https://www.amandamonthei.com/blog/2018/10/27/in-defense-of-things-that-suck

Has Nothing Changed?

By Travis Dotson

SameOld

You should probably just go read this article:

What We Learned from the Yarnell Hill Fire Deaths

It’s written by Kyle Dickman.

The subject matter is of great interest to us here at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.

It has to do with wildland fire. It has to do with learning.

It has to do with a monumental trauma in danger of being rendered inconsequential.

Here are a few quotes from the article:


“Over time, the relationship between tragedy and rulemaking sewed into the culture the belief that firefighters die only when they break rules.”

“While these rules are well intentioned and do indeed save lives, he says they also impose a false sense of control in a wildly chaotic environment.”

“…there’s a relatively high probability that a tree eventually crushes you, you step on a bee nest, grab the business end of a chainsaw, or get burned. Yet somehow, most firefighters Smith polled believe they work in a low-risk environment—something more like a factory floor.” 

“..if the Forest Service admitted the incredibly high chance of death their people are exposed to, their firefighters—or maybe their families—might demand fair compensation.” 


You should probably go read it.

You need to think about this stuff.

We are spending lives every summer yet we are not clear on what we are buying.

Check it out:

What We Learned from the Yarnell Hill Fire Deaths

 

Honor The Fallen

By Travis Dotson

How exactly do we Honor the Fallen?

honor1

It’s a tough question because it has a thousand right answers. One of the most important ways to honor is to learn. We are always in danger of squandering the bitter opportunity that tragedy affords us.

This video is a glimpse of what so many of us struggled with in the aftermath of the Yarnell Hill Fire. This is just a few fire folks walking the ground in January 2014 and grappling with how to advance our culture in the aftermath of devastation.

Take a look.

Making sense of bad outcomes is difficult, often impossible. But nobody wants the pain to be without benefit. Suffering without growth is tragic.

Let’s choose growth. One way to grow is to challenge long held beliefs. The window for genuine inquiry opens wide after disorienting circumstances – when we are shaken we struggle to re-balance. For many the re-balance means doubling down on long held beliefs, for others it requires a heart wrenching letting go of previous convictions.

What are some of your long held beliefs?

Are you willing to question them?

Are you willing to consider a new perspective?

And after all that, are you willing to actually alter your actions?

Growth is difficult.

Honor the Fallen

 

 

Old Boss Says…

The following letter is directly from the Redondo Escaped Prescribed Fire FLA

Old_Boss


TO: Current and Future Burn Bosses

FROM: An Old Type 1 Burn Boss

As an Old Type 1 Burn Boss, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a ton of great people and do what I believe is a lot of awesome work within our fire adapted ecosystems. This was my first time serving on Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) team. If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to participate on an FLA team. Please don’t wait as long as I did to get involved. Never stop learning, never stop communicating, and always strive to BE A STUDENT OF FIRE.

As a Prescribed Fire Burn Boss you operate in a very complex and ever changing environment. You spend months preparing for an event, and all along you need to be gathering situational awareness:

• Who will be on that hill at a specific time?

• Did I order enough blue houses?

• Will the food be on time?

• What piece of equipment will break down?

Oh, and don’t forget your day-to-day job requires a facility check next week and a hundred other things.

As a current burn boss, spend as much time as possible with future burn bosses. Teach new burn bosses to document everything, even if they think it is trivial. Why? Because to truly move forward with a learning culture, you have to be able to tell your story, and trust me, notes are golden.

As an Old Type 1, I want to share my experiences with you. Some learning was easy, some came the hard way. I’m sharing with you today with the hopes that you may learn from my scars.

• COMMUNICATION – COMMUNICATION – COMMUNICATION. Up, down, sideways. Never stop.

• Utilize the District as an ID Team to ensure your complexity analysis and burn plan is robust.

• Build an organization around yourself for support.

  •  This could be as simple as utilizing the type 3 militia.
  • Find the person that can locate anything, anywhere, and get them to assist with logistics.
  • Make sure you have plenty of drivers.

• Use an Incident Action Plan (IAP) and take the time to update all the blocks. The IAP will become your most critical piece of documentation.

• Invite overhead in at least two shifts prior to ignition. This will ensure everyone is familiar with the plan you’ve been working on for the past six months.

  •  Challenge these overhead resources to read the plan, to find what is missing, to poke holes in it – so that your plan becomes their plan, and is better for it.
  • Make time for a small command meeting before your first briefing. This will allow you to gauge the employees you have on hand and provide a chance to identify any resources/needs that are lacking.
  • CHECK RED CARDS.

• Partner with your dispatcher – they are extremely important to your success. Use ROSS to track assignment and qualifications of your people.

• Be in constant communication with your Agency Administrator (AA).

  • During the writing of the burn plan and complexity analysis, have meaningful dialogue with your AA. They are sharing the risk with you. If you can’t have a meaningful conversation or you don’t feel comfortable they are sharing the risk, STOP–THINK-TALK-THEN SIGN. Remember this is not about just checking a box.
  • If possible, have the AA on site for the entire event, or at a minimum during the critical shifts.
  • The AA is your partner during the burn; if you are not getting what you need, ASK – make some noise – get what you need.

• During the technical review process, ask for honest feedback and don’t take comments personally. Honest feedback helps you learn and makes for a better plan.

• Smoke is so very important, don’t just look at what the smoke is doing around the fire – look to where it will be that afternoon and where it will settle during the night.

  • Look at the area you could affect and double it.
  • Get the word out early and often.
  • Make sure you know who your smoke sensitive individuals are.

• Create a partnership with your district and/or forest PIO. Use the winter to provide information to the public and tell the good story about prescribed fire. Perhaps go with your AA and do some media interviews.

• Always look at ordering a FEMO for your prescribed fire events. This person is your weather and fire behavior documentation leader.

• Look at bolstering your fuels program. A strong fuels specialist will take your planning to a new level.

• REMEMBER:

  • BEING FLEXIBLE IS WAY TOO RIGID
  • YOU CAN ONLY BURN AS FAST AS YOU CAN HOLD
  • EVERYONE IS WILLING TO HELP, YOU JUST NEED TO ASK!

Thank you for all your hard work and never forget it is an honor to be a Burn Boss!

– Old Type 1 Burn Boss


Read the full report: Redondo Escaped Prescribed Fire FLA

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Chances Are…

Burning anytime soon?

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As you get the fuel mixed and the torches set…

Check this out:

 

Chances are…

You will get the job done.

You will be “successful”.

You will feel pressure to burn.

Unforeseen delays will put you behind the power curve.

You will not follow every aspect of your plan.

Problems will come from areas you least expect.

An emergency will highlight previously unknown communication issues.

Small problems will snowball.

The predicted weather will change and become unfavorable.

You will underestimate fire behavior.

You will not have to use your contingency plan…

If you do you will discover it’s inadequate.

If you read an escape RX review you’ll say “what were they thinking?”

As you burn this season, chances are you will be “successful.”

Are you good or lucky?


 

What do you think?

Crash and Burn

The following is an excerpt from the Sheep Creek Burnover Report


The Sheep Creek Fire occurred on August 18, 2018. A helicopter crash in a remote area near Battle Mountain, Nevada ignited a wildfire, resulting in a burnover of a Type 4 engine on a Search and Rescue mission responding to the helicopter crash.

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The helicopter was on a reconnaissance mission conducting a chukar survey. With a pilot and two biologists on board, the helicopter crashed in a draw, igniting the wildfire and injuring two of the passengers. They self-extricated from the helicopter and climbed up on a rock outcropping to take refuge from the rapidly spreading fire.

Firefighting and rescue resources were dispatched from Lander County Dispatch, including Battle Mountain Volunteer Fire Depart, local EMS services and a medical helicopter.

Meanwhile, Elko Interagency Dispatch Center was coordinating with Central Nevada Interagency Dispatch Center on a response to the rapidly spreading wildfire.

Two firefighters responding to the helicopter crash in a Type-4 engine were burned over soon after the occupants of the crashed helicopter were evacuated.

The Facilitated Learning Analysis Team worked to make sense of the event focusing on command, communication and accountability; qualifications, equipment and training standards; communication between dispatch centers; and key decision points along the way. Through facilitated dialogue with those involved, the Team shared lessons learned and recommendations.


Read the full report:

https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/sheep-creek-fire-entrapment-2018

Are Your “Slides” Blinding You?

By Persephone Whelan


So there I was, snuggled on the couch in the early morning hours with my 3-year-old, sipping coffee, idly flipping through Facebook when a Hotchkiss Fire District video of the Horse Park Fire came under my thumb. I thought, “Wow. That’s some interesting fire behavior. Wonder what the story is there.” Then I was interrupted with a request for more Paw Patrol videos or something.

Later on that day, a buddy called me up. “Did you see that video from the Horse Park Fire?! What were they thinking?”

STOP RIGHT THERE!

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Do I have your attention? Maybe half of it while you sip coffee, eat a sandwich, ride down the road? I’ll take what I can get. I want to stir the pot and see what comes up.

Have you ever been watching a video or reading about a near miss or something particularly hairy on a fire and heard someone say: “If they just stuck to the basics they would have been fine.” Or “What part of ‘base all actions on current and expected fire behavior’ did they not understand?” Or “How could they not see that coming?” Have you ever had these thoughts or conversations?

Let’s talk about THIS.

But before I launch into a series of questions and ideas to “stir the pot” I need you to take a moment and suspend your personal beliefs. Ready? Here we go.

Setting Us Up for Failure

Why do we keep getting surprised? What do we expect arriving on scene of an incident?

I would like to propose that this is where we have culturally strapped on the blinders. Your “slides,” your past experiences on fires, may be blinding you to what is right in front of you—and the possible future.

Perhaps we need to let go of the Recognition Primed Decision Making model. YIKES! What did she just say? I’m proposing this model, this mode of thinking, is setting us up for failure. Time to leave the 80s in the 80s and challenge our ways of thinking today.

No one starts their shift with the intention of only having half their situational awareness. Everyone starts their day, their strategy, or their tactics thinking that they have complete SA. They make decisions based upon that information they feel they are getting or matching-up to previous situations they have encountered. Sure, this practice might initially seem to work—right up until that moment everything goes to hell and they are running, thinking: “Wow! How did I lose my SA?”

Do you think the individuals in the Horse Park Fire video or FLA started their day thinking: “Hey I want to see how close I can get to being burned-over without actually getting hurt.”  Or: “I’m going to totally ignore the Fire Orders and Watch Out Situations when I go scout this fire because they don’t really work for me.”

You do not lose your SA. I once heard someone say, losing your SA is only possible if you are unconscious. You are only a human capable of processing X amount of data. It’s HOW you process that data that matters the most.

Mindfulness

Allow me to drop a hefty word on you: Mindfulness. If you are starting to picture hippy music, incense, meditation, etc., please pause. I am talking about mindfulness in a science/nerd type of way, not in a “gentle or nurturing” Buddhist approach. I’m talking about HRO mindfulness. Navy SEALs have mindfulness training. You picking up what I’m throwing down?

HandFire2

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Why does all this matter?

Judgements happen when you compare what you are seeing to a model, experience or “slide” in your mind. Once you make a judgement, your perspective is tailored to that moment. How closely does this scenario match others I’ve encountered? What tactics work best?

This leads you down a path where you may not be “seeing” what is going on around you because you already have a perspective selected which tailors the inputs to your mind. Everything else just washes away. You have now lost your SA.

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How is This Moment Different?

Here is where I ask you to make one subtle, yet very important shift.

Instead of asking yourself: “How does this scenario, this IA, this Division, etc. match others I have encountered before?” Ask yourself: “How is this moment different?” Instead of asking: “What worked before?” Ask: “What options do I have?”

Be creative. Be curious. Tune into your senses. Use the environment and the tools you have to engage—constantly reassessing what is different. And what needs tweaking.

On the other hand, asking yourself “What is working?” is confirmation bias and a dark path to travel. That kind of thinking reaffirms what you already “think you know” and leads to mindlessness and not mindfulness.

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Stop Trying to Make a Square Peg Fit a Round Hole

I do agree with those people who comment “Why were they surprised?” But I have a different perspective. Is it not common to joke “What is normal?” I haven’t heard many firefighters arguing that conditions or fires are the same as they were 20 years ago. If our fires aren’t normal, why are we using “normal” tactics?

“We’ve always done X” is a weak argument. I think this is how people get surprised. Stop trying to make a square peg fit a round hole. Stop forcing tactics that used to work on our current situations. We are a professional, adaptable group that performs at a high level in chaos.

Seek opportunities to allow your brains to operate at that high level without putting blinders on the inputs. Talk among yourselves, ask questions and listen to each other. Most of all <gasp> be safe out there!

Want to Know More?

Want to try to understand where these crazy ideas came from? Check out these sources:

  • Conklin, Todd. “What is all this talk about Mindfulness – Ellen Langer is someone you should know.” Pre Accident Investigation Podcast 151. December 9, 2017. https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-52idj-7d8e50
  • TedX Talks – “How to tame your wandering mind” by Amishi jha.
  • Fraher, Amy, Branicki, Layla and Grint, Keith. (2016) Mindfulness in action: discovering how Navy SEALs build capacity for mindfulness in high-reliability organizations. Academy of Management Discoveries.
  • Dotson, Travis. Ground Truths “Experience Builds Bias.” Two More Chains. Summer 2017. Vol. 7 Issue 2. Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.