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?

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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

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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?

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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.

 

Suicide: Behavioral Health Advisory

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


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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

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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.

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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
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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.

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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?

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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.

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“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