Close Call Stories – Trusting Intuition

This post uses a video from:

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

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


By Travis Dotson

“I still kick myself for this…”

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for the wisdom Dan.

 

Socks Matter

By Alex Viktora

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

That’s right. Socks.

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

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

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

I’ve always known this.

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

My Leg Had Fire Swirling Around It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out this new video for some cool tests:

 

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


Testing Results and Accident Observations

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

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

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

 

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

No One Wants to Believe It Can Happen to Them

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


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

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

 

devilsden

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

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

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

Are Some IMTs Making Emergencies Harder to Manage?

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

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

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


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


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

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

Developing Good Checklists

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

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


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


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

I Don’t Understand Why

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Who Mixed the Fuel?

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


Torch Mix

By Amanda Stamper – Oregon Fire Manager, The Nature Conservancy

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

 

Torch

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

Ask Ten Fire Managers

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

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

 

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

More on Bio-Diesel

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

Other Firing Devices

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

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

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

Learning at Work – Safe spaces required? The wisdom and irony of ‘Don’t F it up’ Part 1

A three-part series by Rachel Reimer

In the Winter 2017 issue of Two More Chains, firefighter Bre Orcasitas discussed wildland fire culture. In her blog, https://theevolvingnomad.com/2016/11/20/fire-culture/, she wrote, “Hearing ‘don’t F… it up’ is a sarcastic yet serious show of support for whatever small task you have taken on.” This blog series digs deeper into how and why that phrase has meaning, and examines wildland fire culture and learning.

Part 1

Wildland firefighting is dangerous work. And yet every year, there are hundreds of new recruits hired into the ranks of wildland firefighters, regular people who undergo a learning process in order to become one of the team.  It is through this process of learning that they are able to transform from “the public”–those people we order off of our fires, and hopefully keep far away from any real firefighting–into “wildland firefighters”. When I consider the topic of learning in wildland fire workplaces, I think of new recruits because they are enduring the most obvious and steep learning curve. But in reality, the learning never stops. My question is, can we learn when the stakes are so high that failure is not an option? Doesn’t learning require a “safe-to-fail” environment where people can honestly engage with the vulnerability of trying something new for the first time? Or, is the sarcastic yet gritty and horribly honest phrase ‘don’t F… it up,’ the sum total of all we need to know about learning in wildland fire?
I explore these questions through my experiences in the 2016 fire season instructing at boot camp, leading my crew, and at the Women’s TREX in Northern California.

We’re not here to breed sissies

When I think back to my experiences as a rookie at the ten–day boot camp my agency runs for new recruits, I didn’t feel like there was room to fail. I was intimidated. I tried really, really hard all the time even when no one was looking, in part because that’s who I am, and in part because I suspected that there was never a time when no one was looking. I distinctly remember the hill runs, pushing myself to physical limits I didn’t think possible, watching as people vomited and hyper-ventilated at the top, trying desperately to slow my heart rate and recover before the next lap, thinking ‘Oh shit, it’s going to be me next.” The stress is real. It’s real at boot camp because it’s real in our jobs…or at least that’s what I thought then.

This year I was invited to attend boot camp again. I joined the ranks of the privileged few who get to run the camp. When I got the call, the first thing I did was up my PT. Hill runs three times a week. I realized that while I would be an instructor…I’m still a rookie instructor. But this year it was different. What I saw at boot camp this year re-framed how I think about learning and safe-to-fail spaces within wildland fire.

At boot camp the instructor cadre had many conversations about the learning curve of new recruits, all revolving around the need to push people to expand their skillset while also not breaking them down as human beings. We want them to be tough, capable of handling stress, and yet also comfortable asking for help. We want them to prove they can work hard, that they will earn their way, to show pride in their work ethic and yet not have attachment to ego or exhibit too much personal pride. The paradox of learning puzzled me, and I thought about it through the season as I interacted with my crew.

Running saw– the irony of ‘don’t F… it up’

On the small Initial Attack crews that the BC Wildfire Service utilizes, there is limited room for a delay in passing on skills. With three or four people to an Initial Attack fire, often in large timber with a significant amount of saw work, everyone has to be capable of performing most fireline tasks. This is why rookies on IA crews often get to run a saw, saw1something unheard of on the larger 20-person unit crews. This year I thought about safe spaces for learning as I handed a chainsaw to the 19-year-old rookie I had on my crew. After hours of classroom training and in-the-field instruction, it was finally time for him to make his first cut. I looked at him and said, “I will be right here. Look up between cuts and make eye-contact with me, if I tell you stop–STOP. I trust you. You’re going to do great.” I smiled. He nodded, eyes wide, every muscle in his body tensed. In my mind, I was screaming don’t F… it up!

What does that even mean? Well, for me it means that I care about my crewmembers and I don’t want them to get hurt, which means that I fear the consequences of them making a mistake. Let me say that again.

When I think about my crewmembers making a mistake, I am afraid.
fail-quicklyWhy? I don’t want them to fail. That fear of failure inside of me creates an intolerance of mistakes–even small ones. Because small mistakes lead to big ones, right? Wrong. Small mistakes lead to learning, which prevents big mistakes.

If I am afraid of anything that isn’t perfect in me or in my crew, I will create an environment where shame is everywhere, fear of failing is high, and the willingness to be vulnerable and take on new tasks will diminish. In short, an intolerance of mistakes can cause me to lead in a way that is not empowering, but instead intimidates those working for me.

As a leader, I try to be aware of my own fear that gets triggered when my crewmembers make mistakes. Instead of transferring that fear to them, I say “I trust you” when the fear inside me wants to say “you’d better get this damn near perfect, or else you’re not good enough, which means that I’m not good enough, and you’re probably going to get us both killed.”

Research has shown that when you look like you might be weaker than others in your group for any reason, the urge for people around you to put more pressure on you to perform is even greater.[i]  If you’re last on the hill run, you’re going to get yelled at. When it comes to being seen as weak in wildland fire, it seems like that experience is more common for women. Or is it?

Read Part 2

[i] Van Der Zee, K., Atsma, N., & Brodbeck, F. (2004). The influence of social identity and personality on outcomes of cultural diversity in teams. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35(3), 283–303.

Don’t be a shark

By Travis Dotson

It’s 11 minutes long.  Watch it.

So…?  What is the break down?  How much time do you spend learning vs performing?  Obviously when we are out on fire assignments we need to spend most of our time in the performing zone.  But we don’t spend all our time at work on fire assignments.  Even on assignments, there is usually plenty of time for each zone.

The point is, doing things well doesn’t make you better – it’s pretty much a plateau.  So what does this say about how much we value “experience”?

Experience is the best right?  We value it so much we robotically announce it at every training or meeting requiring an introduction: “Hello – I’m Billy Big Shot and I’ve been in fire for 3 eons.”  Well, chances are 2.9 of those eons were spent performing rather than learning – so it’s really not that big a deal Billy, sit down and try doing something outside your comfort zone.

In the video he talks about the importance of low stakes environments for learning.  Most of us have designed high stakes environments for each other.  We have created “social risks” where it’s a bad deal to fail.  Does working on your crew feel like this:

 

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Yeah…not good for learning.

How can you influence the learning environment?

  1. Don’t be a shark.  Encourage folks to try and support them when they fall.
  2. Be the example – fall and get back up.  Be intentional about getting outside your comfort zone.
  3. Talk about this concept, get everyone on the same page.

That’s all.  Go learn.

Bad Refreshers

By Travis Dotson

old-school-teaching

We have all been there.  The seated refresher.  All day in a chair.  Even if the videos are good, the process gets old.  The set up is not conducive to learning – it’s more likely to result in drowsiness and habitual Facebook scrolling.

So why do we do it?

We all know most folks get told “you need to put on the refresher this year.”  Then that person just replicates what they have sat through in the past.  We are not professional educators so what we get makes sense.  I happen to think there are a few small steps we can take to make our yearly tune up just a bit better.

 

1. Be Relevant: Use this: Annual Incident Review Summary I know – shameless plug for LLC stuff, but this thing is purposely built for injecting relevancy into curriculum.  It’s what happened last year.  It’s what those in the bulls eye had to say about what happened to them.  It has exercises you can do.  Modify them to suit your situation.

2. Go outside:  There are so many ways to do this.  Do a classroom section on driving and then load everyone up and drive to a field site for the next section.  That is real deal theory/application right there!  You could even design your own Staff Ride that meets refresher requirements!  If weather does not allow, replace outside with stand up and move around.

3. Prepare:  Use this: Wildland Fire Safety Annual Refresher Training  Again, it’s purpose built.

4. Be honest:  Talk about real stuff.  Authenticity matters.

5. Look to experts:  Be inspired by TED talks.  Show one and discuss it, we love relating non fire stuff to fire.   Go further.  Make presentations look like TED talks.  Don’t talk for more than 20 minutes – ever.  If you have a screen, don’t put lots of words on it – use pictures.

That’s all.  Just five things that could help.  Maybe just do one of them.  I’m sure you have ideas of your own – share them in the comments.