After Reading the “The Big Lie,” I 100 percent agree with what Mark Smith has to say in regards to the lies pervading our “safety oriented fire culture” and the many examples he uses in his essay. The two primary examples which I related to were: “The lie that wildland firefighting is safe” and “Every individual has the right to turn down unsafe assignments.”
Exactly right, just by memorizing 10s and 18s and telling ourselves—and everyone else—we are safe does not mean it is truly so! Additionally, the caveat that we can turn down assignments if they are unsafe sounds good in theory, but I have seen time and time again instances where this is totally not the case. Outside factors, such as peer pressure, fatigue, over confidence, and “macho” attitudes muddy our judgment as both individual firefighters and especially as IC’s (which is even worse!)—as does the over emphasis on/and the unfounded belief that we are safe.
What I mean is, we learn now in an ultra-safety oriented fire world, and hear nothing but this day in and day out. We hear “life first” and see our initial suppression actions changed from “Initial Attack” to “Initial Response”. This is the main rub I had last year with the Chief’s Letter, and the renaming of IA to IR. We spend more time in mandated classroom safety and sensitivity training than in tactical fireline scenarios and boots on the ground project work or real-world training. Like Smith mentions, we will never reach our wanted goal of zero fatalities in this inherently dangerous job, but it is something we should strive for each day as individuals and as crews. The main point I relate to is acknowledging the risk, and using it to our advantage—not ignoring it or pretending it’s less than it is. These are the only ways to succeed in “defeating the Big lie” as Smith says, not playing word games to rename what we do!
In fact, I think the renaming of IA to IR does us greater disservice and places us at greater risk. By attacking the fire at a small incipient state, we put less total personnel in harm’s way (2-5 firefighters for a Type 5 incident), we are working on an incident with potentially less overall heat, and we might likely get the fire caught before it becomes a larger incident. Large incidents place exponentially more firefighters on the fire lines, aviation resources in the sky, vehicles driving roads, and all of them in an environment for complacency-related injury.
An aggressive, decisive action in attacking the fire and cutting off the “head of the snake” so to speak, is much better than “responding” to an emerging incident, analyzing it for safety and all of the hoops we sometimes jump through, talking about it some more, and then taking action. All the while, a fire that could have been caught, is now off to the races. This is not to say any IC or firefighter should not use the safety-related training and tactics, 10 and 18s, and all of the great mental SA slides they have. They should just do it in a proactive and aggressive manner. Action for action sake accomplishes nothing. But, in my opinion, controlled, directed and aggressive action in attacking a fire keeps us safer and achieves greater results.
Overall, I feel, as Smith does, that we are too safe for our own good sometimes, and that saying/thinking/pretending we are safe does not make it so, it in fact makes us quite the opposite!
In the future, I hope that fire organizations uniformly embrace the direction that Smith aspires to, “a culture whose leaders have the critical thinking and risk decision tools worthy of people getting a very dangerous job done with limited means to do it.” What we can best hope for is a “critical balance of safety, efficiency and effectiveness in a high risk environment” and leave it at that. We can be action orientated and aggressive in fighting fires, and be damned proficient and safe while doing it. All the while, we must also recognize that what we do is unsafe and our brothers and sisters will die doing it.