“I try to cultivate relationships and build trust so I can create an environment where people feel safe telling me that my idea is a bad one.”
By Jayson Coil
Division Supervisor on the Nuttall Fire
When I reflect on the events surrounding the entrapment and subsequent shelter deployment on the Nuttall Fire there is one main lesson that continues to resonate with me. Along with this lesson comes the acknowledgement of the cost of this lesson.
When I refer to “cost,” I am not referring to the cost for me personally, but the impact the event had on others that day. Like any other fire, there are firefighters who depend on us (leaders) for their safety. This is not to say that individuals are not accountable for their own safety. But the actions that those of us in leadership positions advocate for can most certainly influence the risks that a firefighter faces. This is the “cost” I am referring to here.
A Potential Slow and Painful Death
For some of the people on H-4 that day, it was their first big fire. For them, it was not just smoky, it was the scariest thing they had ever experienced. For others, it was another one of too many close calls.
After this incident, some people left their careers for other professions. And, there may be other impacts to folks that I am unaware of.
The conditions that afternoon were bad. When the fire whirl crossed the helispot, it would have been a slow and painful death if anyone had inhaled those superheated gases.
I Would Be ‘That Guy’
I am certain somewhere in my own thoughts, along with the concern I felt for the other people, I was also troubled about the personal impact if we deployed our shelters. This was my Division. I would be “That Guy”.
Of course, I know it should not be that way. Such a concern should not influence one’s decision. However, I know that it can.
I try to remember the potential of a given consequence when I consider a course of action—to help myself remember that the actions you take early in an incident can impact your options days down the road. I find this sort of assessment beneficial because it prevents me from anchoring into false assumptions.
But if I minimize this incident’s impact on others, what message would I be sending?
I Wanted the Plan to Work
So, what did I learn on July 2, 2004?
I learned—and I have attempted to remind myself of this on every subsequent incident—that the effort you put into a plan and its implementation should not taint your assessment of risk on a given day.
Many people had worked hard on that line. They were invested. I was invested. I had just arrived at the lookout when everything started to pick up. I am thankful for the leadership many provided that day.
I do not look at this incident with the notion of how I could have changed things that day. Rather, I look at it from the perspective that I was invested more in that line because it was mine and because of the hard work crews had put into constructing it. I wanted the plan to work. I wanted the line to hold.
I felt accountable for the slopover. It was my Division. So, I wanted it fixed and the line to hold.
However, I would suggest that this is the wrong way to look at it. We deal with uncertainty and variables outside our control all the time. Often, these variables lead to unintended consequences. Today, I try really hard to recognize that and continue to reassess the quality of information I have received.
I try to declare my biases and invite others to challenge my assumptions. I want them to help me calibrate because I know self-assessment is not the solution. I try to cultivate relationships and build trust so I can create an environment where people feel safe telling me that my idea is a bad one. From my perspective, that is essential to effective leadership.