Smokeless Danger

At the beginning of each year we summarize and analyze incident reports from the previous year.  Check out these previous summaries.  This year we will post individual topics here as we complete portions of the analysis.  Take a look, engage with the exercises, and give us some feedback.  The complete 2017 Annual Incident Review Summary will be out soon. 

By Travis Dotson

This is a graph of incidents reported to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. This particular graph separates the incidents by Activity (what were they doing when the incident occurred).

There are lots of interesting things to talk about in this graph, please show it to someone who cares and have a nice little talk about what it means to you both. Maybe even circle up with a few others and do the exercise at the end.


2017 Incidents by Activity Graph

I’m sure we all have plenty to say about the “top 3.” They consist of:

  • Chainsaw Ops
  • Driving
  • Physical Training

These are all things we do on a regular basis. Just these three activity types account for 58% of the total. That means in 2017, whenever a report was created and sent to us, more than half the time it was related to someone running a saw, driving, or doing PT.

Take note that none of these activities require a fire. For many of us these are activities we do every day. That’s telling. It means things we do a lot are things that bite us in the ass.

What am I getting at? It’s pretty simple. The “danger” isn’t necessarily hiding on the fireline, it’s stitched right into your daily activities.

Are the briefings before PT different than the ones before the big burn show on Division Delta? Of course they are. They are different activities. Plus, none of us could tolerate a big deal briefing every day before PT.

Maybe I should reframe it: which operation is more likely to go bad? That, of course, is a loaded question. You can slice and dice the exposure, frequency, risk, danger, possibility, hazard pie all kinds of crazy. You could make this a spicy dish with whatever flavor your over analysis happens to be. You could also use math, but I think you might need other numbers to do that. I don’t have the numbers or the math mojo to tackle it.

But I do know that I don’t think of PT as dangerous. Turns out I’m wrong. Imagine that.

Get together with the people you PT with and do this simple exercise:


Exercise (15 minutes) In small groups discuss the following questions:

Is PT really more dangerous than Firing Ops?

What is the danger of NOT doing PT?

Is your medical plan equally good for both operations (PT and Firing Ops)? – Should it be?

That’s all.

Now go PT.


12 thoughts on “Smokeless Danger

  1. I’m curious what the true causes of these incidents are. If I had a heart attach while driving would it be cars or driving that is the danger? In this light, I have made enough observations to lead me to believe that most PT incidents are related to those that only seasonally train with their coworkers and have quite sedentary lives otherwise. That would be the most likely health risk: pushing too hard to make up for the lack of training in the off season.

  2. A couple things come to mind:
    Firefighters receive formal, extensive training in pretty much every other risky activity on that list. The people in supervisory positions are required to have a certain level of experience/qualification. The same is not true of physical training. A poorly designed training program, especially when it isn’t individualized, can of course be dangerous. Why not have an NWCG course on physical training?

    High level athletes are exposed to exponentially more training. At the highest level, endurance athletes might be training 20-30 hours a week. I don’t have any hard research to back this up, but anecdotally it sure seems that the rate of incidents for those people during training is very very low. Why might that be? Why would 5 hours a week of exposure be enough to produce an incident? If a pro sports team had a similar rate of injury, let alone fatality, from training alone, that coaching staff would be long gone.

    • The last thing we need is a NWCG course informing us how we should PT. Why wouldn’t we asses deeper causes, as opposed to knee jerk reactions? If a NWCG course was required of fire leaders many would still not apply what they learned. What is the old saying? “you can lead a horse to water but you cant make it drink” A more useful course would be over nutrition and exertional needs of our bodies. We over analyze to the point we are afraid to make a mistake or be good leaders and push those around us. Why would we individualize PT? PT should be focused on doing the most good for the most people. I don’t have time to design training for 10 seasonal firefighters and 5 permanent staff. Going back to basics is a key. Hike with your crew and then dig line. Run various lengths and at different speeds. We should lift weights and do full body calisthenics. PT should be fun and used as a tool to bond us to those around us. There is nothing wrong with competition and incentives for employees starting the season in good fitness. We need to stay active in the winter and take care of your body by eating real foods. One hour a day for PT can work for anyone.

  3. Also, regarding “What is the danger of NOT doing PT?”
    This is an important question and I appreciate that discussion. Certainly, the benefits of physical training can be many, but it’s a little misleading to assume that any PT is better than none. If our goal is to be the best we can be, just getting out the door and getting tired every day is not enough and we need to be honest about that. If your training program is for pure powerlifting or bodybuilding, it could actually be more dangerous for a firefighter to take part in that training than to do nothing at all. Even if the training has an appropriate level of specificity (a crew hike), it could still be dangerous to take part if proper recovery becomes impossible (you go to a hard fire, or go home to too much life stress).

  4. Pingback: Sorting the Lumps | Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

  5. This is goo information for annual refreshers, but I must admit that when I saw the sugject line I thought it was going to discuss the health hazards of chewing tobacco and dip which too many wildland firefighters use!

  6. Frequency needs to be focused on more than statistical numbers, we PT far more that we conduct burn operations. If you were to look at these with a number of times performed vs. injuries sustained you would find that PT has far less incidents than your bar graph shows.

      • I agree. Hours of exposure to the task needs to be considered to determine the rates and achieve homogeneity of variance. 1,000 hours PT time = XX injuries; 1,000 hours firing = XX injuries.

      • I’m actually very curious how the accident per time of exposure relationship would look for each of the situations listed. I’m not so sure PT would appear as safe as you assert. A hotshot crew on a busy year might only really have the opportunity to PT during the first 2-3 weeks of the season (call it ~15-25 hours total for 2 weeks). However, chainsaw operations surely account for hundreds of hours over the season. Even burnout operations are pretty common, and one burnout could easily last 8 hours, often longer. I’ve had basically entire rolls of mop-up. My perspective is pretty limited to hotshot crews, but PT is actually a fairly small fraction of hours for us over the course of a long, busy season.

      • Anyone who has been on a shot crew for any amount of time realize the bulk of people who get hurt during critical 80 are those who haven’t prepared their bodies for fire season. My preseason fitness regiment is substantially more taxing than the PT I endure leading up to being nationally available. PT during fire season should be seen as a tool for maintaining what has been achieved during the off season. Accidents and illnesses do happen but they can be lessened by preparing ourselves and ensuring our subordinates understand exactly what is expected of them. I would like to know how supplements, energy drinks, artificial sweeteners and general poor nutrition impact prevalencey and severity of rhabdo?

  7. I agree with Bodie. If this bar graft represented man hours I bet it would show we are do are doing a stellar job with great job to those who are doing it right.

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