Adapt and Overcome

By: Bre Orcasitas — Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

Sometimes you’re out on the fireline minding your own never mind when BAM! Some unforeseen circumstance changes the topography of your operations. That thing that you were doing (probably building contingency line or some such thing) is no longer the thing that you’re doing. Now you’re in GO-Mode. This is an Incident Within an Incident (IWI).

We train for these sorts of situations. Crews dedicate time during spring training to run all sorts of scenarios that will prepare them for the real thing, hoping all the while that they won’t have to actually ever use this skill set.

When an IWI arises there are always takeaways, always valuable lessons that can be derived from someone else’s experience. The question is, are you paying attention? Are you absorbing those lessons and adapting your methods based on new information?

On September 13th the Klamath Hotshots found themselves in the middle of an IWI, the spot no crew wants to find themselves. During a falling operation the tree came down in an unintended direction then pinned the swamper under a 28-foot chunk of tree; the situation was not optimal.

Lime Fire

The crew immediately sprang into action carefully cutting the tree off the swamper in a matter of minutes, while various overhead from the Division quickly divided responsibilities amongst themselves to maintain control of the evolving situation.

EMTs instantaneously converged onto the scene and orbited around the patient closely monitoring his condition as the remaining crewmembers began cutting out a helispot for the medevac. In under an hour from the time of the incident, hoist operations were complete and the swamper was en route to the hospital where a Hospital Liaison was awaiting his arrival. BOOM! Done.

These are just some highlights about this incident, but the entire story is worth a read and you can do that by clicking here.

This incident is worthy of highlighting because, among other things, it offers a clear depiction of what we forget to recognize with so many IWIs.

One thing went wrong but just about every other thing went right.

It’s easy to throw on the blinders and become fixated with how the injury itself transpired, what tactics were employed, or which components of the IWI created setbacks. But when we do that we miss the bigger picture. Every IWI derives from an unanticipated circumstance, that is the accident part; our response to it is not. 

This crew mentions (in the full story) that they had altered their IWI procedures and ordered specific medical equipment based on lessons that had been learned in previous incidents. The IMT on this fire had adapted their medical response protocol based on an experience they had just the day prior to this incident.

Of course, much of what we are talking about here falls within the five pillars of the  High-Reliability Organization (HRO) structure, which essentially gives firefighters something to point at and say, “this explains why we have so much exposure time and so few bad outcomes in comparison.” We are preoccupied with failure, that’s why we have contingency and medical plans. Yes, we are reluctant to simplify, of course we are sensitive to operations. We are absolutely resilient within our operations plans, and deference to expertise is common practice amongst firefighters. We don’t have to aspire to be an HRO because these were unspoken operating procedures before the term HRO was ever created or defined. But it’s worth making the correlation just the same.

The fact that this IWI response went so smoothly was not luck (although a little of that is always handy). It was the direct result of preparation as well as recognizing that much of how we do what we do is fluid. We can alter, adjust, evolve, adapt, diverge, tweak, shift, or change how we approach any given situation, circumstance or procedure to make it work for us in the moment. This is how we absorb lessons and adapt methods based on new information.








3 thoughts on “Adapt and Overcome

  1. Thanks for sharing Bre! Too often we focus on what went wrong without looking at how things went right.

    A member of my crew cut himself with a chainsaw this year while constructing a helispot. His injury severity was declared “yellow.” Thanks to rapid response from folks on my crew and adjacent crews, we were able to land a helicopter and get him off the hill in less than 40 minutes.

    The training and experience of the IHCs and other personnel on the hill and the emphasis on medical emergency planning from the IC and Forest were all key factors in our success that day.

  2. Incidents will always occur not matter how good of plan we have or how hard we try to prevent them. It is important to recognize and accept this fact as part of the work that we do. Once this has been accepted by you, your crew or your team you will be much better prepared to deal with the IWI when it does occur. This will will create less risk, exposure, confusion, and yield more favorable outcomes for those unexpected incidents.

    I have been part of and reviewed several IWI’s that my crew or others had trained for just days or weeks earlier. In every case the response was calm, effective, and efficient, “a flawless response to something bad”.

    I’ve also reviewed several IWI’s that did not have the best response and created unnecessary risk, confusion, and exposure to those responding. In these examples crews and individuals did not train for IWI’s or did not believe an IWI could happen to them. Even after the IWI, these individuals are often in denial that the event occurred and do little to move forward.

    Take the time practice IWI’s with your crew throughout the season. Include dispatch and others that you work with. Hopefully, an IWI is something that you will never be part of, but if are you won’t be disappointed that you took the time to practice and learn.

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