A seasoned fire operations veteran shares his insights
into how our traditional LCES might be inadequate for our true needs
By Thomas R. Taylor, Fire Operations Specialist
Payette National Forest, Council Ranger District
The following thoughts and observations are derived from my own perspective that is based on 25 seasons filled with two shelter deployments, plenty of near misses, getting hit with branches because I was mesmerized by how awesome falling a burning snag is, falling asleep while driving, falling out on hikes (because I suck at hiking, smoke too much). Oh yeah, as well as one divorce and four or five failed relationships.
I often get depressed from drinking (even though it’s rad). But I can look back on plenty of laughs, tears, frustrations and finally a sense of family with everyone who supports my rants, thoughts, emotions, and general outlook based on all of the following comments and personal insights that I’m about to share with you here.
I want to thank these folks because I have several seasons to go until I drop the mic and will need the help. So, feel free to be a part of the solution or not, relax the shoulders and just breathe.
This is what LCES means to me and a glimpse into how I use it.
Look out for yourself first. Do I have the clarity to make sound decisions that are free from distractions created in my home life or the distractions from the human topography of my work environment? If not, then am I communicating that to the appropriate parties?
Has a culture been formed that I can communicate those distractions and lookout for them?
Am I “mindful” of the pressures to engage and what does that level of engagement look like based on those pressures?
Here’s an example of such influences: sticking around longer because the adjacent crew is still engaged, a Line Officer saying “catch them small”, a home owner crying as their lifelong dream is being threatened, not wanting to be looked at as fire scared, local resources on their turf, trying to help VFD or rural folks in wranglers, state resources with responsibility to save timber, Incident Management Team members implementing tactics and strategies from a map without consulting the operators of the plan. Point made?
Now we can examine the traditional sense of what lookouts are based on, what has been pounded into our heads since the beginning: “Most experienced person, must see main fire, communicate with resources.” And let’s not forget the ever so classic: “We are our own lookouts.” Lookout for yourself so you can lookout for others.
Lookouts: (from My Manual)
- Am I mindful of my well-being and in a good spot with focused clarity?
- Is my focused clarity debilitating or not match reality?
- Am I looking out for my team members and can I support them emotionally and logistically?
- Can I see shortcomings in myself or in the plan?
Lookouts: (from a Current Manual)
- Have experience to recognize potential threats.
- Be decisive.
- Communicate clearly.
- Be able to see potential threats and the entire crew.
- Be in a safe location.
It has taken me a long time to find my voice. In fact, I’m still working on finding it. At one point I thought about “catering my delivery” to the audience to the extent that it shrouded my ability to communicate in a timely manner. I am now able to recognize that by being mindful (see above) and finding that balance or timing (mindful), my thoughts and delivery are coherent and make sense.
“Figure it out” was one of my go-to’s, as was: “Ask the question to yourself first. If you can’t answer it/then ask it.”
It’s easier to call out a “whip or fly back” or “chocolate pudding” [watch your footing] when hiking into an assignment. But can you tell your Squad Boss or Captain that you just had a huge text war with your loved one? Can you tell your loved one that you’re distracted when you come home? Or get depressed in the fall? Or that you don’t want to go for a hike on your days off and that you’d rather get super drunk at the bar with the gang and then sleep the next day because you’re “tired”.
Traditional trainings of communications are as follows: Right frequencies? Can you hit a repeater? Is Dispatch up? Helicopters coming in for a drop, Hair attack [air attack], words on flagging, KNG to DPH to VFD Motorolas, VFD not answering, etc. etc.
I often turn down my radio because it’s bugging me and loud. I then forget to turn it back up. Now I look and sound like an idiot because Division Gary isn’t answering their radio. Find your voice. It’s a life-long, career spanning endeavor.
Communications: (from My Manual)
- Can I communicate what I’m looking out for in an honest and respectful environment?
- Can someone tell me that I’m high on crack without me getting butt hurt about it?
- Am I having honest conversations with my loved ones as well as my coworkers or cooperators?
- Is there a cultural standard set within your group that encourages someone to ask for help?
- Are you mindful of how you can use your voice with balance so folks don’t stop listening?
- Do you listen to your gut, the weather, indicators of potential large-fire growth, pressures to falling timber? And can you communicate that. Or do you operate under the “we’ll be fine” guise?
Communications: (from Current Manual)
- Have a communication plan.
- Command to retreat must be clearly understood by all.
Escape Time vs. Escape Route
Warning: This is where I’ll get a little wordy.
For me, Escape Routes are dead. I say this because most every near miss, entrapment, burn-over, and fatality—or however it’s defined—has had an Escape Route: a trail; fire line; dozer line; rabbit trail; p-line; two-track; jeep trail; gravel road; two lane highway; hell, a six-lane freeway. And most of them quite navigable.
Sure, I can name several that had uphill Escape Routes or cruddy sidehill routes. So yeah, not all are equal. What is equal is the fact that they were labeled and are still being discussed as Escape Routes.
Escape Time can and is based on Fire Behavior and Human Behavior. Let’s start with time of year, time of day, time on the line, time spent on crew/district, time with resources, time of assignment, time spent off or on forest, time in the season, time spent in your career (first five/last five).
Is the fire going to run into the green upper third and fall on its face? Is it going to rip through an aspen stand or riparian area? I still think it’s cute when I hear people say they have never seen fire burn like that. Fires have been ripping forever! Time of season, time of day (if the stars align, it can and will be active through the entire “shift or shifts”), slope alignment, fuel alignment, and position of slope—these three are all huge for me.
I’ve been burned when these three have aligned and I/we are still engaged in tactics that were working earlier in the shift and earlier in the season (see mindfulness). See also S-190. Where is our Human Behavior-190?
There are so many tree branches of Fire Behavior and Human Behavior. Contract Crews, Engines, Hand Crews, Aerial Delivered Resources, IHCs, IMTs. All of these entities are all influenced culturally, socially, and historically—more than they know. Especially in the “subconscious region” of how we make decisions as a species.
So yeah, we all can disengage, but usually don’t for many reasons (not wanting to look like wussies, wanting to look good, being a sign of weakness, bad rep, being sent home, other resources are engaged so should we, etc.). Can a GS-03 turn down an assignment? What would that look like to the Engine Boss, IHC Supt? Has that been taught? How about the number of resources involved? Don’t pick a ridge or a road to build the box, pick the right ridge or road.
How good are we at predicting fire behavior and reading the weather? “We’re good here” as a big ole system rolls through. Then, 20 minutes later, everyone’s headed back to the rigs. Back the right ridge or road—and escape time. Heavy equipment, low-boy stuck in the road, feller/buncher walking down or up the road. All this, combined with trucks and buggies and engines and safety officers and ambulances or whatever those rope capable rescue people are called, supply drivers who don’t have their radio turned on, random overhead driving through (me), ops, planning ops, local administrators, cooperators etc. etc. All will—and can—influence escape time on a bigger level than just driving down a road or working a ridge or chunk of line.
Be mindful that fire behavior and human behavior will dictate your escape time.
Escape Time: (from My Manual)
- Based on current and expected fire behavior.
- Fuel Moistures, time of year, time of day, when is the sun going to hit the work area. Where am I? Off Forest, coastal, desert, timber, upper third, down in the hole, etc.
- Human Behavior: People really sold on “The Plan”, Local units pushing tactics, Agency Administrators impacting line placement or selling alternate agendas (road clearing, shaded fuel breaks).
- Creating an open conversational environment to allow people to be honest about their comfort and skill level. Finding the right resources for the tactics and strategies and Shackletoning resources based on their skill level and ability to make them the right resources.
- How many resources? Heavy Equipment, Water Tenders, Huge Engines, Supply Drivers, etc.
- Going Direct? Where are we in the process? Hot line, Aviation keeping it “in check”, Dozers, Skidgenes, hose lays, fold-a-tanks being put in.
- Building the box? Feller Buncher(s), Log trucks, Dozers, Transports, clogged up Drop Points, crews brushing roads.
- Are we painting ourselves into a corner with our firing operations? What does it take to support the operations, holding resources spread out in front of firing operations, “take the burned area with you.” Where will folks go if they are split by a spot or slop-over?
- Is it day 3 or 14 of securing line and we’ve got some unburned interior fuels consuming/pressuring the line?
Escape Routes: (from Current Manual)
- Easily traveled and lead away from the fire, directly to the safety zone.
- If there is cut-off potential, two routes should be planned and discussed.
- Establish new Escape Routes as the effectiveness diminishes.
Is your Safety Zone when you’re not at work healthy?
Can you sit back and take pictures in shorts and flip-flops?
Healthy home, healthy heart? Something like that, right?
If that is the case, then it’s time to think about Safety Zones on the line.
Where is your Safety Zone in relation to the flank or main fire? Is the fire below you? Will it fall on its face when it ridges out? Maybe. Will it keep marching toward you? Maybe. Will it suck when it burns around you? Absolutely!
If you hike, fly or drive to an IA, your Safety Zone is where the fire isn’t burning. Back to the rigs, or the Heli-spot to get picked up or hike down to a road or trailhead is common—and works 100% of the time 97% of the time.
When you are on extended attack or a long-duration fire, you’ll see all variations of Safety Zones. Remember, it only takes one person to call a Drop Point a Safety Zone for it to be referred to one—when it isn’t. A considerable amount of math has gone into Safety Zone Guidelines. I can only imagine it’s a thankless endeavor. Thank you, Dr. Butler!
But let’s be honest. Is it necessary to post up in a Safety Zone if it’s going to be burning around you in 2020 and beyond? How good are we at predicting Fire Behavior? Does anyone remember when the burned area was our Safety Zone?
Anchor in and just go for it “two feet at a time”? Two feet at a time refers to the philosophy of only moving forward in line production two feet because that two feet you just put in can be held. If it can’t, you stay put and secure it until you can. It’s not rocket science. Oh wait, it kinda is.
Safety Zones come in various shapes and sizes and can be used in many situations besides Fire. It’s okay to pull back to one and regroup. It’s also okay to create one at home first.
Safety Zones: (from My Guideline)
- Is your home a Safety Zone?
- Do you have a Safety Zone in which you can communicate honestly?
- How do you communicate and solve such endeavors if your home isn’t a safety zone?
- Is there support to create a Safety Zone?
- What tools do you have if your work environment isn’t a Safety Zone?
Safety Zones: (Current Guideline)
- Locations of adequate refuge from advancing fire.
- Large enough for all who might use them.
- Located for effectiveness.
- Large enough for protection without a fire shelter.
To me the Four Rules of Engagement are L.C.E.S. They have evolved for me on this journey in many ways. I do not want to take away what they mean from their inception as the result of people dying. We still need to post Lookouts, Communicate with everyone, Calculate ESCAPE Time with your Escape Route, and have a Safety Zone.
I’m merely sharing how they have metamorphosed.
It may sound selfish when I say lookout for yourself first so you can lookout for others. To be a good leader and manage risk to the best of our ability—as well as being able to respond to death or injury both mentally and physically under our watch—it is best to be in a good spot personally and professionally.
This is being brought to light because the cultural and political pressures sometimes go unnoticed and folks stay engaged too long, their escape time isn’t calculated using such influences, and the door closes. Another question would be, have those pressures always existed? And if so, are they more powerful?
I would say that such entrapments are a rare event but should be discussed because there is a trend of not squelching the pressure to stay engaged and not calculating escape time properly, which leads to entrapment and the potential for lifelong thoughts and memories that will affect every basis of your being.
Is it the cost of doing business? Absolutely.
In short (too late), there a lot of folks within all land management agencies that are really good at what they do. They will potentially go their entire career making sound choices, putting their families first, supporting their employees and doing what’s right. Though I try to be one of those individuals, and often fall short, I just hope this documentation of how I operate at the Division Supervisor/Type 3 I.C./RXB2 and Fire Operations Specialist level can be helpful to someone.
So yeah, and now we have COVID-19.