The Problem with LCES

Ground Truths

[This is the “Ground Truths” column from the Summer 2020 Issue of Two More Chains.] 

The Problem with LCES

By Travis Dotson

LCES relies on humans predicting fire behavior and sometimes we are wrong.

LCES is very useful—but it is not fire proof.

LCES is beautiful. Its simplicity is its strength. It has saved innumerable lives. And it guarantees nothing.

Its imperfection makes it real.

In case I have not made myself clear, it is entirely possible to have LCES in place and still be overrun by fire. Your lookout can communicate the need to move along your escape route to your safety zone and while you are using your escape route the fire can move in a manner that nobody predicted.

Prediction—this is the vulnerability in LCES.

Predicting exact fire behavior without fail is impossible. We are amazing at generating often accurate guesses. But consistent precision prediction is well beyond our reach.

This is why we build margin into our operations. We give ourselves a bit of buffer to account for our fat crayon forecasting (ha-ha, nomogram jokes).


Nomogram used to predict fire behavior


Even so, there are times we consciously accept a razor thin margin for a variety of sound and not-so-sound reasons. Other times we just miscalculate—for a variety of sound and not-so-sound reasons.

Every decision along that spectrum is well within the range of common (also known as being human). It should not be a surprise that we regularly encounter tight spots, as well as the occasional catastrophic failure.

I repeat: LCES is not fire proof.

I am aware that this is not a groundbreaking insight by any stretch of the noodle. I am stating it here as clearly as possible because LCES is often presented as a cure-all to every tragic fireground entrapment past and future.

I know this because I have witnessed both passionate and unenthusiastic S-Class instructors tout its infallibility. I have been both of those instructors. I have repeated numerous harmful fallacies in a variety of poorly lit “classrooms”. This is what happens when you allow uneducated and overconfident young fire goons like me stand up and repeat stuff they have heard as a form of “training”.

LCES is not THE answer. The portrayal of any system as THE key to safe operations is dangerous. It promotes the idea that outcome is entirely within our control.

Here is the deal. You damn sure ought to use LCES for all of your operations. But under no circumstances should you use it as proof that you are safe. Nothing we do is safe.

Also, don’t use LCES as a weapon against your fallen comrades. That is bad form. LCES as framework from which to pose respectful and honest questions—absolutely. But not as a hindsight-fueled weapon.

Nothing I’ve said here is news. I am simply using LCES as the lightning rod it is.

All these words to say: No matter what you do, risk remains. Let’s continue to move toward improving risk assessment and adjusting what types of exposure we accept and why.

Be a student of fire, not a parrot of the past.

Swing On, Toolswingers.

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