Who Studies Fire Shelters? This Guy

[This article originally appeared as the “One of Our Own” feature in the 2021 Winter Issue of Two More Chains.]

We felt it was important to do a deeper dive into fire shelters and entrapments for you in this issue of Two More Chains. We realized that for the best up-to-date lessons and insights on fire shelters and entrapment discussions we needed to reach out to Tony Petrilli. Tony has served as the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Shelter Project Leader the past 16 years. This man also has a very profound firsthand experience with a fire shelter deployment. On July 6, 1994, Tony deployed his shelter and survived the fatal South Canyon Fire that claimed the lives of 14 other firefighters that day.

We think you’ll appreciate this enlightening conversation between Tony and Travis Dotson, Analyst at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. They discuss everything from addressing the “you really screwed-up” shelter deployment syndrome, to the importance of sharing entrapment stories, to advice for refresher instructors—plus a whole lot more.

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Who Studies Fire Shelters?

This Guy

By Travis Dotson

Tony Petrilli is as an equipment specialist for the U.S. Forest Service’s National Technology and Development Program (NTDP) in Missoula, Montana. He began working for the Forest Service in 1982 as a firefighter for the Lewis and Clark National Forest and, next, the Beaverhead National Forest.

In 1989, Tony joined the ranks of the Missoula Smokejumpers. Three years later, he began his relationship with NTDP, working wintertime details there. He joined NTDP fulltime in 2000. Tony has served as the Fire Shelter and Firefighter Clothing Project Leader there the past 16 years.

In addition, Tony has served on more than 35 fire entrapment safety review/investigation teams. He also maintains fire qualifications as Division Group Supervisor, IC Type 3, and Safety Officer Type 1. He has a bachelor’s degree in education from Western Montana College.

Travis:

How’d you become the “Fire Shelter Guy”?

Tony:

As a “starving” GS-6 Smokejumper getting laid off in the wintertime, I was needing to support a family and make rent. Starting in 1992, I was able to start working wintertime details at T&D (Technology and Development). The Fire Shelter Project was one of the tasks that the center was focused on. I started working on that project under Ted Putnam, the project leader at that time.

I came back to T&D every winter. Because I still loved being a smokejumper, I really didn’t want to get a full-time job at T&D. And they were happy with me continuing my wintertime details.

But in 2000, T&D received direction to evaluate materials and designs for a possible new fire shelter. The Fire Shelter Project really ramped-up with Leslie Anderson as the project leader. So, in late 2000 I got a full-time job at T&D.

Leslie was the project leader until 2005, when she was promoted to the program leader. That year I became the project leader. The Fire Shelter Project and firefighter clothing are my two main areas of work. And now I am finishing up. I’m just a couple months away from mandatory age retirement.

Missoula Smokejumper Tony Petrilli in the early 1990s doing a bit of trail work on the hike out of the proverbial “2-manner in the Bob”. Translation: A two-person jump in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Travis:

It’s crazy how things happen. It’s like: “Oh man, I need some winter work.” And then you stumble into something that is super important that becomes a career-long focus.

Tony:

Yeah, most definitely. Not only did it pay the bills, but it’s very worthwhile work, very meaningful. There’s never a day where it’s like: “Yeah, this doesn’t mean anything.” Every day means something.

What Do You Love About Your Job?

Travis:

What are some of the things that you love about your job?

Tony:

Well, like I said, it is important stuff. And I like that I’ve become the conduit between the fire world and the development world of high-temperature materials, clothing design, stuff that not everyone gets to interact with. I’ve been the only one in the Forest Service that does this.

Travis:

That is pretty cool. We never know where we will end up. When I was 20-years-old and just loving being a hotshot, if you would have told me: “Oh, yeah, eventually pretty much what your job is going to be is spreadsheets, and you are going to like it.” I would have been like: “No way, man. I’m going to cut trees down forever.”

Tony:

Exactly.

I’m not the world’s expert on insulated materials, but I know who they are. And I don’t have to be that guy. I need to be the one who takes everything under consideration. I have to be the one to remember that the fire shelter has to be carried hundreds of thousands of firefighter days every season. Being carried is the fire shelter’s biggest job. Maybe not the most important job. But that’s the number one thing that the fire shelter actually does. It sounds kind of funny, but I definitely need a “fire mindset” on this type of thing.

I also want to point out that I don’t work alone. The Fire Shelter Project is also guided by the NWCG Fire Shelter PPE Subcommittee which is full of really top-caliber folks. They also have some great resources. People should definitely check it out: https://www.nwcg.gov/committees/fire-shelter-and-personal-protective-equipment-subcommittee.

The Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy with the Granite Mountain Hotshots propelled a project review of the fire shelter. This project, which we recently completed, was focused on looking into fire shelter improvements. Working through the NWCG Subcommittee, there were materials that performed a bit better. But the weight, bulk and fragility of these prototype shelters showed to decision-makers that the current shelter should remain in use. There is still hope for progress in the future as there are a couple of companies working to improve their submissions.

Tony (on left) performing fire shelter tests at the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 2015 with the folks from NASA.

Insights on the ‘You Really Screwed-Up’ Syndrome

Travis:

I often hear people say: “If you have to use your fire shelter, you really screwed-up.” Given your line of work, what runs through your mind when you hear that sentiment?

Tony:

When talking about “screwing-up”—humans make mistakes. Why do you think God put erasers on the top of pencils? I quite often use the chainsaw example. Every sawyer is trained how to put on a chain correctly. But if you haven’t put a chain on backwards, guess what? You just ain’t sawed enough. Thank goodness nothing more than a little embarrassment is the outcome of that screw-up.

A popular sentiment is to just follow the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders (SFO). But the unspoken adverb is “perfectly.” To guarantee there be no entrapments, firefighters need to be perfect. But there’s no such thing as a perfect firefighter.

During my participation in accident investigations, I found that many firefighters (that ended up deploying a fire shelter) felt they were following the SFOs—only to be fooled by the fire. Often—only from the viewpoint of hindsight—was it clear to see where mistakes were made. With the thousands of possible inputs and reactions during a fire day, there is no way every decision-making firefighter is perfect all day, every day, no matter how much training or experience.

The SFOs are full of assessments, analysis, judgements, even assumptions to be used in a stressful, time-compressed, dynamic environment. An environment that makes it easy to make a misjudgment, mis-assessment or a mistimed, misplaced action.

While fire shelters are not necessarily equal to erasers, shelters do give an entrapped firefighter one last chance at survival. Carrying a fire shelter does not cause firefighters to make mistakes, nor does it imply to ignore the SFOs. However, firefighters believing they are perfectly following the Fire Orders and are guaranteed to be safe is a false sense of security. Does that, in turn, mean to throw out the Standard Orders? No. it means respect them by doing the best you can in assessments, judgements etc. But please don’t feel “all-dialed” because likely there is a hazard or two hiding, just waiting to pounce.

Travis:

Let’s talk about entrapments where there’s not a shelter deployment. Because there are actually quite a few entrapments where a shelter is not utilized.

Tony:

Right. Entrapments are hard because, yeah, even though there’s a definition of exactly what an entrapment is, it still feels different to everyone. It has to do with comfort level. One person’s heart-wrenching entrapment is another person’s typical day of eating some smoke with a couple hot embers.

Close calls are the same thing. When I’m out as a Safety Officer I talk with a lot of people. Quite often, people will talk about a situation that they had—whether it was the week before, the year before, or the decade before—where they were really scared and contemplating using their fire shelter. Maybe they drove through a wall of fire or barely outran a fire pulse into the black. And they start thinking: “fire shelter”.

I’m telling you there is a good percentage of highly-experienced firefighters who have had close calls. So close that they start reaching for that fire shelter just to have it ready. They subconsciously start thinking of their spouses, kids, parents and pets—things that have nothing to do with their current situation.

And these are super knowledgeable folks with a ton of fire experience. I trust them to the highest degree. It’s hard for them to share that story. Those are rare occurrences in a career, but they stick with these people. That’s why a lot of people just keep it to themselves. Entrapment is a hard thing to explain.

Travis:

It’s crazy. I have those same experiences. Whether it’s as a Safety Officer or just being the guy from the Lessons Learned Center. People tell me their “Holy sh*t” moment. It’s like, “Oh, there’s that dude from the Lessons Learned Center. Check this out. I bet you’ll get some lessons from this.” And then they tell me a harrowing story of when they were cut off, or had to scramble and almost didn’t make it. Usually, people tell me either their entrapment story or their “I almost got smashed by a tree” story.

Tony:

Sure.

Travis:

And you’re right, they keep it to themselves. It’s not like every time somebody tells me a story I go, “Oh yeah, I read that report.” Because there’s no report. It makes me feel that maybe it’s not that rare of an occasion. I think we’ve all had to scramble or got cut off or there was a big pulse and we waited until it cooled down so we could get out. Those are entrapments. When you consider the NWCG definition, it’s like entrapments happen all the damn time.

Tony:

They sure do.

Tony performing some “hooch management” at 0200 on an August 1992 fire in Glacier National Park. He recalls: “We woke to 6 inches of fresh!”

The Importance of Sharing Stories

Travis:

It’s hard to share that story, partly because the insinuation is that you “screwed-up” or you’re a bad firefighter or something along those lines. Something’s keeping us from telling those stories more openly. I feel there is great value in sharing those experiences to learn from non-deployment entrapment events.

Tony:

Oh gosh, yes. I think we learn a lot with the sharing of stories. And if we can get those people that got into a tight spot—so much so that they were reaching for their fire shelter or thinking about their family or really contemplating their career choices. If we can keep sharing their stories, whether if it’s for a report or just sitting around a warming fire, it will help make other firefighters aware. They can visualize themselves in that situation, that it can happen to anyone.

Travis:

I think that’s part of why we default to “they screwed-up”. It’s like a shield we put up to protect ourselves. We try to distance ourselves from that outcome because we don’t like the intensity of: “It could be me”. Nobody wants to think in those terms.

If you do an entrapment case study in a typical training, it’s all armchair quarterbacking: “Oh, yeah. They didn’t even have a lookout, so of course . . . x,y,z . . .” When you can throw rocks at other people’s decisions, it supports the lie we tell ourselves about how it could never happen to us. It’s different when it’s a person in front of you that you’ve been on fires with and can relate to. Suddenly, you and I are no different and it did happen. Man, that’s a whole different level of reality.

It gets back to telling stories around the campfire. We all know that has an impact. It’s part of why staff rides work. When you break down that barrier, it’s harder to throw rocks and say “Oh yeah, they screwed-up” when it’s people you respect and look up to.

That familiarity forces the student to be more open to the “It could have been me” perspective because “It’s Tony. I know that guy.”

Tony:

Yes. And that’s a big reason of why T&D produced all those fire shelter deployment video stories that are housed at the Lessons Learned Center’s YouTube channel: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLTjug05B4KNt-OVXS8Ce93vqSufg-sOmY. Just so that everybody can see and relate to that engine guy, that hotshot lady, that tractor plow operator. “Hey, that person there looks just like me.”

Travis:

Or does the same job or works in the same area.

Tony:

Right. The tighter circle of learning.

Exploring the ‘We Shouldn’t Carry Fire Shelters’ Mindset

Travis:

So, plenty of people will say: “We shouldn’t even carry fire shelters.” What are your thoughts on that?

Tony:

Yeah, people will often say the U.S. is the only country where firefighters carry fire shelters, which is simply not true. Fire entities in Israel, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus all carry the U.S. Forest Service spec fire shelters. China, Chile and other European countries are now considering fire shelters. Why? Because of firefighter burnover fatalities. Australia has its vehicles equipped with reflective curtains, essentially a fire shelter on wheels.

In Canada, however, firefighters do not carry fire shelters. I have researched this quite a bit and can break down the differences:

  1. Fire behavior. I am NOT a fire behavior expert. But fuels and fire behavior in much of Canada is much different than California, Arizona and even Montana. A lot of fire behavior in Canada is like Alaska. There have been zero reported fire shelter deployments in Alaska.
  2. Exposure. Example: A 1,000-acre fire in the U.S. can easily have 1,000 firefighters. The equivalent sized fire in Canada would very likely have 10 or 20 firefighters assigned, much like Alaska. I don’t have the exact numbers, but I recall days last year of 30,000 firefighters committed in the U.S.—a huge difference in the number of firefighter exposure days.
  3. Risk tolerance. I believe, generally speaking, Canadian entities have a lower appetite for risk. They may be quicker to pull the plug on an operation, to disengage sooner not just for fear of fire entrapment, but snags and other hazards as well.

Of course, it is true that firefighters wouldn’t deploy fire shelters if they didn’t have them. Many fire folks feel that the shelter gives a false sense of security. This is comparable to the “risk homeostasis theory” which can be interpreted as the more protection you give a person, the more risk they’re willing to take.

However, that doesn’t bear out with fire shelters and our firefighters. When we changed over to our current fire shelter, we put out the video comparing and contrasting the old-style fire shelter to our current shelter: https://youtu.be/IDjWX-8SCe0. We clearly showed the increase in protection that you get with this current shelter versus the old style.

Now if the “risk homeostasis theory” was applied, you would see an increase in the number of fire shelter deployments. But, in fact, we have seen quite a major decrease in the past decade in fire shelters being deployed. Between 1995 and 2009, the average number of fire shelters deployed each year was about 28. Since 2010—and the transition to the current shelter—the average is about eight. That includes factoring the 30 shelters deployed in 2020.

Travis:

Wow.

Tony:

The statistics don’t support the theory. Now, that doesn’t mean I know what is in the deep, dark crevices of every firefighter’s mind out there. But the statistics show that we’re not taking increased risk because we are carrying that added protection. I am very aware that the messaging with fire shelters needs to stress not taking added risks, to not let it be a false sense of security.

Travis:

For sure. I think that’s kind of what you were saying about Canada. And I know people make the same comparisons to Australia. And when I talk to Australians, they’re like: “Well, no, it has nothing to do with whether or not we carry fire shelters or not. We just fight fires differently.”

Tony:

Yes. And even in Australia they still have an occasional burnover. 

The thought process that came up with the fire shelter is the same one that came up with the 10 Standard Fire Orders. It’s all meant to reduce firefighter fatalities. The fire shelter wasn’t borne out of thin air, it was borne out of a need. And it’s important to note that the decreasing number of fire shelter deployments suggests that we are changing. It is big boat. But it’s turning, in my opinion, in the right direction. We don’t have solid data on entrapments, but we sure do on the number of shelters deployed.

What Tony said after assessing the anchor point on this 2020 California fire: “I think it will hold–it’s the Pacific!”

Telling the Truth

Travis:

We’re getting better and better at not having to use fire shelters. That is a really positive thing.

It surprises me when people have really intense opinions about this topic but they don’t quite have the experience of using a fire shelter. I guess that’s what they would tell you. “Of course I’ve never used my fire shelter, because I’m a good firefighter.”

I don’t buy that. I think “you can tell all the tough guy stories in the world until you’re reaching for it.”

Tony:

My hope is that firefighters can feel that it CAN happen to them.

Travis:

Well, we’re not out there fighting fire by ourselves. I often say: “It doesn’t matter how good of a firefighter you are. All it takes is another firefighter forcing your hand.”

I’ve literally had to shovel ping-pong balls back inside the burn unit because the helicopter just made a wide turn and shot some balls outside of the unit. That wasn’t the plan or anything, but sh*t like that happens.

Tony:

Sh*t happens.

A Good Investment

Travis:

What do you want to leave folks with here?

Tony:

June 30, 2013 reminds us that fire shelters have protective limitations. My hope is that all firefighters carry the memory of Granite Mountain in their minds and hearts.

When I do entrapment or shelter deployment reviews, the number one thing I hear is: “I never thought it would happen to me. I couldn’t believe I was doing it.” And the number two thing is: “Left hand; right hand; shake it; shake it. I felt a sense of calm doing something familiar, something I had trained for”.

And regarding fire shelters, maintain a healthy distrust that the fire shelter will save your life. Become knowledgeable on: What makes a good deployment site? How do I deploy it? What is it like inside a shelter during a burnover? What can I expect afterwards? Make refresher trainings meaningful. Watch a fire shelter deployment story, perform worthwhile practice deployments.

And, above all, participate in meaningful dialogue.

Travis:

Seems like a good investment.

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