Same as It Ever Was…

Reading through some previous issues of Two More Chains recently, I came across this piece that really struck a chord. This article by Travis Dotson in the Winter 2015 issue stood out to me because its content and message are as relevant — or even more so — now as it was when he wrote the piece. The assumptions that Travis looks at have been more pressing as fire seasons continue to increase in intensity and shatter previous records. Are these assumptions valid? Were they in the past and are now no longer? – Erik Apland, Field Operations Specialist (Acting), Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC)

Same as It Ever Was…

Our traditional solution of ‘more stuff’ doesn’t work—

It’s time we tried something else

By Travis Dotson

Individually, our early years are extremely important. They lay the foundation for who we will become. Here is some basic information from Johns Hopkins University on the subject:

Why is Early Learning Important?

“Simply put, a child’s early years lay the foundation for all that is to come. In recent years, researchers have learned that the human brain develops the vast majority of its neurons, and is at its most receptive to learning, between birth and three years of age.” (From Neurons to Neighborhoods – The Science of Early Childhood Development; by Jack P. Shonkoff and Deborah Phillips; National Academies Press, 2000.)

What if this was also true for organizations? I know an organization does not have a brain to develop through the formation of neural pathways, but the basic idea that “early years lay the foundation for all that is come” seems plausible to me. Maybe it’s not so much like forming neural pathways and more like a big rock starting to roll down a hill and gaining momentum. The direction it’s going is set and not much is going to change that.

What would that mean for wildland firefighting as an entity? Specifically, our “safety culture” or “risk management perspective” or whatever you want to call the focus of getting the job done without bad things happening. What was that early foundation/direction?

Original Mission

Let’s first start with our original mission. Pretty straight forward: Protect resources from fire. What did we need to do this? Stuff. Mainly people.

In 1910 fire did what it periodically does and a lot of people died trying to stop it. We shook our heads and wondered what to do about it. We figured out the solution rather quickly—get better at stopping fire. How? More stuff.

Captain Moses Harris, Troop M, First Cavalry, assumes command of Yellowstone National Park in August 1886. Within days of arriving at Yellowstone, soldiers began fighting wildfires throughout the park.
(Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.)

We invested in new ways to locate and travel to fires, more people and new tools. What about people dying on the job? Another easy solution, we just decided it was possible to fight fire safely. Once again, all we needed to do was get better at it.

Looking back, I think this becomes the unspoken cornerstone of our organizational foundation: Continually improve our ability to subdue fire without killing people. This is the trajectory we set out on more than 100 years ago and have yet to look back. I see two big assumptions in this foundation:

  1. We can overpower fire.
  2. We can do it safely.

Are these assumptions valid? It’s certainly a convenient dogma to justify doing things the way we’ve always done them. What keeps these two assumptions alive is the fact that most of us can immediately point to numerous instances in our own personal—and organizational—experience where they held true.

Yes, we can and do overpower fire with nobody getting hurt on a regular basis. The problem is using those instances as proof it’s possible to replicate that outcome every time. Just because you’ve never been in a car accident on the way to work doesn’t guarantee a semi won’t plow you over tomorrow morning. This may not stop you from driving to work, but it should make you think critically about whether or not you really need to be in the office every day.

In my experience, every time we “contain” a fire (more often than not meaning we put a line around something that wasn’t going anywhere) and nobody dies, we chalk it up to skill (“safe firefighting”). On the flip side, when a fire goes over the hill or someone gets hurt, our camp conversations boil it down to “bad firefighting.” Like I said, pretty convenient way to view the world, but it leaves no room for reality which has lots of grey. Why are the terms “close call” and “near miss” so common? Because they happen all the time. This is us almost getting our ass kicked. And it means we’re not as good as we think we are; we’re just lucky.

Simplistic Assumptions

The environment in which we operate is not simple. It would be nice if it was, but it’s not. Even so, we have allowed these simplistic assumptions to become beliefs. We codified a process to convince ourselves of the ability to guarantee safety (10 Standard Orders) as part of the justification for exceedingly grandiose efforts to overpower fire.

This overindulgence in unnecessary exposure results in really bad things happening on a regular basis. In what has become tradition, every time the number of dead firefighters makes us uncomfortable we convene to debate what flavor of new stuff to pursue.

In its simplest form, this results in more crews and bigger air tankers. More nuanced approaches involve better training and organizational realignment. But, overall, our strategy still consists of “get better.” We change the words and point to stuff we haven’t pointed at before. But it’s all just a scrambled version of the “more stuff” approach. What’s that saying about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?

In addition to the folks who want new stuff there’s always a group who point to the stuff we already have as the ultimate solution. Their mantra is “back-to-basics.” The back-to-basics argument insinuates the existence of some Golden Age of operations with no dead firefighters, which, in reality, just doesn’t exist.

Fantastic Adjustments – Very Little Change

Have we as the wildland fire service ever really changed? I would argue there is a difference between change and adjustment. I think we have made fantastic adjustments and very little change.

Some of our amazing adjustments include:

The development of smokejumpers, hotshot crews, air tankers and helicopter use, the ICS system, numerous checklists, fire shelters, dedicated research, NWCG, and LCES. Recent additions include the IRPG, Leadership Curriculum, Lessons Learned Center, Safety Management System, and on and on.

Like I said, amazing stuff, but it hasn’t eliminated the existence of funerals in our business. I know none of these initiatives ever purported to be a magic bullet for putting an end to the need for caskets, but they are widely used to support the two big assumptions I mentioned earlier:

  1. We can overpower fire.
  2. We can do it safely.

Are we OK with maintaining these beliefs? Is there harm in maintaining these beliefs? Is it only me who gets frustrated with the gap between what we say and what actually happens?

We are really good at modifications, adjustments, and adaptation. But substantive change is a different matter. I get the sense it’s going to be a long time before we change what we DO (there’s too much invested in the status quo). Maybe a reasonable goal is to alter one belief.

What would it look like if our core belief was: We can’t fight fire safely (as history has illustrated). We could acknowledge there is a scale that includes safer and safest—but not safe. Is there merit in that?

Inspiring New Approaches

I feel this change (altering a belief qualifies as change in my book) has the potential to shift our perspective enough to inspire new approaches. It changes the conversation around what operations to take on. Any leader of tool swingers will attest to the regularity of being asked to take on assignments that don’t make sense (mop up 700 feet in, put “political” smokes out, use aircraft so we don’t lose them, etc.). The debate in our head always starts with: “Well that’s silly…but can we do it safely?” We do this little mental mambo as a way to avoid conflict, still get overtime, and convince ourselves we’re in control.

Imagine if the answer to that question (“Can we do it safely?”) was always “No” (because the cultural belief was that it’s not possible). The question then becomes: “Is this worth it?” This approach acknowledges that every exposure involves the potential for a buried body.

Changing Our Language

We do have in our ranks those who have internalized this approach. They are the folks who have recently witnessed firsthand the reality of what’s at stake. The crew boss who recently lost a crew member to a fireline accident is likely to be a bit more cautious. We shake our heads and call them “gun shy” while whispering to each other the virtues of “getting back in the saddle.” We initially tolerate them as a way of being polite. We shuffle them around and get others to carry out the questionable assignments.

Eventually, the politeness wears off and we either browbeat them back into conducting business as usual or chase them into a less operational position. We never acknowledge these folks are temporarily gifted with the ability to actually see what it is we are risking. It’s this reality we must culturally internalize by changing our language. Only then can we truly deliberate on the utility of the exposure involved in our ultimately futile attempt to overpower fire.

“Is this worth it?” applies to the initial decision to staff a fire, during on-the-ground tactical judgments, and throughout interactions between an IC and the delegating official. As “Is this worth it?” becomes our culture, many of our go-to strategies will become harder and harder to justify.

Ironically, the path to safer interactions with fire requires the fundamental belief that safe is not possible.

9 thoughts on “Same as It Ever Was…

  1. In regards to the tens and 18’s. What do they mean? At the end of an investigation you will read on what factors of the 10’s and 18’s to retrain on (over and over). But what if I were to tell you there is an algorithm to predict an outcome before. I have been in the fire service for a little over 30 years and recently retired. With no ailments from the job. In 2005 I came up with this on a fire and used it every time. The 10’s are worth 10% each, 18’s are worth 6% each. Total all the “violations” and subtract 100. You will get a percentage. In my research, the average number in all the fatalities is 40%. Taken from the 10’ and 18’s noted in a report. Now this does some things to assist in the decision making process. In this process you will see what you can do to mitigate 10’s and 18’s discrepancies. Let’s say in your plan you conducted an algorithm; you find one “violation” of the 10’s and 6 of the 18’s and your score is 46%. Now you can improve by implementing things to improve your score. It could be as simple as to talk to a local about local weather factors and using a human repeater for communications problems; bringing your score to at least 58%. The more improvement to the score the better chance of survival. I have used this for 16yrs and it worked for me. Food for thought….

  2. Agree on all points but 1. The section “How to properly refuse risk” is a huge CHANGE not an adjustment. However it is rarely if ever utilized it seems. Until it is used at ALL levels of fire management We will not see any significant changes in how tragedies and incidents come to be. Bear in mind refusing an assignment due to risk is only passing that risk to someone else in some form. So one of the questions from here is where and who decides where the proverbial buck stops? To see change like what is seems everyone wants to see will literally mean an IMT will turn down either an entire fire assignment or at the least a large portion of one. So what happens then? Are those folks congratulated for doing the right thing while that fire tears thru a California WUI or are those folks blacklisted on the blacklist that supposedly doesnt exist for doing the right thing and the lawsuits start flying on both sides? One thing is for certain. The first time a refusal of risk on a large scale occurs like it needs to there are going to be lots of upset people from both sides and few will want to hear the truth that the IMT was trying to keep people alive by not sending them on the line.

    • I think there have been a few times that IMT’s have refused risk and shut down large portions of fires until a reassessment was conducted or mitigations were established. Two examples come to mind. The Cougar Fire of 2015 and the Rabbit Foot fire of 2018. Both had RLS’s completed on them.

  3. I agree with the approach that acknowledging firefighting will never be risk free is realistic, but could we agree on REDUCING RISK a much as practical as the goal.
    Generally, aggressive overwhelming initial attack keeps most fire from becoming conflagrations.
    Bigger and longer fire = increased exposure to firefighters and citizens. “Managing” fires in July, August and September is rolling the dice! To often we have seen agency administrators decide to take minimal or no action because “The fire id too dangerous to fight”.
    Then a wind event hits it and homes burn and people die. Look at last years Beachie Creek fire in Oregon as one example that is too common.

    • Aggressive IA does keep most fires from becoming conflagrations and may reduce risk somewhat in the short term, though by nature being aggressive with IA is going to put people at higher risk for that shorter period of time. Unfortunately, that being the predominant fire management strategy for over a century is part of why we are having the problems we do today. Continuing aggressive attack compounds the long term risk by worsening the fuels situation and making future fires harder and harder to control, putting responders and citizens at even greater risk. I’m not sure Beachie Creek is a good example, there were multiple fires started by downed power lines that became a part of that fire. Teasing out which starts caused what damage is a nearly impossible chore and it isn’t reasonable to lay it all on the Forest Service. Before it got to that point, you know there were a lot of risk management discussions involving people with decades upon decades of experience. I don’t think any of those people had a slide in their head where a fire in old growth west side forest grew 100000 acres in a day. While examples like that are more becoming more common than they used to be before our fuels problems, WUI encroachment and climate change elevated the potential fire impacts to the level they are at today, overall IA success rates are still pretty impressive; maybe too much so. All the fires we catch small don’t make the news like the few we don’t. There are lots of layers to risk management, it’s not just a matter of putting out the fire right away and everything will be good.

  4. There is a culture of heroism both within the firefighting community, and in public perception, that plays into the belief that we can overpower fire. We give lip service to the fact that no risk is acceptable in terms of human life, yet we ultimately accept that there is, and always will be, an element of risk that we will never fully mitigate. There is a sobering, but short-lived reality check every time a life, or lives, are lost that brings us back to the question, “can we really fight fire safely.” We keep convincing ourselves that surely there is a way; that if we follow the continuum of “Lessons Learned” we will eventually arrive at the goal. As long as the myth that there are heroes who can save us and our resources is fostered, we will continue “our ultimately futile attempt to overpower fire” and believe that we can do it safely. Perhaps the current assumptions need to be debunked and replaced with the two new assumptions: We cannot overpower fire, and it cannot be done safely. In light of those two facts, how can we best approach wildland firefighting?
    Alternatively, we accept the fact the heroism comes at a price and continue to do what we’ve always done.

  5. Great article. I feel as long as we continue to internalize the concept that we can completely control hazards, we won’t ever really look at our operational environment like we need to. If you chase compliance vs. creating safety margin, you will always have people not paying attention to safety messages. When people hear a safety message about a hazard, but feel that they can control their environment, the safety info goes into what I call the “safety bucket” in their head. This is where the info from the last seat belt class you want to us, along with info on other hazards that you don’t feel are all that likely to happen. We generally haven’t measured our chances of these things happening (nor can we really asses those odds in real time anyway) we just more or less decide how much we need to worry.

    Travis is right, when you acknowledge that you are in a dangerous environment, you should be more likely to want to create some margin, and acknowledge that you can get hurt or killed everyday.

    Think of the last time you were at the bar, or a picnic and someone found out you were a firefighter. The inevitable comment is “that’s so dangerous….”. I’ve heard myself and lots of other people say “yeah, but we’re trained, equipped, etc it’s not that bad”. This is the root of the problem. It really is comfortable to feel like we have this under control. If you ever get a chance, ask a military aviator or special forces operator if their job is safe, you will likely hear a very different answer.

    Acknowledging vulnerability and exposure to danger is the first step to wanting to work in a safer environment. This is hard, and make us uncomfortable, but it will be worth it.

  6. While I fully agree that the risk assessment process is flawed and the culture is pathological, this article still is within the range of, ‘go ahead, Poke the bear!’. Developing methods to change organizational culture and entrenched tools is a delicate process at best.
    Making clear a vision of the solution is what works!

  7. I think it’s important to understand what level is best suited to institute “change” in any given situation. Grass roots efforts have served us well but some things must be wrestled at the highest levels of an organization, maybe even a nation. Wildland firefighters are stuck with virtually no operational margin left in extreme conditions and the trade-offs to not engaging aggressively are not necessarily less risky from an operational perspective. Do we have a responsibility to speak up when the risk is too high? Sure, but the turn down protocol will not get us out of the predicament we’re in.
    I would argue that there is margin or opportunity at the enterprise level to manage wildland fire risk. Maybe looking into the land management constraints that prevent meaningful fuels reduction projects, or the continued unrestricted development in the wildland urban interface. Maybe our focus on response and bigger, faster, better has diminished our ability to see the opportunities on the front end. Think it’s not possible? Look into the history of building codes and what compelled the nation to enact laws that would give structure firefighters a fighting chance. I suggest you reach out to your elected officials because us “tool swingers” are going to continue having an uphill battle until our organizations are compelled to change course…
    Thanks for putting this out there Erik. Always good to keep the dialogue going.

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