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:
“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?
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.
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:
- We can overpower fire.
- 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.
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:
- We can overpower fire.
- 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.