Fruit We Can Reach

“The language is messy.” This was the mantra our professor would reiterate to emphasize how difficult it can be to talk about risk. Having just completed a master’s level risk management program, I have a better appreciation for the complexities of risk analysis. Thankfully, as Travis Dotson offers in The Summer 2017 Two More Chains, there are some low hanging risk fruits we can grab. Ponder this read about unnecessary risk and the low hanging fruits that we find inside our hazardous workplace. –Tess McCarville, (acting) Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center Analyst

Fruit We Can Reach

And the Tricky Transition from Bad Ass to Dumb Ass

by Travis Dotson

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “Unnecessary Risk.” One of the latest pushes on this term has come out of one agency’s journey through the dark woods of “Safety” toward the awkward proclamation that breathing matters most. So here we are being advised to take no unnecessary risk. This charge, like any sourced “from above,” triggers massive group griping and a fist-clenching shuffle-dance squawk from more than a few in the field. At this point I do have to wonder if this reaction is more of a conditioned response to “D.C.” letterhead than discerning disagreement. We should all admit there is no shortage of merit on either side of this particular episode of “Us vs Them.” (For more insights on the “Us vs Them” topic, see this past issue of Two More Chains.)

Barroom Theater

As the snow flies and training centers host a variety of symposiums, seminars, and summits for the like-minded, the belt buckle brigade gathers at winter pasture (hotel bars) to practice the alcohol-fueled ritual of oscillating between nostalgia and cynicism. This is the prime setting to lob rocks at the target-de-jour. In this case, the predictable objection to “Unnecessary Risk” is quite understandable. The seasoned skeptic shouts the faux-question: “And how exactly will the powers-that-be decide if a risk was unnecessary?” In this perfectly played out yet unrehearsed barroom theater, a comrade takes the cue and exclaims: “That’s simple. If something bad happens then you shouldn’t have been doing it. Didn’t we tell you that no tree is worth dying for!” The cynic is sure that a bad outcome will be the only time necessity is actually measured, and the conclusion is forgone.

This stage performance then continues as the ultimate antagonist is hoisted as a target—complete with cloven-hoof and pitchfork: Lucifer Line Officer. (Hsssss!) (Can you hear the shouting and table pounding?) “YES. It’s THEM! They are the ones demanding we stop the fire on bad ground and put out political smokes in the snag patch!” A convenient and conventional mark: Them. The lack of nuance suits the setting. Eventually, the theming peters out and the herd cycles back to telling time-twisted tales of heroic assignments and deadly days off. The curtain eventually closes as the stragglers stagger off to make ill-advised afterthought phone calls to loved ones they fervently promised to keep in mind. The actors in this tragedy aren’t wrong. We all get it. “Unnecessary” is nearly impossible to define pre-action, and overly easy to declare in hindsight.

Accepting Risk: There is Always a Reason

The other blister this talk of unnecessary risk rubs raw is the condescending implication that line going decision-makers are reckless. Yes, it is offensive to imply the concept of “Unnecessary” is novel to a group who makes life and death decisions on a fairly regular basis. I’m sure the promoters of this well-intentioned campaign would insist there is no assumption that the concept is new, nor is it an insinuation of the current workforce’s tendency toward taking on pointless peril. But, intended or not, it comes across that way. Nobody on the line is accepting risk for no reason. There is always a reason. It’s just that the reasons are buried in layers of tradition, self-worth, economics, and every bit of culture-creating minutia one can imagine. “Necessary” is a deep dark hole and we’re shouting at each other from opposite edges.

Low Hanging Fruit We Can More Easily Discuss

Everyone owns aspects of this dance around the unwarranted. It’s easy to throw rocks at the doubletalk happening on all sides, as if saying one thing and doing another is outlandish. I’m pretty sure hypocrisy shares a birthday with human speech. To put it more plainly: We all have blood on our hands. Beyond the issue of whose hands are dirtiest, all of this back and forth babble tends to focus on the grandiose and flashiest risks— fast-moving flame fronts and spectacular structure saves. What about some of the not-so-sexy risk we accept? Is there some low hanging fruit we can more easily discuss? Can we leverage some of our cultural values that fully support the notion of reevaluating what we’ve unconsciously accepted as necessary? Let’s try.

We Say We Value “Smarter”

We’ve all heard it and most of us have said it more than a few times. It’s the classic almost-clever jingle used to admonish the unwise worker. This worker is likely expending unnecessary energy on a task more efficiently accomplished by a process soon to be displayed by the smirking coworker snorting: “Work smarter not harder!” It stings when you’re the target those words are aimed at. It’s an outright attack on the woodsy intellect so highly valued in our culture. For most of my career, every time that saying was hurled at me I stored it away and narrowed my eyes to scan for unsuspecting others I could fling my fears at. It never took long to find someone with fewer fire stories long-arming two cubies up the hill. I would saunter alongside them and offer to take the load.

As I eventually moved off with the cubies dangling from the tool across my shoulders yoke style I could taste the salt in my chide of “Work smarter not harder.” Ahhhh yes, the comforting cocktail of self-righteousness and pride. It feels so good—until you realize what it really is. And so it goes, the cycle of systemic conformity to unspoken ethics rehearsed and carried out in time-honored traditions. The basic theme is this: brute strength is handy, but intelligence matters more. Yeah, it’s bad ass to endure a brutal pack out, but you’re a dumb ass if you carried anything you didn’t need to. OK, now the meat. If we truly value working smarter, let’s apply it to a few other known threats in our work environment.

1. Smoke

Prolonged exposure to smoke literally makes you dumber. As CO exposure increases, your ability to think clearly decreases1. Being in smoke you don’t need to be in is the epitome of not working “smarter.” In fact, it is actually working dumber. Next, we get to have the discussion about what instances we “need” to be in smoke. As fun as that tail chase is, I’m going to move out to the extreme end of the spectrum we have all seen because it’s rather common despite its absurdity:

  • Camp placed in a valley where smoke accumulates.
  • A crew strung out “holding” a smoke-choked road when the probability of ignition is near zero.
  • Mopping-up stuff that poses no operational threat.

So first and foremost, exposure to smoke is dangerous because it impairs our capacity to think clearly— something most of us have a hard enough time doing given the complexity of our environment. The long-term effects of smoke exposure? We have no idea. But chances are they’re pretty bad. At the low end, all the smoke we eat puts us at increased risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Cancer? All that can be said at this point is that wildland fire smoke does include carcinogens2 .

Here is a finding from “Broyles, G. Wildland Firefighter Smoke Exposure, USDA, Forest Service, 2013”: “In our wildland smoke assessment (650 firefighters, 7,500 hours, 17 states, 80 fires), we found that firefighters exceed safe levels on all fire types for each established short and long-term metric (5-minute, 15-minute, 8-hour).” We all know we can do better on this front but we seem to be too dumb to care. Maybe it’s the smoke?

1 Sources: 1) 2) 3)

2 Sources: 1) 2)

WFSTAR: Know the Risks of Smoke

2. Heat-Related Illness

Heat-Related Illness (HRI) kills wildland firefighters. Ask the families of Caleb Hamm or Michelle Smith. HRI is a function of our core body temperature. We do lots of things to raise our core body temperature, like hiking ridiculously fast to ridiculously remote locations with ridiculous amounts of weight on our back to do ridiculously demanding physical labor in ridiculously hot environments. That’s a lot of exertion—and a lot of ridiculous. We don’t control all aspects of where the work is, or the conditions present at the worksite. But we do control the level of exertion we put forth getting to and carrying out the work. Pretty basic.

The self-induced problem here is the direct correlation between exertion and production: Less Exertion = Less Production (in most cases). Production matters and more is always better because of its effect on reputation. Now we’ve stumbled into the deep dark magic of “Identity.” Recognition, belonging, self-worth, acceptance, legacy . . . it all matters. What makes you tic can make you sick. Now think about “Necessary.” How much of your exertion is necessary? The answer is clearly every last bit of it. What I’d like you to think about is: What is it necessary for? Necessary for image? For belonging? For hours? Trust me, I get it. As the kids say: “You Do You.” Just be honest with yourself about what the risks you take are for.

3. Noise

Noise directly impacts the “C”—you know, the one that goes between “L” and “E.” Noise causes distraction, headaches, and fatigue. It also reduces concentration and slows reaction time3. All this makes a hard job even harder. Yes, we work in a noisy environment. Pumps, saws, aircraft, heavy equipment. These are obnoxiously loud tools we spend lots of time in close proximity to. Most of us shrug our shoulders in relation to this quagmire. The feeling is something along the lines of: “Yeah, what are we gonna do? Not work because it’s too loud?” Well, not exactly. Although I know we could all improve our decision making in this arena.

First of all, noise is no different than any other kind of exposure. Avoiding it is best. Do you need the noise? Do you really need to sit next to the pump because you’re the “operator”? Cutting to cut, pushing to push, flying to fly, pumping to pump. Those are all-around bad deals, noise or not. Oh look, we’re back to a fresh look at: “Necessary”! OK, say you need the noise. Fine, don’t be lazy about exposure. Don’t be closer than required. Hearing protection? Let me sort that one out for you. There is no “Bad Ass” in this equation. No ear plugs = Pure Dumb Ass. Not interested? Your call, but long-term you’re looking at problems with anxiety, depression, increased morbidity, and social isolation 4. Have fun with that, Dumb Ass.

3 Sources: 1) 2)

4 Source:

4. Fatigue

Hey wildland firefighters, I have some tough news to break to you. It turns out you are, in fact, human. I know the TV news and brightly colored “Thank You Firefighters” signs outside ICP tell you otherwise, but the test results are in and unfortunately, you’re NOT an otherworldly super-being. Yep, performance deteriorates as you get tired. And you do get tired (that happens to humans).

Each of the previously mentioned exposures are compounded when combined with fatigue. Research across all organizations, including public safety (fire, police, EMS) is clear—the weary are not wary. There is a marked increase in accidents and injuries as fatigue sets in5. When we’re tired, we have difficulty processing information and adapting to changing circumstances—fairly important abilities in our world.

What do you think of when you hear 2:1? Hot drip mix? Beer to water? If you’re like me you think of CTRs. That seems to be the only place we actually care about “rest.” Trust me, I know and respect the game we play with hours. I tend not to blame humans for being human—like getting tired OR maximizing the benefit within the incentive structure. On that note, I will point out once again that the current pay system for a large part of our workforce incentivizes exposure: More H and OT (aka exposure) = More Money.

So, the same folks telling us not to take unnecessary risks pay us more if we do. Wait. What? Yeah, don’t get me going on that one because that is a different tirade. Do whatever you do with timesheets. I’m just suggesting that you put some thought into the actual rest you and those you oversee are getting—or not getting. Not the mythical rest on your CTR—the actual down time. Be intentional. Get radical. Support sleep. Hell, pay people for it! Whoops, somehow slipped back onto my soap box there, sorry. Anyway, be brave and get real rest.

5 Source:

The Triangle, Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service Fire and Fuels Project Leader George Broyles.

Triangle: Put a Pinch of Practical in Your Tactical Pause

We all know it’s impossible to learn anything if it doesn’t somehow take the form of a triangle, so here you go. This triangle (courtesy of George Broyles) is heavy and it will smash you. It’s also pretty much invisible because we are so accustomed to its elements. Some of the points are sharp and will cut you down where you stand, others are rather dull, but insidiously incessant. You want to do some good for yourself and those around you? Put a pinch of practical in your tactical pause. Stop what you’re doing to intentionally:

  • Lower core body temperature.
  • Lower heart rate.
  • Relieve fatigue.
  • Get out of the noise.
  • Get out of the smoke.

I know we all have to get in bed with risk to move the dirt that needs to be moved. But Bad Ass or Dumb Ass is an Ass either way. As far as exposure goes, live to reduce & reduce to live. Funny, that kind of sounds like saying: “Don’t take on unnecessary risk.”

U.S. Forest Service’s Fire and Fuels Project Leader, George Broyles

2 thoughts on “Fruit We Can Reach

  1. Good stuff to reflect on, and honestly spoken (or written). Thank you for bringing this back into the discussion! It does seem like “unnecessary risk” is most often determined in hindsight and I am sure that it will always be to some extent. Something goes wrong and it gets examined officially and unofficially to determine whether risks were necessary or not. Things go well or at least have a decent outcome and we tend not to examine whether risks were necessary or not. Except maybe for some silent conversations in the cab of the truck by the workers who actually did the mission, and rightly so, as they are usually the ones who know best what really happened.

    Of course as an organization we have moved the needle in a positive direction in regards to these things, but we still have a lot more room to move the needle further forward. Maybe “unnecessary risk” should be removed from our lexicon and replaced with something more suitable that both Line Officer’s / Agency Aminstrators / etc., and operations personnel can better put their arms around? Not sure what that might be, but we could start by talking to the “workers”.


  2. Once again, Travis, you have managed to pack a lot of good stuff into your essay. Your writing is so terrific and you make me really turn my brain on and roll all this around. I’m still processing so don’t have a lot to say except thank you. Truly. I appreciate you and your brain immensely.

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