By Peter M. Leschak
A mindless bad example—that’s what I provided during the field day portion of an S-130 Basic Firefighter course several years ago. We were on agency-managed ground with the opportunity to lay down live fire in short grass. The intent was to showcase real fire behavior—running, backing, flanking, etc.—then direct the students, most of whom had zero experience, in extinguishing, mopping, and cold-trailing the blaze. Good stuff.
Problem was it turned out to be a marginal afternoon—high RH, light wind, overcast. Still we broke out the drip torches to give it a shot. After all, firing devices were also on the menu.
I worked hard to build some intensity, lighting and re-lighting, aggressively dispensing liberal amounts of fuel. “Creeping” was the only fire behavior I could induce. At one point I was walking around in spotty eight to ten inch flames with the torch, vainly trying to generate some heat. In my mind the practice was unremarkable: a wildland firefighter treading on lazy low flames? Whatever.
But then I happened to glance up at a squad of rookies staring at me from a few yards away. All eyes were wide, some mouths were open. For a moment I was puzzled by their incredulity, then…oh…I stepped out of the flames. For much of the previous three days we’d emphasized the potential lethality of fire, and now I was casually wading in it—a less than astute demonstration.
“Normalizing Risk” is the term for what I was doing, and like most human factors it’s a doubled-edged sword. In emergency services some acceptance of hazard is inevitable and necessary or the job would never get done, but too much can be fatal. How much is too much? Ah, there’s the rub. What is too risky and what is not is highly subjective. For example, I considered it routine to amble amidst that skunky, low-intensity fire, but the rookies thought I was nuts. I admit that if I tripped and took a face plant into those “weak” flames I could suffer injury, but plainly wasn’t worried about it. A case could be built that I should be.
We might quibble over the example above, but where the subjectivity of risk management spins into sharp focus is on page 19 of the IRPG: How to Properly Refuse Risk. There we read, “When an individual feels an assignment is unsafe they also have the obligation to identify, to the degree possible, safe alternatives for completing that assignment.” Notice the word “feel.” It indicates an emotional component to assessing risk. Even if I pull out a risk analysis tool like green-amber-red or a matrix (which is a prudent, professional action) and attempt to quantify risk, my judgements about low, moderate, or high risk begin with how I feel about the various parameters.
Four times in my operational career, I refused an assignment as it was outlined and delivered by a superior. In each case, my initial reaction was “this doesn’t feel right.” We call that “intuition,” and it is a legitimate way to think. Daniel Kahneman, a guru of decision-making, labeled that reaction “thinking fast.” But to refuse properly, we need to then provide a solid rationale (“thinking slow”) for our intuition, a concrete alternative to accomplish the mission, acknowledging there might not be one so far as we are concerned. However, our superior may have a different feeling, and things could get messy.
Perhaps that potential messiness is why, in conversations with law enforcement leaders and municipal fire department leaders, I’ve discovered some are skeptical of our wildland principle of refusing risk. They expect responders to follow orders. One fire chief said he would consider refusing risk as insubordination. I happen to know that individual well. I suspect that if one of his firefighters respectfully said, “I understand what you want, Chief, and I agree it should be done, but how about if we do it this other way?” he would probably listen. I hope. But isn’t it better to have an established protocol? The issue seems emotionally charged. If every emergency scene leader was infallible, then just following orders would be a no-brainer. We all know such is not the case. Is the more authoritarian approach a means to short circuit the influence of emotion?
Let it be noted that I haven’t conducted a nationwide survey of fire chiefs. It could be that some departments have a risk-refusal policy similar to what’s in the IRPG, but if so I’m unaware of it. As a rural fire department chief for three decades, I read widely in the fire service journals and never saw a reference to such a thing.
It raises the question: why does the wildland fire service have it? I suggest two possibilities. First, we’ve suffered what seems an inordinate number of firefighter mass-fatality incidents. Second, we operate across the continent, in places that can be unfamiliar to us, and routinely with people we don’t know. I consider it significant that in all cases where I refused risk, I was working in another state or in one case, another country. (Does that mean my acceptable risk threshold was higher at home? Could be.)
Back to page 19 of the IRPG: “Every individual has the right and obligation to report safety problems and contribute ideas regarding their safety. Supervisors are expected to give these concerns and ideas serious consideration.” Notice another word, “obligation.” Is your obligation even more potent than your right? In other words, in certain cases we are ordered to not follow orders. That may sound subversive and disruptive to some—one perennial worry being that “refusing risk” could be a ploy to avoid unpleasant work.
I believe the bottom line of risk-refusal is that all firefighters, regardless of position, must be held accountable—“required or expected to justify actions or decisions; willingness to accept responsibility.” If that’s so, then our apprehension of “acceptable risk” must be based upon a shared reality. Such mutual reference originates in common training, common principles, common terminology—what we collectively and officially agree is true and valuable, and for which we have the NWCG as gatekeeper. All well and good, but who is the arbiter of emotion? That is the source of disagreements about risk, and “feeling” almost always impacts before “logic” awakens. As you know, we can’t often help how we feel, but only how we react to those feelings.
By all means, pay attention to “your gut,” to how you feel. But you must also determine why you feel that way, and what should be done about it. How to Properly Refuse Risk is a powerful device, but like all tools must be handled with care and respect. When a situation seems questionable you are the judge and arbiter, and that’s a lot more difficult and demanding than just following orders.
About the Author
Peter Leschak recently retired as a career wildland firefighter with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry. For the past 25 years he’s been a fire instructor in both the wildland and structure realms for various state and federal agencies. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books, including Ghosts of the Fireground, and has produced more than 300 magazine and newspaper articles. Peter’s last blog post for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center “Command Presence – Looking the Part and Playing the Part” was featured last June: https://wildfirelessons.blog/2021/06/22/command-presence-looking-the-part-and-playing-the-part/.