Raising the Bar–Two Sawyers in Wisconsin Put Lessons to Work

[This article originally appeared as the “Two of Our Own” feature in the 2022 Winter Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Travis Dotson

Todd Pulvermacher and Andrew Gollnick are two “worker bees” who have taken the initiative to weave real-deal lessons into a class they teach. It’s a pretty simple process, but it makes a big difference for their students.

We like hearing about people out there using the lessons. Hopefully you are inspired by their actions.

Travis: All right. Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds.

Todd Pulvermacher

Todd: I work for the state of Wisconsin DNR (Department of Natural Resources). I’m an Initial Attack IC and Forester during the times of the year where we don’t have fire.

I was one of those kids that wanted to be a firefighter when I grew up and never grew out of it. It started with following my dad around the volunteer firehouse when I was just a little kid and I eventually got into the business that way.

During college I spent two seasons at Grand Teton National Park on the Fuels Crew and then came back to a permanent gig here in the state of Wisconsin. I’ve been teaching saws and some other classes ever since.

Andrew Gollnick

Andrew: I’m an Initial Attack Tractor Plow Operator for the state of Wisconsin DNR. I’ve been doing fire nine years with the state. I did three seasons before that with the National Park Service in western South Dakota at various places and also did a season up in Alaska on a Fuels Crew.

I grew up in the logging industry. So when I figured out you could cut trees down on fire, I was like, “Game on. I’m in!” I’m the Lead Instructor for the state’s S-212 Wildland Fire Chainsaws course. I’ve been doing that for the better part of five years.

Travis: Can you guys walk through the story of how we linked up?

Todd: In February of 2020 you came out to our statewide training here in Wisconsin. I was really stoked because we had started using some Rapid Lessons Sharing reports and some other stuff in our S-212 Class.

In this training, you had just done a session on “Local Learning Models”. It was really fitting and I wanted to chat with you but there were a number of people there already talking with you. I wanted to be polite, so I kept it to a “Hello” with a: “I’ll just email you sometime.” And then COVID happened. And I kind of lost track of it.

Then it’s like one of those Post-it Notes that you find after a time and think: “Oh, I totally should have done that!”

Which means I finally got around to sending that email to share some of what we were doing and express our thanks to you and the LLC for these products. I wanted you to know how those documents really helped provide a human face to what we wanted to talk about with our students. It wasn’t just us talking theoretical situations. These were real-life events.

And that email led to us talking today.

A pre-COVID era safety briefing at Andrew and Todd’s S-212 Class.

Travis: Yeah, it’s obviously exciting for us at the LLC to hear about people actually using the material! What is it that you’re doing with Rapid Lessons Sharing in your S-212 Class?

Todd: I subscribe to the LLC emails and just started accumulating the saw-related reports. As the RLS’s came out, I would just tuck them in a folder to read later.


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Then it reached a point where I had this sizeable folder and thought: “I’m not really using this very much.” Around that same time we were rearranging what units we taught in the class. I went to Andrew and said: “Hey man, could I take on the Safety Unit? I’ve got some ideas on how to maybe breathe some fresh life into that.”

Andrew: Todd was like: “Hey dude, I want to bring some RLS’s in for discussion and I want to get an EMT to come talk in the class.” I said: “All right. We’ll see where this goes. Send it.”

Todd: I just thought: “We’ll share one RLS per day. I’ll give them the RLS at the end of the day and they can review it overnight. For five or ten minutes the next morning, as a class, we’ll review it—and make sure we hammer home the lessons, get that discussion going.”

Using my collection, I tried to tailor an RLS discussion to fit what we’re doing that day.

The first day we do some basic cutting so the RLS we reviewed was about a limbing injury where someone gets cut. It was very applicable to what we were about to do for the day. Then the next RLS might be a felling-related one. On the last day we go out and have our students cut saw line, so we’d have an appropriate RLS for that day, too. By going through one each day it seemed to snap everyone’s focus back to the course.

The real bonus with the RLS’s is a lot of them are three to five pages. It’s pretty accessible for folks and usually includes some images so people can kind of reconcile what actually took place in their minds.

An RLS is something you can read while you eat dinner or while you drink your coffee in the morning right before class.

Another benefit of using RLS’s for learning in our classes is how they cover a wide range of topics—from projects to fires to whatever. There’s always a helpful snippet of a lesson that we can tuck-in to bring everybody’s mind into focus when we start the day.

Andrew Gollnick

Andrew: For the first year when Todd brought that up, we used the same couple RLS’s. I have a small folder that I keep saw stuff in as it comes out periodically during the year. And there’s a few RLS’s, the Coconino National Forest Limb Strike and the Hendrix Fire Chainsaw Cut and the South Dakota Chainsaw Cut, that we weren’t originally using in our class. Realizing that there’s new stuff coming out every year, we decided: “Let’s freshen this up.”

In these RLS’s, it’s often similar incidents happening every year. But it’s different places, different people. And there’s so many of them coming out and so many different lessons. That’s why we really like using them.

In addition, there’s the 2020 Tree Felling Accident Analysis. The two of us sat down and read that and pulled out a lot of those stats. The biggest thing that opened-up both our eyes is how many people get injured during a training event. Even though everyone thinks it’s always the hotline operations.

When actually, it’s like: “No, dude, this training with saws can be dangerous stuff.” How many times in one of our saw classes have we had to fix some really bad cuts because people are just learning?

This is a high-risk, dangerous operation. We need to take this just as seriously as we do out on a fire.

Travis: Yeah man, instructors have died during chainsaw training.

Beefing-Up Our Safety Plan

Todd: That was one realization that ensured we made a conscious effort to beef-up our safety plan. We now do that site-specific safety brief for everybody, including students. It includes everything down to the rural address and municipality in case you need to call. We’re close to a border between two municipalities here and we know Dispatch needs those details to ensure the right response.

We therefore make sure to brief everybody now, not just instructors, because it just as easily could be the instructors that get knocked down. That’s why the students need to know the specifics of the plan, too.

Andrew: And we took it even farther. I now make an Avenza Map for the whole project. It’s like: “This is the Helispot. If we get somebody tagged, you need to take them here. And these are the Dispatch contacts.”

We’ve got a buddy who’s a Safety Officer Trainee. He made us a Medical Plan for the whole thing. Everyone has that on Avenza on their phones or they have the hard copy. So you can do your “8-Line” (medical incident report) really quick and you can get in touch with Dispatch and get things going. And, yeah, everyone needs to know this. Because if you get tagged by a limb as an instructor, a student has to take the ball and run with it.

Travis: That’s awesome. That’s using the lessons! So how are you collecting the RLS docs?

Todd: Most of the ones that I have come through the LLC email service.

Honestly, I just recently realized I could go search and find more stuff on the LLC website. Learning to seek out these things means I’ll probably become more adept—or at least faster—at finding lessons for courses I instruct.

Todd Pulvermacher

Any ‘Aha Moments’?

Travis: Sweet. In case others reading this right now might be in the same boat, it is good to know that you can search for these reports in the LLC’s Incident Review Database.

So you have them read the RLS before class and then you have a short conversation about it in class. Have you witnessed any “Aha Moments” in those conversations?

Todd: I think the first time we did it, I saw some real recognition from the students like: “Oh yeah. I could totally see this happening—it could happen today!” We used a simple RLS in which they were doing some project work and the tree didn’t fall over. Next, somebody comes over to help push on the tree. They end up walking into range of the saw’s bar and they get cut. It’s so relatable because it’s in our nature to help each other.

Reviewing the story and lessons in this RLS is a way of saying: “Hey, could this be you today?” We’re going to fell trees. It’s a thick area we’re thinning. Eventually, a tree will get hung-up and somebody’s going to push on it. It refreshes everyone’s mind to: “Don’t go up there and try to offer assistance right away. Maybe, instead, get them to turn the saw off and let’s chat first.”

Andrew: Just the recognition is powerful. That Coconino Limb Strike RLS resonated with me because, reading the report, that guy was the same as me. And he got tagged by a limb, doing a double-cut. That easily could have been me. So, I say to the students: “Hey, you’re going to be pounding on some stuff. This area is post-harvest. There could be stuff up there.” And they respond: “Oh yeah, we’re cutting elm that might have a bad top. And I’m pounding wedges on the side of a hill. Yeah, that could be me.”

Travis: There’s something different about a story in a recent RLS vs. a “watch-out” from a textbook. You know what I mean?

Todd: For sure! Our students also look at some of the S-classes and they’re perceived to be steered pretty heavily toward Western fire situations—which, at times, is a complaint that surfaces. I think this process helps us bridge the gap there, where all of a sudden it’s like, “Hey, if I were to hold my thumb over where it says Montana, or Colorado, would you be able to tell where this was?” At which point they’re looking at a conifer and a chainsaw in the pictures and they’re like: “Well, no.” It’s a realization that: “Oh yeah, I can totally see that being an issue today—or when I get home.”

Travis: For sure. And we do get RLS submissions from all over the country.

Todd: I think the one thing that was eye-opening for students was that a lot of these scenarios weren’t just on fires. They were project work, which is very common for us. Often times, we’re opening-up a road after a storm event or something like that. We get a lot of cut time where there’s no fire involved.

Travis: We just got an RLS from Tennessee about that! The Sawyer ended up with a broken nose. You can check it out on our IRDB: Cherokee NF Tree Felling Injury.

Can you tell us about having a paramedic come in and talk to the class?

Todd: Jason, a great friend of mine and 20-plus year seasonal, was a huge professional asset. Our seasonals are more “call when needed.” Jason’s full-time employment is with a municipal fire department as a firefighter/paramedic. A couple years back he was promoted to their Division Chief of EMS.

As I was taking over the Safety Unit, I asked him: “Would you be willing to come in and talk to us about first treatment of an injury?”

The one thing I was trying to showcase to the students is we’re technically inside the limits of the city. It’s a rural part of the city where our S-212 field site is located. How long would it take to get an ambulance there with paramedics to treat a traumatic chainsaw injury?

So we created this timeline slide and he walks through it. There’s a certain amount of time just to recognize the injury. Then there’s a certain amount of time to assess it, to contact 911, for 911 to actually get it into the CAD and to page folks out, and then to get in the rig and go. And it added up really fast, because I’m doing the math in the back of my head. It was mind-boggling to me. So we brought him in to discuss that as well as what interventions you can take.

Didn’t Spare the Gory Details

This has also opened up another conversation. We grabbed our first aid kits out of our engines and brought them into the class so we could look through them. Our agency uses tourniquets. There’s a lot of people that have never handled them or know what they look like. Jason dove in and helped us facilitate a better way to discuss that stuff, to give people a chance to put their hands in their kit a little bit. Doing this helped make people feel more confident, in part, because he didn’t spare the gory details.

You need to be thinking about this all the time, not just on a big event. We always wear chaps, but I know some people don’t. You could cut yourself just bucking a limb out of the road that fell at your timber sale. If you don’t have any plan or you’re not in contact with anyone—or maybe you’re just the person riding along in the truck that day—you have to have yourself together.

Travis: You start peeling that stuff back and it does get kind of scary. I think: “How many years have I operated with no medical plan?” If somebody would’ve said to me: “Go get the first aid kit.” I would have been like, “Okay, where is it?” And you don’t want that! You want people to be going to the compartment that has it. And when you say: “Hey, get the tourniquet out.” You want them to know exactly what that is.

Just a side note, people do get chainsaw cuts even though they’re wearing chaps. We had a whole series of RLS’s where the chaps aren’t cinched-down tight enough, the chain actually grabs the chaps and pulls them aside and then cuts the leg. And even if it’s not way up high near the femoral artery or whatever, it’s still going to be a gnarly cut.

Todd: That particular lesson definitely made me reevaluate how I wore my chaps! Those RLS’s actually made me super, super nervous when I read them. I was like, “Oh man, I never thought about that.” Since I had always been like, “Man, it pinches my legs”—so I’ll leave a little slack type people. It’s one of those silly things that you don’t even think about after you’ve done it for a while.

Students participate in a line construction exercise in Andrew and Todd’s S-212 Class.

When we had the paramedic-level person talking about trauma though, man, it went to a depth that I didn’t even realize was there. It really opened our eyes. I think that’s why our safety plan steadily progressed after that. We realized that “we really need to address this.” It’s a culmination of factors. As we learn more and become more adept, we say: “We should really be having a better plan.” Now we’re showcasing that to our students.

Andrew: We want to build that foundation of having a safety plan all the time. Not just “Oh, it’s a training or it’s a fire.” But always having a safety plan. Going back to the eye-opening thing, there were a lot of students who were very, very surprised at the amount of time an EMS call would take. We were in the city with full-time municipal department people on the rigs and it could still take up to 15 minutes for them just to get to the site.

Todd: I think we had 15 minutes to have a paramedic there onsite treating you. To put this in perspective, the field site is about one-and-a-half miles from the Emergency Room. It isn’t even that far.

But you think about that playing out, it goes through that whole progression loop. By the time you dial 911, how long will it take to get help, even if they are standing by and totally available, not on another call—there’s a lot of factors. It’s not some magical/easy button.

I think that’s the part that suddenly clicked in my mind: “Man, that’s longer than I would’ve anticipated.” Thankfully, I guess I’ve never had to call an ambulance and experience that firsthand.

Andrew: Yeah, they recognize that “Oh my gosh, it takes this long in the city.” Well, extrapolate that to a fire 15 minutes out of town and we can’t land an air ambulance because we’re in the middle of timber. How long is it going to take now? You’re going to need to intervene. We have a lot of eye-opening stuff about that. When we go through the course evals, they specifically say that one of the better parts was the Safety Unit because we pushed hard about, “Hey, you need to have a plan all the time, not just for this class.”

Travis: Oh man, it’s so good to get integrated with the local fire department and have those connections. So many of us operate within some fire department’s jurisdiction but don’t know them or don’t tie-in with them. And if you’re somewhere out there cutting, that’s not a normal address they go to, right? It might be a good thing to give them a heads-up about how to get to some of those places. It’s great that you’re doing that.

What about when you guys were students in S-212. How have things changed or not changed?

Todd: I guess from when I took it to now, the safety elements have become more robust in my mind. Instructing it now, I feel we’ve really ramped that up. I feel that’s a factor of lessons that have been learned in the community over time. Taking the approach of: “Hey, we can do better.” Maybe to try and plan for that adverse thing to occur even though this is a training. Because I think when I took it there was no such thing as the 8-Line medical incident report. Some of those things have progressed over time. So now we talk about it.

Andrew: We also go over the Dutch Creek protocol because we’re getting people in the class now who are in their first year in fire. They’ve had the basic course, but it’s their first fire job. They’ve always known the 8-Line, but they don’t know the history behind it. We go over the Dutch Creek incident and how it happened. How it was a felling operation and how Andy Palmer died and that led to the 9-Line. Now it’s an 8-Line. This came from a felling operation. We need to know these things.

Travis: Yeah, as time goes on, people come into the business and some of us forget the knowledge and history we take for granted. As you were talking, I was thinking, “Oh yeah, remember when we had the pink sticker because the 9-Line wasn’t in the IRPG?”

Andrew: Yep. Exactly!

Travis: If you have the context, it’s helpful and that stuff ripples out, right? Just like the original Dutch Creek Protocol was focused on large incidents. But now it’s being used all over the place. And now one of the things that we’re starting to talk about is: “How come we don’t roll ambulances during initial attack?” You know what I mean?

We make a big deal of “You should try to have an ambulance on every Division.” So we’re all geared-up for medicals on a big project fire, but with initial attack we’re depending on emergency services. Why wouldn’t we take the same approach? But then that seems excessive because we’re not used to it, which is exactly what people say about anything new. “We’ve never done it that way!”

But there are always innovators out there trying something new. It’s cool to see that progression. And in terms of training, you guys are out there doing it. I think a lot of people have medical plans now. But not everybody’s bringing in a paramedic to talk about how to treat chainsaw cuts.

OK, wrapping up here. If somebody reads this and thinks: “Hey, we should do that in our class,” where would you tell them to start?

Andrew: If they want to do the same thing, just start searching the Lessons Learned Center for stuff that catches your eye—an accident or an issue that relates to what you’re teaching. And then start networking with your fire departments or other agencies in the area. I know some agencies are better at having people that are EMS-qualified on their crews or their engines. Start building the relationship. See if they’ll come in and help you out.

Todd: For me, this is one of those things that’s not super glamorous or shiny. So much so that one of the first questions I asked before this interview was: “Are people really interested in hearing about this?”

And then I remember it might not be glamorous, it might seem fairly simple, but it has turned out to be a very useful teaching tool for us. For the added few minutes to plan it out, share it, and facilitate a short conversation. It really made a huge difference in our students’ learning experience.

Andrew: I would also say, we’re just foresters, we’re “worker bees”. We’re Faller 2’s. I’m a Faller 1 Trainee. It doesn’t have to be your Engine Captain or Saw Boss or Crew Leader. This could be anyone helping to facilitate this learning. It doesn’t have to be overhead. It can start from the bottom—lead up.

Travis: That’s what I was so excited about. It’s crazy simple. It’s accessible. It can be done in a formal training setting or on a random Tuesday—with any type of topic, not just saw-related stuff. Anybody can do this. But not everybody is.

And sometimes just hearing a simple story is what gets people saying:

“Oh, I could totally do that.”

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