By Dave Williams
When you think of the word “safety” what comes to mind? If you were to meet a member of an Amazonian tribe who has had no contact with the outside world, how would you explain your understanding of safety to them?
Safety tends to be an extremely personal and sometimes emotional concept almost exclusively defined individually. Beliefs around what the word means and how processes and protocols influence outcomes vary widely. When we survive hazardous situations, do we know why? Is it our commitment to safety? Our personal experiences and competencies? Luck? Does it matter what the percentages are if it’s a combination of multiple factors?
I am currently a Regional Fire Operations Risk Management Officer with the U.S. Forest Service. I have more than 20 years of operational wildland fire management experience on engines, hotshot crews, helitack, smokejumping, and fuels management. I am an ICT3, DIVS, and a SOF2(t). It is because of the close calls, accidents, injuries, and fatalities I have survived that I wrestle with wildland fire’s well intended but perhaps misguided preoccupation with safety.
We are tasked with objectives that are accompanied by hazards often outside of our control. While I look forward to hearing comments, that statement is not up for debate. If you disagree with the fact that wildland fire management is an inherently hazardous occupation, you either don’t have enough slides yet or your ego and luck are combining to provide an illusion of control. The uncertainty involved is why understanding risk and trade-offs is so important.
I like to think that the overall goal, as it relates to personnel safety, is to do everything we can to bring folks home from work unharmed. Maybe that’s something we can agree on. I believe that our messaging around prioritizing safety above all else has two detrimental and unintended outcomes:
- “Safety First” messaging can contribute to complacency, or as Mike Rowe describes it in this video, an individual’s Risk Compensation.
- Prioritizing safety in hazardous environments presents a conundrum. What do you do if accomplishing protection objectives, such as providing for public safety, requires you to do things that could result in harm to you or those you work with?
If we agree that our goal is to bring folks home unharmed, but we work in an inherently hazardous environment, what is the most effective messaging to ensure intent is understood and achievable? One common incident objective typically found at the top of the list is “Provide for firefighter and public safety”. I understand that this well intended yet meaningless platitude can be found in federal policy. However, as a firefighter, that statement is not useful to me and often its paradoxical nature adds to confusion around missions and priorities.
This might touch a nerve for folks, but to me safety is not an objective to be prioritized, it is a trade-off when you can’t have your cake and eat it too. I recognize one option would be to simply re-define the word “safe” to something more malleable, but I am not interested in a work around. I believe aligning our messaging with our actions and behavior is important.
What if I told you that acknowledging the hazardous nature of this job and being transparent about the risk we’re asking our firefighters to accept in order to accomplish objectives could actually reduce our accidents and injuries? Training and development, preparedness and emergency response capabilities all look different for crews/modules in the years following a serious medical incident. Why is that? Did the hazards change?
I welcome any ideas on how to message our commitment to safety in an inherently hazardous environment. Ideally, something that will resonate with firefighters and provide meaningful intent as we navigate the dynamic and complex nature of wildland fire management.
Here’s my first stab, assuming control objectives aligned with agency mission and values have already been developed:
Manage risk to firefighters by ensuring hazards are identified, assessed and where possible mitigated. Be prepared to accept residual risk when values threatened warrant it and the probability of achieving objectives is high.