Photo above: a fire in Idaho, September 2, 2012, by Kari Greer
In January of 2014, about six months after 19 men were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, a group of five former wildland firefighters formed a group they called “Safety Matters: A Wildland Firefighter Forum for Change”. Their goal was “to call attention to deficiencies in wildand firefighter safety presented by current wildland fire management systems”. Since then they initiated a Twitter account and a Facebook page and in June, 2014 wrote a 16-page document titled Safety Matters Forum Briefing which identified some commonalities in fatality fires and provided suggestions for improvements in the areas of fatality investigations, the role of the Agency Administrator, fire program leadership, emergency communications, and mapping.
Today, in what one of their members said may be their “swan song”, they released another article about firefighter safety. The entirety of the document is below, but before that is my interpretation and summary of what Safety Matters released:
A. Investigators of serious accidents need to have adequate time to complete their task, and not be given an arbitrary short timeline.
B. There needs to be a single interpretation of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders that is clearly understood by all in order to eliminate any further confusion.
C. It needs to be clarified and understood throughout all levels of the agencies and fire organizations that firefighters will not accept additional risk in order to attempt to save structures. Personnel need to know in advance what the expected response will be if a fire threatens a structure.
D. “Rules of Disengagement” need to be developed.
E. Agency managers need to always work closely with firefighters during critical conditions to eliminate any unnecessary or unacceptable risk to firefighters.
(end of summary)
The Safety Matters document as released today:
“WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER SAFETY STILL NOT TOP PRIORITY
Mass gun violence. Police shootings of unarmed civilians. These incidents always – rightfully so – result in public outrage. Yet, mass wildland fire fatalities result in the fallen hero sentiment, though these fatalities were also avoidable. One would think that firefighter safety is the highest priority during wildland fire incidents, right? A repetitiveness of common factors in mass wildland firefighter fatalities over the past 100 years says otherwise. Investigative efforts into the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire found gaps in the application of the goal of making firefighter safety the highest priority on all wildland fire incidents.
On June 28, 2013, lightning ignited a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona, and on June 30, the fire overran and killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Two separate investigations into the circumstances and conditions of the Yarnell Hill Fire were conducted: One commissioned by the Arizona Forestry Division, which used the federal interagency Serious Accident Investigation Team, and one commissioned by Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH), which used independent contractor Wildland Fire Associates. Although the Arizona State Forestry Division was responsible for managing the fire, any state agency has yet to admit guilt or negligence.
Individual members of the group hired by ADOSH found that mandated time constraints and the refusal of interviews with key players critically limited its ability to fully and accurately complete the investigation. Concerns were encountered through the investigation.
First, the investigative process into serious wildfire incidents is flawed. A single investigation should be conducted by an independent group. Adequate time needs to be allowed to conduct a complete and comprehensive investigation. This group’s final report would be turned over to all vested parties and each party would pursue their own mandate or goal. The National Transportation and Safety Board currently uses such a protocol for investigating aviation accidents.
Second, the role and responsibilities of wildland firefighters aren’t consistently defined and enforced. There needs to be a single interpretation of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders that is clearly understood by all in order to eliminate any further confusion. Agency managers need to state that wildland firefighters will not accept additional risk in order to attempt to save structures. Firefighters also need to consider developing “Rules of Disengagement” so that when they feel the potential risk to their well-being is too great, they can disengage without concern for reprisal. Agency managers need to always work closely with firefighters during critical conditions to eliminate any unnecessary or unacceptable risk to firefighters.
Third, there is a lack of a cohesive plan and understanding among the involved parties of wildfire incidents. There needs to be a clear understanding by all parties, prior to the start of a fire that if a fire threatens a structure what the response will likely be. Conversations between these parties should also address what can be done to alter this response.
Although no agency has accepted responsibility for the missteps of the Yarnell Hill Fire, as former firefighters, we hoped the findings of the investigation would effect change in wildland firefighter safety. But alas, firefighter security on the list of priorities during a wildland fire incident has yet to reach the top. — at Yarnell Hill Fire Fatality Site, January 30, 2016.”