When we’re talking about firefighter safety and preventing injuries, fatalities, or escaped prescribed fires, we often fall back on the hundreds of rules, regulations, standards, orders, lists, watch-outs, manuals, red books, 40-page Incident Action Plans or Prescribed Fire Plans….. the list is endless. While I would never say those resources are worthless, perhaps a deeper root cause of accidents on the fireline are the ingrained human behavior traits welded into our DNA or learned through years of exposure to a workplace culture. Some people are hard-wired to accept a level of risk others would not, or they may think their innate intelligence will enable them to outsmart a fire, or be able to successfully handle any unexpected emergency that is presented to them.
The most successful firefighters are not those who religiously follow every written rule to the letter, but those who recognize, accurately, their own skills and limitations. They take advantage of what they can do well, and mitigate the traits that could lead to an undesirable outcome. But not everyone is self-aware to that level.
The most dangerous firefighters are those who do not know what they don’t know. When they were teenagers, they thought they were 10 feet tall, bulletproof, and knew everything. Now after fighting fire a little here and there, and taking some stupid risks without getting seriously injured or at times not even knowing they were taking risks, they think it can continue, which puts themselves, and if they are a supervisor, those around them in precarious situations.
Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, is often described as one of the best, or the best, football coaches of all time. He does many things well, of course, but one of his most interesting traits is accurately recognizing the skills and limitations of his players, and then modifying and customizing the game plan, putting his men in situations where they are likely to succeed. For example, after the New York Jets allowed Danny Woodhead, the little 5-foot 8-inch running back, to languish on the sidelines, Mr. Belicheck hired him and now successfully uses him in specific plays and situations that take advantage of his skills. Mr. Woodhead was one of the stars in last season’s Superbowl.
Is it possible to learn something from Mr. Belicheck and apply it to firefighting? What if we could identify the person who does not know what he or she does not know, or the over the top risk taker, and use them in positions where they can succeed without putting themselves or others at risk? Instead of using them in fireline positions, maybe they could succeed as a Ground Support Unit Leader. Or maybe they should not be promoted into a position where they would put firefighters at risk.
Neil LaRubbio recently wrote an article titled “Dead man working”. Here is an excerpt:
…From 1980 to 2010, an average of 17 firefighters died nationally each year, the majority in Western forests, six more on average than during the previous 30 years. Yet, no fire manager would say that safety awareness has become lax. No matter the agency’s culture, getting these roughnecks to act right in desperate situations can be the most maddening variable of all.
What kind of worker is most likely to choose risk over reason? Researchers at the University of Montana’s Department of Health and Human Performance have come to some conclusions. They found that 20 percent of wildland firefighters demonstrate symptoms of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, compared to a national average of 9 percent. The researchers discovered similar statistics in miners, suggesting that people with ADHD gravitate toward high-risk jobs. Research like this may help industry mold environments that accommodate the risky ways in which some people unconsciously approach dangerous work. For example, according to the University of Montana study, individuals with ADHD show higher rates of substance abuse, which may explain the unsparing quantities of alcohol my fire crew in Montana consumed, or the fairytale levels of meth that are said to circulate among oil field, short-haul truckers.
You might also enjoy an article I wrote in May, 2010: “Stupid people are confident, while the intelligent are doubtful“.