Reconvene a task force

Above:  Sage Fire, December 20, 2016. Photo by Ventura County Fire Department.

After studying 16 wildfires that killed firefighters between 1937 and 1956 a task force commissioned by USDA Forest Service Chief Richard E. McArdle developed a list of 10 Standard Firefighting Orders. It was hoped that if followed, it would reduce the the number of fatalities.

10 standard firefighting orders

I was reminded of two of those orders when I saw the information Ventura County Fire Department was providing, not only to their firefighters, but to the public during a wildfire that eventually burned 61 acres in a southern California community. A map distributed on Twitter and Facebook showed the approximate location of a fire that was threatening dozens of homes. It also had icons marking the location of firefighting resources.

map firefighters locations
Map of the Sage Fire showing the location of firefighting resources. Ventura County Fire Department.

The near-real time information about the location of both the fire AND firefighters, which I call the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, relates to numbers 2 and 9:

2. Know what your fire is doing at all times.
9. Maintain control of your forces at all times.

We have written about this before, starting in October, 2013. Not knowing the location of the fire and firefighters has led to dozens of fatalities. Two fires that come to mind in the last decade or so are the Esperanza and Yarnell Hill Fires, in which 24 firefighters were killed.

Technology has changed in extraordinary ways since the 10 orders were written in the 1950s, but many of the agencies responsible for fighting wildland fires are far to slow to adopt new procedures that could save lives.

As a politician recently in the news would say, this is “sad”.

The current U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell needs to reconvene a task force. Since the 1950s methods have been developed that can reduce the number of fatalities — to work toward the Holy Grail. It is time to implement them.

Continue reading “Reconvene a task force”

Study links firefighter accidents to sleep problems

fire Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
An incident base at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in California, 2009. Photo by Carol Jandrall.

A study of almost 7,000 firefighters from municipal fire departments found that 37 percent screened positive for common sleep disorders, including obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and shift work disorder.

The researchers found that compared with sound sleepers, those with a sleep disorder were about twice as likely to have a motor vehicle crash, to nod off while driving, and to have cardiovascular disease or diabetes. They were more than three times as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, said that nationwide 61 percent of firefighter on-duty fatalities are caused by heart attacks or motor vehicle crashes.

National Interagency Fire Center data that we reported for 1990 through 2014 shows that 45 percent of the wildland fire fatalities were from vehicle accidents or medical issues.

Wildland firefighter fatalities 1990-2014
Wildland firefighter fatalities, 1990-2014. Data from NIFC, compiled by Wildfire Today.

Most, 97 percent, of the 7,000 firefighters in the study worked extended shifts of at least 24 hours. Wildland firefighters work 8-hour shifts —  except when they don’t. While on fires their shift schedules and sleep routines are often disrupted. The 8-hour shift can be extended to 12 to 16 hours, and their usual sleeping times may be changed and sometimes shortened; not unlike the jet lag of traveling to a different time zone. The first shift on a fire may be longer than 16 hours and a crew used to working during the day can be placed on a night shift.

The municipal firefighters in the study work very different schedules from their brothers and sisters in wildland fire, so a direct comparison of sleep disorders and accidents is probably not valid, but this issue should be watched closely. Crew supervisors and incident management teams should, at least, see that firefighters have an opportunity to get an adequate amount of quality sleep.

The same journal that published this study has another interesting one titled, “The Association between Sleep Disturbances and Depression among Firefighters: Emotion Dysregulation as an Explanatory Factor”.

Victoria’s advanced systems for engine crew protection

Above: Country Fire Authority test of engine burnover protection systems. Screen shot from CFA video.

The Aussies are far ahead of wildland firefighting agencies in the United States when it comes to the protection of personnel during fire engine burnovers and rollovers. Since 1977 Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) has been creating, evolving, and improving systems to increase the odds of firefighters on an engine surviving if their position is overrun by fire. These efforts were intensified after two engine burnovers in 1983 and 1998 killed a total of 17 firefighters.

During the last 39 years the vehicles have been hardened in various ways. Examples include internal radiant heat curtains and nozzles positioned around the exterior of the truck that spray water as the fire approaches.

We did a quick search on Wildfire Today for “engine burnover” and were surprised at the number of results. Take a moment and at least look at the titles and brief excerpts. These, of course, are just articles on our website. We make no claim that all engine burnovers are included since we started this website in 2008.

On November 21 the CFA posted a video (below) about their crew protection systems. It covers the history of their efforts and several minutes of video recorded during a test when a fire was ignited that burned over three of their engines to evaluate the effectiveness of the designs. The maximum temperature recorded was 728°C (1,342°F)

Below is a screen shot from the CFA video.

engine burnover protection system
Country Fire Authority test of engine burnover protection systems. Screen shot from the CFA video.

What if — in 2006 the five U.S. Forest Service firefighters that were entrapped and killed on the Esperanza Fire, instead of working on an engine similar to the USFS engine farther down this page, had been assigned to one built to CFA standards. Would they have taken refuge in the engine, pulled down the thermal protection shields and turned on the truck protection water spray instead of attempting to survive the fire outside the engine?

One feature of the CFA engines we noticed was a heavy-duty internal roll bar.

Internal roll bar Country Fire Authority engine
Internal roll bar in a Country Fire Authority engine.

We have written before about the need for U.S. wildland firefighting agencies to improve the survivability of engine crews during rollovers. These accidents involving large fire trucks, especially water tenders, are common.

In our opinion it is disgraceful that the outfits employing thousands of firefighters on engines have not taken this step to provide a safer working environment for their personnel.

The photo below is from one of the 34 articles on Wildfire Today tagged “rollover”.

Engine 492 crash Wyoming
On August 8, 2013 Engine 492 from the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grasslands was involved in a rollover accident on Wyoming State Highway 450 southwest of Newcastle, Wyoming. Three firefighters were injured, one seriously.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Cameron.

Stupid people are confident, while the intelligent are doubtful

Here is a blast from the past — an article we wrote May 12, 2010.


That headline is how an introduction to a transcript from a radio program begins on the Australian network, ABC. On the program The Science Show, they explored the conclusions reached by David Dunning and Justin Kruger when they studied people’s perceptions of their own talents. Now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, it helps explain why moderately skilled people act as experts, and inept politicians get our votes.

We’ll touch on how this relates to wildland fire in a moment, but first here are some excerpts from the radio show transcript.

…And here’s the kicker; across every test, the students at the bottom end of the bell curve held inflated opinions of their own talents, hugely inflated. In one test of logical reasoning, the lowest quartile of students estimated that their skills would put them above more than 60% of their peers when in fact they had beaten out just 12%. To put that misjudgement in perspective, it’s like guessing that this piece of music [music for 5 seconds] lasted nearly half a minute.

Even more surprisingly, the Dunning-Kruger effect leads high achievers to doubt themselves, because on the other end of the bell curve the talented students consistently underestimated their performance. Again to the test of logic; those topping the class felt that they were only just beating out three-quarters of their classmates, whereas in reality they had out-performed almost 90% of them.

The verdict was in; idiots get confident while the smart get modest, an idea that was around long before Dunning and Kruger’s day. Bertrand Russell once said, ‘In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.’ From his essay ‘The Triumph of Stupidity’, published in 1933.

Charles Darwin once said, ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge,’ and Dunning and Kruger seem to have proven this point. In light of this, it suddenly becomes clear why public debate can be so excruciating. Debates on climate change, the age of the Earth or intelligent design are perfect real-life examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect. It beautifully explains the utter confidence of those who, with no expertise, remain stubborn in their views regardless of overwhelming evidence. It makes you want to shake them by the collar and scream about how stupid they are. But evidence shows that’s not the best strategy.

Have you ever been on a fire and met a Squad Boss, Crew Boss, or Division Supervisor who you knew was not the sharpest tool in the cache, but who was supremely confident in their abilities? They might be the person who just can’t understand why their supervisors have not recognized their huge potential and wonder why they have not been promoted every year.

In some cases, this person may be ineffective but benign. Their screw-ups may be inconvenient or costly but not life-threatening. But if someone on a fire, with power and authority, over-estimates their skill and ability, the consequences can be disastrous.

Some people don’t know what they don’t know. They have no idea or self-awareness about the holes in their knowledge and experience. You may know of a politician or two that can be described this way coughsarahpalincough.

I can think of several fatality and near-miss incidents on wildfires where this was, in my humble opinion, the primary cause of the accident. But it is not politically correct for the writers of the accident reports to spell it out so clearly. One report that came close is the one about last August’s escaped prescribed fire in Yosemite National Park where the the writers used the term “hubris”.

How do we avoid the trap of over-confident people making poor decisions on fires?

  • The first step is to be sure that firefighters can proficiently perform the jobs that appear on their red cards.
  • Next, be sure that everyone receives an honest performance rating on every fire, at least a verbal one, and preferably a written one for significant fires or assignments.
  • Conduct After Action Reviews at the end of shifts or fires.
  • And, if you are given an assignment that does not make sense, or causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, say something.
  • If an individual does this to you repeatedly, have a chat with their supervisor or the Safety Officer. Filing a SAFENET form that does not list names may not be effective.

****

More about the Dunning-Kruger effect.

USFS having difficulty hiring firefighters to suppress wildfires in area contaminated with asbestos

The U.S. Forest Service is trying to fill positions on a very specialized 10-person wildland firefighting crew. The mission of the crew would be to suppress wildfires that occur near a mining site at Libby, Montana where vermiculite contaminated with asbestos was extracted by the Zonolite Corporation and later by W.R. Grace from 1919 until the mine closed in 1990. The asbestos became airborne and deposited in the adjacent forest and other areas. Wastes from the mine were used throughout Libby in many public places such as school tracks, public parks, baseball fields, as insulation in public buildings and schools.

former vermiculite at Libby, MT
Map showing the location of the former vermiculite at Libby, MT. Click to enlarge.

The area is now designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund Site. The first public health emergency ever declared by the EPA was the Libby asbestos site in 2009. Hundreds of asbestos-related disease cases have been documented in the small community, which covers the towns of Libby and Troy.

Below are excerpts from an article at The Western News:

…As part of a previous agreement, the Forest Service is responsible for fire containment and cleanup in the mine area. Libby District Ranger Nate Gassmann said having a team located in the area is critical to containing the threat of airborne asbestos if that case were to happen.

“Both agencies understand that importance if the community of Libby and the surrounding area is affected by fire in someway,” Gassmann said. “We do not take this as a light consideration for the Forest Service.

Christina Progess, remedial project manager for Operable Unit 3, known also as the former W.R. Grace mine site, said that the EPA worked hand-in-hand with the Forest Service to develop the action plan, while state agencies like the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation took support roles, providing input while the plan was under development. Progess said the plan released on Tuesday has been in the works since spring of 2016.

The team would be composed of Forest Service firefighters, according to the plan, but filling that roster has already proven difficult. According to the memo, Forest Service Fire Managers have discussed firefighting within OU3 with Forest Service firefighters and “most have indicated that they would refuse to work in OU3 due to the presence of (Libby Amphibole asbestos) in forest duff and tree bark.”

Gassmann said while efforts to build the team has been met with hurdles, some support positions have already been filled and the Forest Service may begin looking to outside sources to compose the 10-person squad.

Gassman also said the Forest Service has provided forest fire containment in the mining area before, including two incidences in 2015, although those fires totaled a .75-acre area.

“On average, we receive four fires a year” in the former mine area, Gassman said. “Sometimes you get more, sometimes you don’t.”

Progess said the EPA and Forest Service conducted a test burn earlier this year to determine the exposure levels found in the smoke and ash of a fire in the former mine area. The test burn was a small fire, she said, but the exposure levels were great.

“We had the test burn and had firefighters do some mop up in the area. We found that their exposures were well above the risk target set by the EPA,” she said.

“Exposures were significant and of concern.”

Progess said that if a large forest fire were to tear through the former mine site, the EPA is currently unable to quantify how far or how concentrated the mobilized asbestos would travel through smoke and ash.

“There’s so many variables that would factor into it, from wind to topography to the relative humidity,” she said. “We don’t have any way of understanding what the concentrations would be to residents in Libby but the best way to minimize exposure is to prepare to stop a fire.”

Gassmann said while the primary objective is to keep area residents safe from such asbestos exposure levels, there’s plenty of concern for the safety of the firefighting team, once that crew is assembled.

“We have a requirement to provide health and safety for our fire fighters. That’s above and beyond what you would consider a normal fire fighting activity,” he said.