Legislation introduced to acquire system to track location of state firefighters in Washington

Photo above: 19 white hearses brought the Granite Mountain Hotshots back to Prescott, Arizona, July 7, 2013. They were killed after being overrun by the Yarnell Hill Fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A bill introduced in the Washington state legislature would provide for state employed firefighters a system that would track their location. Knowing where firefighters are while working on a rapidly spreading fire is crucial to ensuring their safety, and is half of what we have called Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety. The other half is knowing the real time location of the fire relative to the personnel. If a Division Supervisor, Operations Section Chief, or Safety Officer is monitoring this information they could potentially warn firefighters that their present position is in danger when the fire begins to spread in their direction. A system like this might have saved 24 lives on the 2013 Yarnell Hill and 2006 Esperanza Fires. In both cases the firefighters and their supervisors did not have a clear understanding of where the fire and the firefighters were.

In a January 18 article about how to reduce the number of fatalities on wildland fires, we wrote:

When you think about it, it’s crazy that we sometimes send firefighters into a dangerous environment without knowing these two very basic things.

Below is a section from House Bill 2924 as introduced in the Washington State Legislature on January 27, 2016, sponsored by six lawmakers:

…Require all fire suppression equipment and personnel in its employ or direction to be outfitted with an electronic monitoring device that utilizes global positioning system technology to protect the safety of wildland firefighters…

The Seattle Times wrote about the proposed legislation. Here is an excerpt:

…DNR has done some early research on GPS, according to Bob Johnson, the agency’s wildfire-division manager. Setting up a system could cost $1.5 million, Johnson told lawmakers.

“Improving safety for our firefighters is paramount and we’d view this technology … as a viable supplement to existing safety measures,” wrote Mary Verner, DNR’s deputy supervisor for resource protection. “Though, it, like many technologies, does have its limitations.”

Challenges, benefits

GPS locaters are used by various departments and agencies around the country, according to Triplett.

But there aren’t yet national standards for GPS systems, so when firefighters come from different agencies or another state to fight large blazes, they may not have equipment that works together, according to Triplett.

Steve Pollock, chief regional fire coordinator for the Texas A&M Fire Service, said it took about three years to develop that agency’s GPS system. When it goes live in July, it will be able to track more than 200 bulldozers, fire engines and coordinating vehicles, he said…

There needs to be leadership, nationally, to develop standards for firefighter tracking systems so that the devices used by different agencies are compatible and interoperable. This should be the duty of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, National Association of State Foresters, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

If individual state and local organizations spend millions on stand-alone systems that can’t be used outside their jurisdictions it will be FUBAR. Leadership is needed. Today.

Adding to the list of common denominators of tragedy fires

More common denominators of tragedy fires.

(Photo: Happy Camp Complex, 2014, by Kari Greer.)

About forty years ago Carl Wilson, one of the early wildland fire researchers, developed his list of four “Common Denominators of Fire Behavior on Tragedy Fires”, that is, fatal and near-fatal fires.Carl Wilson

  1. Relatively small fires or deceptively quiet areas of large fires.
  2. In relatively light fuels, such as grass, herbs, and light brush.
  3. When there is an unexpected shift in wind direction or wind speed.
  4. When fire responds to topographic conditions and runs uphill. Alignment of topography and wind during the burning period should always be considered a trigger point to re-evaluate strategy and tactics.

Our study of the 440 fatalities from 1990 through 2014 shows that entrapments are the fourth leading cause of deaths on wildland fires. The top four categories which account for 88 percent are, in descending order, medical issues, aircraft accidents, vehicle accidents, and entrapments. The numbers for those four are remarkably similar, ranging from 23 to 21 percent of the total. Entrapments were at 21 percent.

But as Matt Holmstrom, Superintendent of the Lewis and Clark Interagency Hotshot Crew recently wrote for an article in Wildfire Magazine, Mr. Wilson’s common denominators only address fire behavior.

Mr. Holmstrom explored eight human factors that he believes merit consideration. I’m generously paraphrasing, but here are the areas he mentioned:

  1. Number of years of experience.
  2. Time of day (especially between 2:48 p.m. and 4:42 p.m.)
  3. Poorly defined leadership or organization.
  4. Transition from Initial Attack to Extended Attack.
  5. Earlier close calls or near misses on the same fire.
  6. Personality conflicts.
  7. Using an escape route that is inadequate.
  8. Communication failures.

He goes into much detail for each item and cites numerous fires which he said were examples. It is a thought-provoking article. Check it out.

UPDATE January 29, 2016. Larry Sutton authored an article in a 2011 issue of Fire Management Today (pages 13-17) that also explored the Common Denominators of Human Behavior on Tragedy Fires. At the time Mr. Sutton was the fire operations risk management officer for the U.S. Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Drip torch carried on firefighter’s back leaks fuel and ignites, causing serious burns

Last summer a firefighter received severe burns to his back, both legs, and left arm after a drip torch attached to the pack on his back leaked fuel which ignited. The accident occurred September 9, 2015 on the Perdida Fire managed by the Bureau of Land Management northwest of Taos, New Mexico. The firefighter was one of seven igniters assigned to the fire which had a total of nine personnel.

The individual who was injured had been igniting with a drip torch while he carried an extra one attached to the pack on his back. The torch leaked fuel which caught fire.

From the recently released report about the incident:

…Igniter #1 saw that the victim’s line gear and back of his legs were on fire so he tried to put the fire out with dirt and by patting at the flame with his gloved hand. Igniter #1 told the victim to get on the ground and they both fell together. The victim got back up and ran while trying to get his glove off and then his pack, successfully. The victim then stumbled but regained his footing briefly before falling back to the ground. At this point, Igniters #1 and #3 converged and patted out the fire on the victim’s pants…<

The photos below are from the report.

damaged Nomex shirt

damaged Nomex pants

One of the issues pointed out in the report is a significant delay in requesting a medevac. About 40 minutes elapsed before medevac was requested, and that was for a ground ambulance even though the victim apparently had second and third degree burns. That request was quickly upgraded to transport by helicopter. The report concluded that according to the burn injury protocol a medevac should have been initiated upon the determination of second and third degree burns and the remoteness of the incident.

The medevac pilot was unable to communicate with the personnel on the ground because he could not program the frequency into the helicopter’s radio.

The lat/long was called in to dispatch from the incident scene 23 minutes after the helicopter was requested (about an hour after the accident occurred), and four minutes before it landed at the extrication point.

The report recommended that firefighters should avoid carrying extra drip torches on their packs during ignition operations.

We did not see anything in the report about how fire resistant clothing that has not been washed for an extended period of time may, or may not, cause the clothing to lose some of its resistance to fire. But it did say “PPE [personal protection equipment] should be kept clean and inspected often for damage and fuel contamination”.

drip torch back gear
File photo of igniters carrying drip torches attached to packs on their back. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Entrapments is the fourth leading cause of wildland firefighter fatalities

For the last several days we have been writing about fatalities on wildland fires —  the annual numbers and trends going back to 1910 and some thoughts about how to reduce the number of entrapments (also known as burnovers). Often when we think about these accidents, what automatically comes to mind are the entrapments. When multiple firefighters are killed at the same time it can be etched into our memory banks to a greater extent than when one person is killed in a vehicle rollover or is hit by a falling tree. Much of the nation mourned when 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were overrun and killed by the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013. A fatal heart attack on a fire does not receive nearly as much attention.

When we discuss ways to decrease deaths on fires, for some of us our first thoughts are how to prevent entrapments, myself included. One reason is that it can seem they are preventable. Someone made a decision to be in a certain location at a specific time, and it’s easy to think that if only a different decision had been made those people would still be alive. Of course it is not that simple. Perfect 20/20 hindsight is tempting for the Monday Morning Incident Commander. Who knows — if they had been there with access to the same information they may have made the same series of decisions.

An analysis of the data provided by NIFC for the 440 fatalities from 1990 through 2014 shows that entrapments are the fourth leading cause of fatalities. The top four categories which account for 88 percent are, in decreasing order, medical issues, aircraft accidents, vehicle accidents, and entrapments. The numbers for those four are remarkably similar, ranging from 23 to 21 percent of the total. Number five is hazardous trees at 4 percent followed by the Work Capacity Test, heat illness, and electrocution, all at around 1 percent. A bunch of miscellaneous causes adds up to 4 percent.

NIFC’s data used to separate air tanker crashes from accidents involving other types of aircraft such as lead planes and helicopters. But in recent years they began lumping them all into an “aircraft accident” category, so it is no longer possible to study them separately. This is unfortunate, since the missions are completely different and involve very dissimilar personnel, conflating firefighters who are passengers in the same category as air tankers having one- to seven-person crews — from Single Engine Air Tankers to military MAFFS air tankers.

The bottom line, at least for this quick look at the numbers, is that in addition to trying to mitigate the number of entrapments, we should be spending at least as much time and effort to reduce the numbers of wildland firefighters who die from medical issues and accidents in vehicles and aircraft.

How do we reduce the number of firefighter fatalities?

House in the Eiler Fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
David Shepard’s house survived the Eiler Fire, 40 air miles east of Redding, California. Photo by Bill Gabbert, August 6, 2014.

Our piece about trends in wildland firefighter fatalities generated discussion of what the data meant and the fact that there was a great deal of variation from year to year. I wrote a comment below the article that grew larger than I originally expected. Here it is:


With an average of 17 fatalities over the last 25 years the annual numbers will never be smooth or without spikes. If there were more than 30,000 deaths each year, like with motor vehicles and firearms, there would be less relative variation from year to year and it would be much easier to see a trend. The wildfire environment is dynamic and volatile, but human factors may be what most influences the number of fatalities, and that is difficult to measure or predict.

We have seen some interesting discussion, on this article and others, about how to reduce the fatality rate. A large percentage of the fatalities on wildfires are caused by medical issues or accidents in vehicles and helicopters. For example in 2014 there were 10 deaths on fires, but none involved burnovers. But having said that, off the top of my head, here are a few areas that need to be emphasized in order to reduce the number of burnover fatalities:

  • Realize that firefighter safety is far more important than protecting structures or vegetation. It’s hard to step back and watch homes burn, but it’s far more painful to watch a funeral.
  • Increase the use of simulation tools such as sand tables and computers to train leaders. Try to make it as realistic as possible, but don’t keep throwing problems at the trainee until they fail. Point out mistakes, but the simulation director needs to avoid getting on a power trip. This occasionally was a problem when we used a simulator with a bank of overhead projectors and a rear-projection screen, a system that was extremely flexible.
  • Find a way to make crew resource management more effective so that crew members feel empowered. If they see something, SAY something.
  • The first things every firefighter should consider before committing to a fire suppression effort are escape routes and safety zones. After that, anchor, flank, and keep one foot in the black. Then, escapes routes and safety zones, again and again.
  • Utilize existing technology that will enable Division Supervisors, Operations Section Chiefs, and Safety Officers to know in real time, 1) where the fire is, and 2) where the firefighters are. The Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety. When you think about it, it’s crazy that we sometimes send firefighters into a dangerous environment without knowing these two very basic things. Last month Tom Harbour told me that he was very concerned that, for example, someone in Washington would be accessing the data from thousands of miles away and order that a firefighter move 20 feet to the left. That can be managed. Making the information available to supervisors on the ground can save lives.

What are your recommendations?

Wildfire fatality trends

Last week Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reported that 13 wildland firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty in 2015. That was an increase from 2014 when there were 10 fatalities, and was about a third of the 34 that were killed in 2013 — that year included the deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots near Yarnell, Arizona.

The National Interagency Fire Center has statistics about line of duty deaths going back to 1910. During that time, according to their numbers, 1,099 firefighters died.

wildland firefighter Fatalities 1960-2015

In looking at the 105 years of NIFC data there appears to be an increasing trend. The figures below are the average number of fatalities each year for the indicated time periods:

1910-2015: 10.5
1910-1959: 6.9
1960-1989: 10.2
1990-2015: 17.0

One likely explanation for the apparent increase is that 80 to 105 years ago probably not all fatalities were reported or ended up in a centralized data base, especially those that occurred on state or locally protected lands. Even if we only look at the figures since 1960, as in the chart above, it still shows a steep increase over those 55 years.

It is possible in the last 25 years the reporting of fatalities and the collection of the data has been somewhat more consistent and complete. The chart below covers that period, from 1990 through 2015, and has a slight downward trend, which would be even more obvious if not for the 19-person crew that passed away in 2013 on the Yarnell Hill Fire.

wildland firefighter Fatalities 1990-2015

I can’t prove that there was under-reporting of wildland firefighter fatalities during most of the 20th century, but if a firefighter was killed on a vegetation fire in Missouri in 1921, I can see how that statistic may not have made it into the data base that is now maintained at NIFC.

So what does all this mean? Individuals can look at the same batch of statistics and develop vastly different interpretations. However, it would not be prudent to assume that the fatality rate almost tripled from the first part of the 105-year period to the last 25 years. There are several ways to analyze data like this. The least complex is to look at the trend of the raw numbers of fatalities year to year. A more complex and meaningful method would be to determine the fatality RATE. For example, the fatalities per million hours spent traveling to and working on fires. That would be impossible to ferret out during most of the last 105 years. But the firefighting agencies should be able to find a way to begin collecting this information, if they don’t have it already.

If the fatality and serious injury rates were calculated over a multi-year period, it should illustrate the effectiveness of a risk management program. Otherwise, the simple number of deaths each year might be affected to an unknown degree by the number of acres burned. Other factors could also affect the numbers, such as fire intensity influenced by fuel treatment programs, fire history, drought, climate change, or arson.

Should firefighting agencies have specific goals about serious injuries and fatalities? Is there an acceptable number? Is 5 a year too many? Is 15 too many? Is it stupid to have a goal of zero fatalities —  or any number?

The chart below superimposes the number of fatalities over the acres burned in the United States from 1990 through 2015, but it does not include Alaska since many fires there are not suppressed, or they are only suppressed in areas where they threaten structures or people. In 2015 more acres burned in Alaska than all of the other states combined.

wildfire Fatalities and acres 1990-2015

years with 20 or more wildland firefighter fatalities


UPDATED January 17, 2016

One of our loyal readers, Bean, has been thinking about this issue and figured that since the amount of firefighters’ exposure to risk is necessary in order to calculate trends, perhaps parameters other than acres burned could be correlated with the number of fatalities. Data that is publicly available as far back as 1990 or 1994 includes mobilizations of incident management teams, crews, overhead, helicopters, air tankers, air attack ships, infrared aircraft, MAFFS air tankers, caterers, military firefighters, and shower units. I considered all of those and concluded that the number of crews mobilized would come the closest to serving as a proxy for accurate data of how many hours all firefighters spent traveling to and working on fires.

Data for crew mobilizations is available from 1990 through 2014. I divided the number of crews mobilized by the number of fatalities for each year and called this the Fatality/Crews Mobilized Index.

wildfire Fatalities and Crews Mobilized Index 1990-2004

Like the earlier chart comparing fatalities to acres burned, this analysis also shows a decreasing trend in the last 25 years. In a comment posted January 17, Kevin9 said the earlier acres/fatalities analysis is “spiky”.  This newer crews mobilized/fatalities data also has spikes (especially in 1997 and 2009) but not quite to the degree the earlier chart had. During the 25-year period, 1997 had the least number of acres burned and crews mobilized, but still had 10 fatalities. The second lowest number of crews mobilized occurred in 2009 and there were 15 fatalities that year.

As an experiment, knowing that there were mass casualty events in 1994 and 2013 (14 and 19 fatalities respectively), just to see what the effects were, I changed the data in those two years to the average for the last 25 years, which is 17, and there was no major change in the trend line, except it was a little lower across the entire range.

It’s been a long time since I took statistics courses, but here’s what I came up with when analyzing the Fatality/Crews Mobilized Index data:

  • Standard deviation: 0.019
  • Mean: 0.026
  • Coefficient of variation: 0.770
  • Variance: 0.00037