Wildfire briefing, August 24, 2014

U.S. Forest Service on hauling firefighters in cargo trucks

We asked the USFS to comment on the California National Guard’s practice of hauling their firefighting troops in the back of cargo trucks, which we wrote about earlier.

National Guard troops In cargo truck

National Guard troops in cargo truck in Yreka, California, August 14, 2014.

A spokesperson for the agency, Mike Ferris, said:

This is not an activity that the Forest Service practices. The California National Guard was deployed on three different incidents in Northern California: Little Deer; Log; and Lodge fires. National Guard resources were ordered and managed by Cal Fire.

When we asked if the USFS was concerned about firefighters being injured if there was a truck rollover or another type of accident, Mr. Ferris said:

Firefighter and public safety are the top priorities in wildfire management. Safety Officers at large fire incidents identify and address known risks and implement mitigations consistent with incident objectives.

We offered the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) an opportunity to weigh in on the issue, but they declined.

Florida motorists warned about wildfire smoke

Smoke from a wildfire has prompted the Florida Highway Patrol to issue a warning for motorists in St. Johns County. The agency issued a Travel Advisory for travel on Interstate 95 south of International Golf Parkway.

Smoke from a wildfire nearby might affect roadways. Visibility may deteriorate quickly due to smoke or fog-type conditions especially during the evening and early morning hours. Motorists should reduce their speed as necessary to avoid a collision, and use their low-beam headlights in order to adapt to the changing weather conditions, according to the highway patrol.

Efforts continue to pass wildfire funding bill

In spite of several failed attempts over the last several months to pass a bill that would fully fund wildfires in a manner similar to other natural disasters, some senators and representatives in Idaho and Oregon have not given up.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Spokesman-Review:

…The House version of the bill has 131 co-sponsors, including Idaho 1st District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador. The Senate version has 18 co-sponsors including [Idaho Senator Jim] Risch.

In the House, “Some folks are concerned about changing the spending matrix, primarily Paul Ryan, head of the budget committee,” [Idaho Senator Mike Crapo's press secretary Lindsay] Nothern said. “We did go out and get a CBO report that showed it is budget-neutral, because we already spend disaster money on disasters such as this.”

He added, “There is support for it among leadership in both the Senate and the House, on both sides of the aisle.” But on its first attempt at passage, Nothern said, the proposal got lumped in with other issues including the president’s border proposal, and it didn’t pass. “We are hoping for a stand-alone bill, and then the only opposition we have is Ryan.”

The Onion’s parody kills off Smokey Bear

The Onion, a parody website, is “reporting” that the “U.S. Forest Service Kills Off Smokey Bear To Get People Serious About Fire Safety”. The images in the video of the iconic bear being killed may not be suitable for children.

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Using “margin” for safety analysis

Fighting wildfires is dangerous, in spite of reports that some firefighters don’t see it that way. In  Matthew Desmond’s book, On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, he quotes one:

If you know, as a firefighter, how to act on a fire, how to approach it, this and that, I mean you’re, yeah, fire can hurt you. But if you can soak up the stuff that has been taught to you, it’s not a dangerous job.

An industry has grown up around on-the-job safety. People with advanced degrees frequently come up with new ways of analyzing conditions in the workplace and how to prevent accidents and fatalities. Some of their products are useful.

A system that is new to us is called “margin”. In an article posted this month on the Wildland Fire Leadership webpage, it is described as: “The influence that conditions have on decisions and actions.”

Below is an excerpt from the article, which included the video above.

Comparing the Swiss Cheese Model (SCM) and Margin is not a direct “apples to apples” comparison. The SCM was introduced to the wildland fire community through the L-380 curriculum and is intended primarily, as an “ innovative framework for thinking about human error…[that] scrutinizes all levels in an organization when looking for the causes of human error” (Mission-Centered Solutions Inc., 2007, p. 55). It was designed to pinpoint the causes of an accident or error by describing the holes in defenses that, when aligned through multiple levels, create an error chain. Margin, is focused on the influence that conditions have on decisions and actions; it does not attempt to describe a linear causal relationship among conditions at various levels, rather it describes the collective influence of these conditions. The focus can then shift from cause to understanding the capacity to cope with uncertainty, error and surprise. SCM is intended to make sense of an accident after it happens, whereas margin, while it can be used in accident analysis, is designed to help users describe the potential for the system to do harm before an accident occurs…

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There oughta be a law

National Guard open truck hauling firefighters

California National Guard open truck hauling firefighters on State Highway 3 through Yreka, California, at 6:45 p.m. PDT, August 13, 2014.

(UPDATE: we received a response from the California National Guard. Scroll down.)

I can’t believe we are still hauling wildland firefighters in the open backs of California National Guard cargo trucks. If the truck rolls, all of the firefighters will be ejected, and the truck may roll over on them.

I observed four California National Guard trucks like this one traveling down State Highway 3 in Yreka, California all loaded with firefighters in the back on August 13, 2014, between 6:40 and 6:45 p.m. PDT. They were heading toward the staging area at the fairgrounds.

Can this still be legal in 2014? The U.S. Forest Service did this in the 1970s, not knowing better, but in the 21st Century, this is Third World Country crap.

National Guard open trucks

California National Guard open trucks at the fairgrounds staging area in Yreka, California, August 13, 2014. Some of these hauled firefighters in the back.

Military trucks do roll over. We found a GAO report about one of the predecessors of the truck seen in the photo, the M939 five ton truck, which had a much higher accident and fatality rate than other military vehicles, including the 2.5 ton truck. Between 1987 and 1998 there were 320 accidents in which the truck rolled over, killing 62 people.

In 1998 a newer version of the 2.5 ton truck was restricted to 30 mph because of its record of rolling over.

While it may save money to use cargo trucks to carry firefighters, that is not sufficient justification for putting them in the back of an open truck traveling on highways and narrow dirt roads that lead into forest fires.

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We sent a Tweet to the California National Guard, asking about this, and received this reply:

Neither a strap or a tarp are going to provide much rollover protection.

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Lesson learned: heat-related illness

Lesson learned, heat related illness

A crewperson on an Angeles National Forest hotshot crew had a close call in June with a heat-related illness. While engaged in strenuous physical activity, the firefighter developed severe cramps and had a temperature two degrees lower than normal. During a five-hour period he or she drank all the water from their 100-ounce Camelback once, and again later after refilling it, plus two Gatorades.

The EMTs on the crew who recognized the serious potential of the person’s condition arranged for transportation to a hospital. It turned out to be a mild case of rhabdomyolysis which, if not caught in time and treated can be fatal. The EMT that accompanied the firefighter to the hospital insisted that tests for rhabdo be done, even though the staff at the hospital had not planned on doing the tests.

The hotshot also had hyponatremia, which is a severe imbalance of water to salt. Drinking large quantities of water without enough fluids with electrolytes can cause hyponatremia.

Congratulations to the hotshot crew and the EMTs for making good decisions during this serious incident.

You can read the entire report here, but below are the Lessons Learned:

  • Know yourself and know each other. Each person must monitor their water and sports drink intake. Supervisors must ensure all crewmembers are getting adequate electrolyte replacement.
  • Recognize fatigue and take action early, before it can lead to a heat-­related illness. This may require taking breaks due to environmental conditions.
  • Do not count on observing classic heat-­‐illness symptoms; patient may not present the symptoms you have been trained to look for.
  • The patient is not the one who decides if he or she goes to the hospital. It is the decision of the first responder, EMT, or higher-­‐ranking individual, due to the nature and/or severity of the injury/illness and/or agency protocol.
  • If employees are treated for heat-­‐related illness, the treating facility should be asked to check for rhabdomyolysis. The patient’s representative must insist that CPK, potassium phosphate, and myoglobin tests are done initially and on the follow up appointment.

In 2007 a California radio station held a contest to see who could win a Wii game console by drinking the most water without going to the bathroom. Jennifer Strange, a 28-year-old mother of three, died of hyponatremia after drinking about two gallons of water. A jury found the radio station liable, and awarded her husband $16.5 million.

We have written previously about the “Myth of drinking water”. Some may assume that drinking lots of liquids will prevent heat related illnesses, but that is not always the case. In the article, we quoted Dr. Brent Ruby, who has conducted research in this area. In the quote below he was referring to the 2011 Caleb Hamm fatality on the CR337 Fire in Texas. Mr. Hamm was a member of the Bureau of Land Management’s Bonneville Interagency Hotshot crew.

Dr. Ruby:

I was bothered by the findings of the CR337 fatality report from the investigation team. There are issues within this case that are very similar to a published heat exhaustion case study we published recently (Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 22, 122-125, 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21664560). In this report, we document drinking behavior, activity patterns, skin and core temperatures in a subject that suffered heat exhaustion and required evacuation. The lessons learned from this research clearly indicate that the best protection against a heat injury is reducing work rate…

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What is the Forest Service doing about tracking firefighters and fires in real time?

Shep Cyn Fire

Firefighter on the Shep Canyon Fire, September 6, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Since October of 2013 we have been writing about what we call the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety – a system that could track firefighters AND the location of the fire in real time. We envision that the data could be monitored by a Safety Officer, Operations Section Chief, or Division Supervisor to ensure that firefighters are safe relative to the location of the fire. It is our position that in the last 9 years the lives of 24 firefighters could have been saved by a system like this. On the 2006 Esperanza Fire and the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire, the supervisors of the firefighters that were killed thought their personnel were in a different location than where they met their demise. If we go back further, for example to the 2005 Cramer Fire and others over the last couple of decades, we could probably add to the list.

In an effort to find out what, if anything, the federal land management agencies are doing to increase firefighters’ situational awareness by knowing the real time location of firefighters and the fire, we contacted the U.S. Forest Service and gave them a list of questions. Our request bounced around and eventually we received a reply from Mike Ferris of the National Incident Management Organization in Portland.The short answer is — they have started a two-year study to look at the issue. So far the study is funded for one year, but no timeline or target implementation date has been established.

Considering the 12 federal air tanker studies completed over an 18-year period before anything substantial was done to address the aging aircraft issue, we hope this two-year study is not simply the first of many that will be placed on a shelf and ignored before something is done to improve the situational awareness of our firefighters. Analysis Paralysis can be fatal. With no timeline to shoot for yet, it sounds like it could suffer the same fate as the 12 air tanker studies.

We thank Mr. Ferris for responding to our request. His answers are below, along with our questions, in bold.

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1. Is the USFS doing anything to develop a system to track the real time location, on a regular basis, of firefighters AND the fire they are assigned to?

At the present time there is no technology in use that enables real-time tracking of ground resources assigned to wildland fires. There is also no standard for such tracking or the technology that would support it that has been accepted on an interagency basis. The U.S. Forest Service continues to review and assess the advances in technology associated with GPS devices. There are GPS devices which show position of the unit as well as devices which transmit that position to a receiver. Wildland fire forces are challenged in the terrain they deal with, the large numbers of federal, state, local, and private cooperators who take action on our fires, and the appropriate use of new technology and data. The Forest Service continues to assess the use of technology used in such places as Department of Defense and weigh the utility and benefit of these technologies. Considering the nearly 10,000 fires per year the Forest Service responds to, over the nearly 200 million acres we protect, in 44 states, our focus is developing decision support which will enable us to take effective, efficient action on those fires and care for the safety of firefighters and civilians.

The Fire and Aviation Management Technology & Development Steering Committee rank the need for a Situational Awareness System for ground forces a priority project. The objectives are:

  • Define business and technical requirements for a situational awareness system for ground forces. This includes the tracking of personnel.
  • Measure current performance as a baseline for evaluation.
  • Evaluate existing technologies against the requirements.
  • Develop an implementation plan for an interagency application.

This project builds on the previous work conducted by the Technology & Development program on assessing the state of the technology and evaluating commercial-off-the shelf products.

2. If so, what exactly?

The Forest Service’s Technology and Development Program (T&D) has been evaluating Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND) since 2008. The Missoula T&D Center led the evaluation of SPOT and DeLorme® InReach® devices with the objective of evaluating the performance of these devices in areas where two way radio and cellular transmission are unavailable. Recently, the Forest Service purchased 6,000 SPOT units for field use, not related to wildland fire activities. The T&D Program and Chief Information Office continue to evaluate the use of SEND devices including functions within wildland fire operations.

Other initiatives have been sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, First Responder Resource Group where tracking systems have been used or tested on fires. The Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS) was developed through collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Labs and CAL FIRE. NICS has been used operationally on wildfires in California. The University of California, San Diego Supercomputer Center currently is hosting NICS (https://nics.ll.mit.edu/sadisplay/login.seam). NICS is open-source, web-based and non-proprietary. Since it is web-based, access to the internet via Wi-Fi or cellular signal is required.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Forest Service’s T&D Program cooperated on the Personal Alert and Tracking System. This is a two-dimensional tracking system that uses a persistent, self-healing mesh network. This system was tested on two prescribed fires; however, it is not commercially available.

While many of these technologies have potential, more detailed analysis needs to be conducted before any large scale deployment can occur. It is important to describe the other considerations that must be resolved prior to determining a potential solution. Implementing technologies in incident management in the wildland fire environment is very complex and poses a number of operational, integration, distribution and infrastructure issues that need to be resolved before they can be implemented on a national, integrated, interagency scale.

Prior to implementation of any of the solutions, the following must be determined. These issues include:

  • Determining whether firefighters should be tracked all the time or whether simply knowing the location of a fire fighter in distress is what is needed.
  • Determining what types of incidents resources should be tracked on, i.e. initial attack, extended attack, Type 1 or Type 2 incidents, etc.
  • Determining what types of resources to track, i.e. agency personnel, contractors, cooperators, etc. and what level to track them at, i.e. crew, individual firefighter, etc.
  • Determining how to distribute tracking devices to firefighters, i.e. at their home units, on incidents, etc.
  • Determining who will be responsible for tracking resources, i.e. dispatch, incident personnel, etc.
  • Difficulties with receiving satellite or cell phone signals in remote, mountainous areas.
  • Define the frequency of automatic reporting from the device
  • Potential distractions of tracking devices to firefighters (“Christmas tree effect”).

3. Who is involved in the development?

The National Technology & Development Center will be the lead for this project. Since the objective is to provide an interagency solution, an interagency complement of subject matter experts will be assembled. After defining the business need and technical requirements, a request for information (RFI) will be published in the Commerce Business Daily (CBD) to solicit information from the commercial sector.

4. Is the development adequately funded? What is the amount of the funding?

Funding is part of the regular appropriations for the technical program of work identified for that year. The estimated duration for the project is two years. The estimated budget is $290K. This budget has been requested, however, since funds are appropriated for a one year period, the request for funding has to be done every year. Within the estimated two-year period, a recommendation will be given to senior fire leadership.

5. What is the stage of development?

Preliminary development, testing, and evaluation have been completed to give an initial assessment on the state of the technology. Since the technology associated with this project changes rapidly, a RFI will be published.

6. When will it be implemented?

No current timeline has been established. Once the advantages and disadvantages have been completely assessed, then recommendations will be forwarded to senior fire leadership for their deliberation and decision.

7. What will be the cost?

Funding needs will be determined once a comprehensive review has been completed and a complete understanding of the operational, integration, distribution and infrastructure issues are identified and understood.

8. Specifically, how will firefighters be tracked? Using a currently available consumer-grade personal locator device that is available now off the shelf? Or will the hardware be incorporated into radios carried by firefighters?

It is still too early to determine just what product or products will give firefighters and fire managers the best options for firefighter safety.

9. Specifically, how will the real time location of the fire be determined? How will it be made available to firefighters?

This is part of the project. The project takes a longer view and takes a look at what type of tracking is needed.

10. Are the federal land management agencies interested in what is being used now in southern California called the “Next Generation Incident Command System”, which will do much of the above? If not, why not?

The Next Generation Incident Command System was developed by MIT Lincoln Labs with CAL FIRE as the primary wildland fire agency associated with the development. The Forest Service, in conjunction with the NWCG Equipment Technology Committee, is currently collaborating with CAL FIRE and NICS to assess the emerging technology and keeping abreast of developments.

11. Are the federal land management agencies interested in a system developed by DARPA that does all of the above and much more, called “Fireline Advanced Situational Awareness Handheld (FLASH)”. If not, why not?

The Forest Service attended the demonstration in Prescott, Ariz. of the FLASH system. All viable technologies will be considered. Technology providers are encouraged to respond to the RFI after the business needs and technical requirements are defined.

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Revised guidance for safety zones is released

Safety Zone Calculation

Safety Zone Calculation, released July, 2014. Bret Butler.

In his continuing efforts to improve the recommended standards for wildland firefighters’ safety zones, researcher Bret Butler has released a revised version based on additional research. Dr. Butler developed the guidelines that had been used for years which were based on the height of the flames, but in May, 2014 released a new recommendation that was based on height of the vegetation, wind speed, slope, fire intensity, and a constant number. This new July, 2014 version replaces the one that was released in May.

A safety zone is an area where wildland firefighters may be forced to take refuge from an approaching wildfire. There, a firefighter should be able to survive without being injured from exposure to the radiant and convective heat from the fire, and would not have to deploy and enter a fire shelter.

The latest version of the guidelines released a few days ago is based on height of the vegetation, wind speed, slope, and the same constant number (8). It removes a factor that could be a little subjective or difficult to quantify accurately in the field, fire intensity.

The new system, like the one unveiled in May, calculates the Safe Separation Distance (SSD) between the fire and the firefighters. To determine the SSD, using the table above multiply the constant number (8) times the number from the table (Slope-Wind Factor) times the height of the vegetation.

Example for 15 mph wind, 24% slope, 6-foot vegetation:

The Safe Separation Distance is   8 x 3 x 6 = 144 feet

Dr. Butlers’ Additional Considerations:

  1. For a 20-person crew, add 10 feet of radius and for a vehicle add another 5 feet of radius.
  2. The area in red requires large natural openings or construction by mechanized equipment.
  3. The proposed rule is to be used for flat ground rather than the existing flame height rule.
  4. Also consider additional lookouts on the ground and in the air to monitor fire activity with early egress to escape routes and safety zones.
  5. At 30% or greater slopes, hot gases tend to stay close to the ground.

Dr. Butler’s disclaimer: This proposed safety zone rule should be considered preliminary because it is based on limited data and analysis and subject to increase or decrease based on additional data. It is presented for release this fire season with the intent of increasing firefighter safety and reducing risk of injury. It is likely that an updated rule will be released in the next year.

For more information see the article in the International Journal of Wildland Fire titled: Wildland Firefighter Safety Zones: A Review of Past Science and Summary of Future Needs

We will let you know if another revised version of the guidelines is released in two months.

(NOTE: if you want a copy of the table above, click on it to open it in a window of its own, then click on Print in your internet browser.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Ryan.

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