Jerry Williams: can-do, to make-do, to tragedy

This video was posted by Colorado Fire Camp on their Facebook page. It shows less than three minutes of a talk by Jerry Williams, who became Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service. It was 1995, a year after 14 firefighters were killed on the South Canyon Fire in Colorado.

Here is a partial transcript of Jerry Williams’ talk:

…It’s a proud outfit. It’s a can-do outfit… It’s a real short step between can-do, and make-do, and from make do to tragedy.

If the forests we work in start to come undone and get too hot, we’ll go contain/confine and we’ll make-do. Our budgets drop, we’ll go with three per engine instead of five and we’ll make-do.

We come up short Division [Supervisors], we’ll rob a hotshot crew of a Division and put him on the division, and we’ll make-do.

We need to quit thinking about making do.

Maybe we need to quit thinking about just doing the job, and begin thinking about doing the job right.

I used to tell my firefighters, “If we can’t do it safely, we won’t do it at all.” Mr. Williams said it much more eloquently.

TBT: Identifying the risk-taking firefighter

We don’t often do Throw Back Thursday, but he is an article from 2012:


Identifying the risk-taking firefighter

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. This can put themselves, and if they are a supervisor, those around them in precarious situations.

Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick

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 skills is accurately recognizing the skills and limitations of his players, and then modifying and customizing the game plan to put his men in situations where they are likely to succeed. For example, the New York Jets allowed Danny Woodhead, the undrafted 5-foot 8-inch running back, to languish on the sidelines and then released him in 2010. Mr. Belichick hired him and now successfully uses the pass-catching running back 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. Belichick 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 supervise firefighters.

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.


Related articles:

Wildfire Sinners and Cool Heads

This video features Dr. Jennifer A. Ziegler’s research into the history, development, and implementation of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders. After the 1956 Inaja Fire killed 11 firefighters near Julian, California a task force reviewed the records of 16 tragedy fires that occurred from 1937 to 1956, concentrating on the 5 fires that killed 10 or more people. They developed a list of what those fatal fires had in common, calling them “sins of omission which our trained men recognize as sins” — things that the firefighters otherwise knew what to do, but simply forgot in a critical situation.

Jennifer Ziegler
Jennifer A. Ziegler. Valparaiso Univ. photo.

The task force also looked at near misses that had a positive outcome. They decided those firefighters were successful because the “cool heads”, as they called them in 1957, sized up the changes in fire behavior in time to get the men to safety.

In the video Dr. Ziegler also talks about how beginning in the 1990s investigation teams studying fatalities sometimes used the Orders as a checklist.

Ms. Ziegler is known to many wildland firefighters through her research and conference presentations on communications in the management and practice of safety in wildland firefighting. Some of her findings were part of the 2009 standardized fire refresher training.

She has taught at Baylor, Purdue, Notre Dame, and Valparaiso University where she is now the Dean of the Graduate School and Continuing Education. Below is an excerpt from her profile at Valparaiso:

…In addition to her passion for graduate education, Dean Ziegler is passionate about conducting research in organizational communication that makes a difference. Dean Ziegler was first exposed to the culture of wildland firefighting while a graduate student at the University of Colorado. Throughout the last decade, Dean Ziegler’s research has focused solely on communication in the management and practice of safety in wildland firefighting. Her work at the intersection of rhetoric, culture, and communication theory has helped the fire community understand the history and cultural legacy of bureaucratic rules in accident investigations; as a result, she is frequently invited to speak at fire conferences, workshops, and refreshers.

She has also consulted with agencies on high-profile incidents and related initiatives, helping to illuminate cultural and organizational factors that may contribute to unwanted outcomes. Her recent work centers on how “talk about talk” (metadiscourse) shapes the way people interact during intentional culture change. Soon she will join an interdisciplinary team of scholars (including two of her former graduate students) on a Joint Fire Science funded grant to study risk perception and collective sense-making through radio communications on the fireline.


Radio headsets for dozer operators

Adventure Fire
Dozer puts in fire line on the Adventure Fire north of Placerville, California, July 16, 2015. CAL FIRE photo.

Should all heavy equipment operators have access to radio headsets?Tim Banaszak pointed out to us that while working on a fire, communication between an operator and the Heavy Equipment Boss (HEQB) can be difficult or impossible. The equipment makes so much noise that it can be a challenge to hear the radio. Even relying on hand signals is not reliable due to dust and vegetation, Mr. Banaszak said.

We are still throwing rocks or sticks to get the operator’s attention, YIKES! The high RPM noise makes a portable [radio] useless. All other fireline operations have a clear and reliable communication link. Just hearing the word STOP can prevent equipment damage, an injury, or even worse.

He suggests that a cache of headsets for radios be available that could be checked out at a fire with the operator’s portable radio.

What do you think? Is this a problem that needs solving?

Kansas Fire Chief says nozzlemen have to ride on their trucks

Above: A Kansas firefighter makes a mobile attack on a grass fire from the truck. Screen grab from the KAKE video below.

Brad Ewy, Chief of the Cheney Fire Department in Kansas says their firefighters have to ride on their trucks while doing a mobile attack on a grass fire.

You take a fire when the wind’s blowing 30 miles an hour that fire’s going to be going 30 miles per hour and there’s no way we could keep up with it. We have to be on our trucks.

They (NFPA) don’t deal with grass fires like we had. The one we had in Medicine Lodge, the fire’s running 50 miles per hour. There’s absolutely no way.

There may or may not be a way to operate a nozzle safely while riding on a fire engine, but I would like to see the actual data or a BehavePlus calculation that predicts a 30 mph hour wind will cause a fire to spread at 30 mph, or a 50 mph wind will produce a 50 mph rate of spread.

Notice in the video that the crew does not take the time to cut the fence. They simply drive through it, even with the firefighter standing on the front of the truck.