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 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, the New York Jets allowed Danny Woodhead, the undrafted little 5-foot 8-inch running back, to languish on the sidelines. After the Jets released him Mr. Belichick 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. 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 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.


A related article from May, 2010: “Stupid people are confident, while the intelligent are doubtful“.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

14 thoughts on “Identifying the risk-taking firefighter”

  1. Good article, and an important topic. Remember, firefighting is not inherently dangerous; it is inherently unforgiving.

      1. Thanks Bill. I lifted it from the aviation community:

        “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

        — Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London. c. early 1930’s.

  2. Thought-provoking and pertinent. This could well be the next step beyond “human factors.” Good article, Bill.

  3. Thanks Bill! I have seen this type of firefighter at work and once you recognise them it can be a little scary. Especially if they are in a position of power. I have tried to help others watch for dangerous behavior from this type & I’m greatful to see you bringing the topic out in the open. It’s important for all of us (& our families). Thanks again.

  4. I was wondering if former Missoula Smokejumper Dr. Charlie Palmer of the University of Montana was one of the authors of this paper?

  5. Bill,

    Doing some reasearch on ADHD and having been diagnosed as a child with ADHD, I think they should check into those who show syptoms of ADHD and research there Diets, looking for high levels of caffiene and sugar, Bet the syptoms will be similar to that of ADHD. Having encounted many people who have dangerous attitudes on the fire lines, though I feel it can be more better classfied under “ego” issues more then ADHD. Thats why we do L-180 and talk about hazardous attitudes on the fireline. Whats more interesting is those who can stand up and say something about it, I know we always say if you “see something say something” but not to many people can do that and pending on your position on the crew it can go unheard as well.

  6. What a load of hooey! So now we’re looking to pin wildland firefighter accidents on ADHD and risk-seeking firefighters, is that it? I am astonished that you folks seem ready to embrace this half-baked theory on first blush. Y’all need to read up on modern accident theory, this person-based approach to accident causation is totally old school, like our chief and his “Safety Journey.”

    1. Tim, I take you fall into this category? My “acceptance on first blush” is actually due to personal experience, which you would know if you read before you reacted. That very fact seems to indicate someone who reacts before they have fully assessed the situation. This is all about SA. Perhaps you should reassess your own behavior. It has been my experience that we can all learn more about ourselves (even if it’s a bit uncomfortable to do so). By the way, I don’t think anyone has suggested blaming firefighter accidents on ADHD. Good Luck & Stay Safe! After all, that is what we’re after here.

      1. You and Bill seem to have confused risk-seeking behavior with reckless behavior. Those things are related but entirely different issues. A person can be a risk-seeker without being reckless or having a death wish. In our occupation, good leadership and mentoring can help those people who lean toward the reckless side survive the learning years. In case you haven’t noticed, most firefighters are people who gravitate toward risky professions and recreational activities. Look at the many risky things firefighters do for recreation; riding fast bikes and motorcycles, skiing fast, rock climbing, paddling whitewater, paragliding, etc. Doesn’t mean they have a death wish or ADHD. Couch potatoes and timid people generally don’t become firefighters. In the 40+ years since I fought my first wildland fire, I have observed that most wildland firefighters are natural risk-seekers… as am I. But I am not reckless as you imply; in fact, for several years I was a member of the NWCG Safety and Health Working Team. I’ll put my SA up against anyone, I have been a crew sup, engine sup, rappeller, and smokejumper. I was a C faller for many years and cut thousands of fire-damaged trees without ever injuring myself or anyone else. I am a current DIVS and I guarantee anyone who knows me will tell you that I am one of the most conservative and SAFE firefighters out there. I have spent the past 20 years researching human behavior, leadership, and the nature of organizational accidents. I personally know Jim Cook, doctors Weick and Sutcliffe, Jennifer Ziegler, Charlie Palmer, etc, etc. If it was your intent to discourage honest debate on this blog over a very important subject by insulting those who forward ideas different than your own, you have accomplished it. Congratulations.

  7. “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.”

    That little paragraph, in my opinion, is what happened to our son, Caleb Nathanael Hamm, LODD, Mineral Wells Texas. There is a thing called “Napoleon Syndrome, or “Little Man” syndrome, and some of those supers/asst supers have it, and they know who I speak of.

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