We wrote on September 27 that the media might find it difficult to develop story lines or come up with coherent, introspective, meaningful coverage about yesterday’s release of the Yarnell Hill Fire report if it did not include causes and recommendations. The report provided more information about the deaths near Yarnell, Arizona on June 30 of 19 firefighters, members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
The document did not identify causes or contributing factors like we have seen in other fatality reports. It had some conclusions and recommendations, but they were fairly mild and did little toward pointing fingers at specific acts or omissions that caused the accident.
This made it difficult for reporters who in most cases know little about wildland fire to summarize the report in a short news article. Facts about outflow winds, rate of spread, and staying in the black, meant little.
Many of them looked for something that was easy to understand or was measurable, like “radio problems” which was in the headline of some stories, or the number of air tankers. A radio programming mistake, leaving out the tone guard on frequencies, at first made it impossible to use those channels for communication. Some radio systems require not only that the correct frequency be programmed, but that a brief audible tone be added. If the tone is not included when transmitting, the receiving radio will ignore the transmission. The report said crews developed “workarounds so they could communicate using their radios”. Apparently this problem was solved or at least partially mitigated. The report did not elaborate on the “workaround”.
Here are some of the headlines and the first points mentioned about the causes, in articles we found about the release of the report:
- Washington Post: In the first paragraph mentions an “unpredictable desert thunderstorm” and “confusing radio communications”.
- Huffington Post’s headline: “Yarnell Fire Radio Problems Cited In Deaths Of 19 Firefighters, According To New Investigation”.
- Associated Press headline at Firehouse.com: “Video: Yarnell Hill Fire Report Indicates Radio Issues”.
- AZCentral.com, at the top of the article is a short video of lead investigator Jim Karels mentioning the radio programming issue.
- LA Times cites “problems with radio communication”.
- Associated Press at ABC15.com, in the first paragraph, said the report “…cites poor communication between the men and support staff, and reveals that an airtanker carrying flame retardant was hovering overhead as the men died.” (I would like to see a video of that “hovering” air tanker, which was a DC-10.)
- NPR Blog cited “weather reports that may have been misunderstood [and] radio communications that the investigators deem ‘challenging.’ “
- ABC7 news in Denver: “…poor communication between the men and support staff, and reveals that an airtanker carrying flame retardant was hovering overhead as the men died.”
- New York Times: “…it outlined several problems, like radios that sometimes did not work properly, updates that did not give a precise sense of the crew’s movements, and the 33-minute period of radio silence.”
- BBC: “…inadequate communication played a role in their fate…The report authors describe radio communications as ‘challenging throughout the incident’.”
In most of these articles citing radio issues, they are referring to the programming mistake, but some go on to discuss a failure of people to adequately communicate their thoughts to one another, which at times was an issue and led to confusion about the location of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Other related problems were too much radio traffic on some frequencies and the workload of the Aerial Supervision Module which resulted in them missing some incoming radio calls from the 19 trapped firefighters.