Introducing — Safety Matters: A Wildland Firefighter Forum for Change

A group of people who care about firefighters have been looking at the safety and fatality record of wildland firefighters over the last 20 years. They are convinced that more effective steps can be taken to slow down the accident and fatality rates and will be establishing a forum in which firefighters and others can contribute toward that goal. In the coming months they will be organizing a more formal means for two-way communication with those involved in this effort, but until then, we have been asked to provide this introductory information that they submitted:


“Introducing:  Safety Matters: A Wildland Firefighter Forum for Change

We are a diverse group of individuals who are passionate advocates for wildland firefighter safety. We seek and encourage participation in this dialog with relevant comments and suggestions from a wide audience including but not limited to:

  • wildland firefighters
  • fire managers and policy makers
  • families and friends who have lost a loved one
  • homeowners in the wildland urban interface

The purpose of this paper and forum is to call attention to deficiencies in wildand firefighter safety presented by current wildland fire management systems.  We encourage firefighters, the public, and their representatives to support and demand changes in policy and practices so that wildland firefighter and public safety is truly the first priority in all fire management actions.

In the coming weeks, following our introductory paper, we will post several specific safety topics for review and discussion. Please direct your interest to our email address below (preferred), or you may leave a reply at the end of this article.

Safety Matters: A Wildland Firefighter Forum for Change

Dan O’Brien: Career Wildland Firefighter: National Park Service: Retired
Elizabeth Anderson: Fire Ecologist:National Park Service & U.S. Forest Service: Retired
Barry Hicks: U.S. Forest Service: Retired
Judy Edwards: Ruby River Consulting
Holly Neill: Wildland Firefighter: National Park Service & U.S. Forest Service: Retired

EMAIL: SafetyMatters  a t  aol . com

correction EMAIL: Safety.Matters a t aol . com

Thank you to Bill Gabbert for hosting this Forum!


Safety Matters: A Wildland Firefighter Forum for Change

A.  Overview:  The primary aim of wildland fire suppression is to safely suppress wildland fires and protect values at risk. While this objective has remained the same across a century of fire suppression, the wildland fire environment has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Decades of effective wildland fire suppression has led to a heavy loading of burnable fuels in wildland areas. Shifts in global weather patterns have produced consistently longer and more severe fire seasons. Together, these changes have resulted in historically unique conditions in which high fire frequency, rapid fire growth and extreme fire behavior have become the new norm.

Additionally, values at risk to wildland fire have exponentially increased in number and complexity. Public and political demand for firefighters to effectively protect resources located in the wildland-urban interface- particularly homes- has made structure protection a permanent aspect of wildland fire suppression.

It has been twenty years since fourteen firefighters died on the South Canyon Fire in Colorado.  Subsequent to those fatalities, there have been positive changes made to improve firefighter safety.  In spite of those developments, the total number of firefighter fatalities has steadily increased.  In 2013, 34 wildland firefighters perished, 19 of which were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew on the Yarnell Hill Fire. In spite of these tremendous losses, to our knowledge, no action toward the improvement of firefighter safety has been initiated or scheduled by any governing wildland fire management agency.

The continued annual occurrence of firefighter fatalities suggests that existing fire suppression practices routinely fail to adequately prioritize firefighter safety over the protection of values at risk.

Improvements to firefighter safety should come from field experience, review of existing data, and research.  The fire organization has never developed a comprehensive plan or process for determining trends, needs, strengths or deficiencies concerning firefighter safety.  This need is partially being filled by independent parties and individuals.

B.  National Wildland Firefighter Policy and Guidance:  Policy regarding the prioritization of firefighter safety is established by the Department of Agriculture, Department of Interior and the National Association of State Foresters.  This policy was adopted in 1995 and, while later modified, still reads:

“Firefighter and public safety is the first priority in every fire management activity.”

The National Wildfire Coordination Group chartered the Federal Fire and Aviation Safety Team (FFAST) to help coordinate firefighter safety issues.  This team states:

“The goal of the fire safety program is to provide direction and guidance for safe and effective management in all activities. Safety is the responsibility of everyone assigned to wildland fire, and must be practiced at all operational levels from the national fire director, state/regional director, and unit manger, to employees in the field. Firefighter and public safety always takes precedence over property and resource loss.”

C. Current Wildland Fire Situation:  Vegetation and weather conditions have significantly changed over the last three decades to produce historically extreme fire behavior, growth potential and fire frequency.  The current wildland fire situation can be attributed to significant changes in three variables:

1.  Following a century of aggressive fire suppression, the amount of burnable vegetation has dramatically increased in wildland areas.

2.  The wildland-urban interface has become increasingly populated by private residences and other values at risk.  The increase in residential homes in these areas is accompanied by increasing public and political demand that firefighters protect these structures from wildfire.  Efforts to defend homes and communities through hazard fuel reduction programs have not kept pace with the increasing threat.  Funding cuts for hazard fuels reduction projects have compounded this trend.

3.  There has been a continued and significant change in weather patterns across the US that is characterized by record high average temperatures, low average humidities, droughts, and longer fire seasons.

These three factors have synergistically combined to produce fire behavior and rates of spread that many veteran firefighters have never before experienced.  Firefighters operating under rapidly deteriorating conditions have found they can quickly become at higher risk than the structures they are attempting to protect.  The expectation and pressure to succeed imposed by firefighters themselves, their supervisors, the fire organization, and the public, further clouds this issue of firefighter safety being the first priority.  These situations have repeatedly occurred over the last 20 years and on multiple occasions have resulted in firefighter fatalities.

D.  Common Factors in Wildland Fire Burnover and Entrapment Fatalities:  A recent independent study showed that four critical factors can jeopardize firefighter safety.  As these independent factors intersect, firefighter safety is increasingly compromised.

1.  A recent independent study showed that entrapment fatalities almost entirely occurred on low management complexity fires that escaped initial attack and  were rapidly expanding in size and complexity.

2.  Rapid and unforeseen changes of weather variables (particularly changes in wind direction and speed) under conditions of extreme fire danger resulted in unanticipated, explosive fire growth.  Accelerated fire expansion and extreme fire behavior quickly rendered existing strategies and tactics to be ineffective and/or unsafe. As time frames for evaluation and decision-making became compressed, key incident personnel found themselves functioning at an incident complexity level that exceeded their abilities and qualifications.

3.   Land managers with jurisdictional responsibility often failed to provide timely and clear management direction and priorities to fireline personnel.  This was especially true during times when conditions and situations were rapidly worsening.

4.  Structures threatened by wildfire may often require the presence of firefighters. Firefighters can be subject to intense external and internal expectations pressures concerning structure protection.  These factors alone can make it extremely difficult to objectively prioritize firefighter safety. Recent independent studies strongly suggest that decisions made under these circumstances have been a major factor in incidents that resulted in firefighter fatalities.

E.  Conclusion:  For 20 years federal policy has identified firefighter and public safety as the first priority of all wildland fire management actions. Despite this policy and efforts made to implement it, records for the same period demonstrate that fatality rates for burnovers and entrapments have remained relatively constant.  During this same time period, the fire organization has not identified all of the critical factors that contribute to firefighter fatalities. Without this understanding, it is improbable that needed changes will be made.  In order to effectively reduce future wildland firefighter fatalities, a comprehensive and impartial review of all current wildland fire management procedures and practices must be completed.”

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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.

32 thoughts on “Introducing — Safety Matters: A Wildland Firefighter Forum for Change”

  1. I’d love to see dashcams installed on all fire vehicles recording audio and video….and a system the records command, tactical, and air frequencies on an incident.

  2. I’m glad to see this happen, I have been feeling frustrated with the fatality and accidents this year. It feels like our system is letting us (the firefighters) down, and something needs to be done. I also like that they are proposing not just having firefighter, managers and policy makers help with this process, but also land owners, friends and families. The more viewpoints the better.

  3. Thank you for your interest in our new group. We hope to have a Twitter and Facebook account up within a week and a webpage in the near future. We will keep you updated as these events occur.

  4. Ken,
    As I am sure you are aware, many emergency service agencies are equipped with dashboard cams and do record all radio traffic for the purpose of documentation. As recently seen, documentation of wildland fires seems to be largely incidental. Wildland firefighting agencies apparently do not feel there is sufficient benefit to warrant the effort and cost. Safety Matters disagrees with this position.

  5. real need for forum…. I’m getting old but am still in fire….. anything that can help keep our firefighters safe must be tried. Since 93 we have improved drastically… Lessons Learned etc… I’m hearing though that reports will be issued with a sanitized version and the truth.. Our folks need to see mistakes and change policies…. maybe this will be a avenue.. keep us posted.. Dan O’Brian (National Seashore?)

  6. Also got bounced from AOL. If someone will post the Twitter hashtag when it’s up, that’ll work

  7. That would be great, one more thing to think about while you’re making decisions. How do I sound? Can I say this without getting sued? How do I explain this phrase in plain English to a jury that has no fire experience? No thanks, I’ve got enough going on.

  8. A large and potentially influential group to include is family and friends of wildland firefighters. My wife and young son are affected by my safety on the fire line more so than any other group listed.

  9. Good point, Dave. We will add this to our introduction and our call for participation… Thanks.

  10. While I could see a potential benefit for recording radio traffic, I have to disagree with the dashcams as a viable option. With more and more budget cuts affecting on the ground firefighters, I’d have a hard time justifying installing cameras that would further reduce the amount of funds we have to actually hire enough firefighters year to year. I don’t know about other people, but I would rather see a more proactive solution than such a costly reactionary one.

  11. Well I’m split on this. Recorded conversation can save your butt because there is a record of just what was said by who. In a number of emergency/fire/law enforcement actions I have been able to listen to the dispatch tapes and confirm what was said and by whom and when, ie: ordering in resources and directing actions, turning over command or accepting it. It helped a lot to clear up what happened when, calm angry and misinformed supervisors, clear up misunderstandings of opposing lawyers, and fend off at least one potential personal lawsuit. On the other side a few times I said things in a less then professional manner and it came back to bite me.

    In using any governmental owned/operated form of communication there is little or no expectation of privacy. Radios in particular, someone, somewhere is recording it or listening. Once the transmit button is pressed, its public knowledge just like the send key on the internet. Think about what you are going to say and how before you say it. And forget that secret local crew or deck channel on the B/Ks, the communications unit will figure that out quickly.

    Pilots, (and yes I am one) learned a long time ago to be careful both in the cockpit and on the radio about conversations because it is just about all recorded.

    And cameras, they are just everywhere like it or not and dash-cams are quickly catching up, who knows what drone is up there taking real time pictures. There are built-in vehicle recording devices that record multiple parameters of a vehicles actions, speed, time operated, location, stops, mechanical health, etc. etc. etc.

    Instead of fighting recording radio conversations and cameras I suggest we learn to live with it.

    As a training tool get a recording of a recent incident and review it, then ask for comments on how communications could have been improved, how clear and concise was the information transmitted and was there to much or to little communication going on. Police often review dash cam videos of stops and I have heard the comment, “How could I have been so stupid to do that…or that’s a great technique, good job”.

    If a communication is that private or sensitive I would suggest a one on one chat out of camera sight or on your cell phone. But even then dark powers may be listening…

  12. Regarding video dash cam- if you review the unfortunate fatalities most were “boots on the ground” shot crews going where no engine could. Do you think there could be a Wildland Pass Device designed that could be activated when things go “South” that would emit a gps beacon that other personnel and/or equipment could quickly fix on for response? Conditions are marginal at best when bad things happen so any technology that could improve and expedite response would be wonderful. Maybe we would have more rescues and less recoveries.

  13. I second this. A GPS based accountability system is definitely needed. If commanders could easily look at google earth/maps and see where “boots on the ground” resources were then, a better picture, “Situational Awareness” could be gained. Perhaps not applicable in all situations but an invaluable tool especially, during transitions between complexity levels. Every IA fire that goes into extended attack ends up being a “cluster****” when transitioning from a Type 5 >Type 4 > Type 3> Type 2 or 1 in the course of 2 operational periods. Having a better accountability of resources is critical during these times.

  14. When I was being mentored to be come a FBAN, my mentor had a digital tape recorder (held like 200 houors of recording). He was on an incident on a steep hillside, watching an excavator build line across a slope for a proposed burn off operation. He observed smoke coming from the area of the machine, started his recorder, talked about what he saw, took a picture of it and left the tape recorder running….30 minutes later, the excavator operator radioed in that the wildfire had started his machine on fire and burned over it, thus attempting to go under the governments insurance to get the machine replaced, when in fact the machine was not real close to the fire and had caught fire internally (which would be thru the operators insurance).. These 2 little documentation tasks, when revealed to the operator, made the claim go away very quickly. He knew he was busted…..

    So, my mentor suggested I buy a digital tape recorder (which I did). It fits in a holster on my radio pouch, and when I get an inkling of something not being right on the radio, I hit record. In the case of Yarnell, one of these MAY have recorded every radio transmission chronologically, rather than having little snippets being retreived off of video clips on Youtube.

    Most of the stuff I record, I delete later as it ended up being a non event, but a pretty simple solution to recording radio conversations in emergency situations.

  15. Trucking companies can now follow their trucks and keep track of engine speed, etc. They had a lot of static from truck drivers in the beginning about being spied on, especially the ones that liked to stop at their favorite drug houses when they should have been driving, but now not so much. If it helps you stay professional, then so much the better. If it gets some marginal people bounced out, maybe that action will save lives down the road.

  16. No doubt one of the smartest Incident Commanders ever… just had to be…

    “Mechanized equipment is the most over-looked, under uitilized and misunderstood firefighting resources.”

    – George Custer, NIMO Incident Commander, 2008

    OCR … 🙂

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