Additional lessons that could be learned regarding the Yarnell Hill Fire

One of the presentations last week at the International Association of Wildland Fire conference, “Managing Fire, Understanding Ourselves”, concerned additional lessons that could be learned from the 19 fatalities on the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. Specifically, use of the term “MAYDAY” and the National Grid mapping system.

Most of the following presentation was prepared by Al Studt, of Cape Canaveral Fire and Rescue. It was presented at the conference by wildland fire consultant Richard McCrea. It is used here with their permission.

To  view the slides, click the triangular play button and allow them to automatically advance every 10 seconds, or manually click the right arrow when you want to view the next slide.

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. Google+

29 thoughts on “Additional lessons that could be learned regarding the Yarnell Hill Fire”

  1. Everyone in the wildland firefighting industry knows exactly what “deploy” or “deploying shelters” means

  2. Certainly a thought provoking presentation. I agree with most of the recommendations, particularly using the National Grid system. Would be handy in areas with shoddy radio contact when you need to get the point across quick and simple. Accurate, readily available topo-maps are also a crucial point. While implementing these across the board will not be easy or quick, these recommendations seem to be well thought out and appropriate.

  3. No one is confused in the industry by the terms “Deploy” or “Deployment”. Making a full blown terminology switch is not a legitimate solution. We must all understand and accept that this is a dangerous job and there will be injuries and causalities. GPS tracking units??? C’mon, How more micromanaged can we get? This could also give a false sense of security which might lead to people relying on that technology and linger longer in hazardous situations then they would otherwise. That’s why Canada got rid of fire shelters…. Or the Folks in ICP with the GPS information micromanaging what resources are doing and questioning their moves because of what they see on a computer screen?? What happens when that causes a fatality?? Whats next??, every tree has to be approved before a sawyer cuts it down because someone was killed by a falling operation??

    1. Concerns about micromanagement and lingering in hazardous situations too long are IMNSHO completely invalid reasons for not pursuing solutions for increased situational awareness like GPS. Those are fundamental leadership and decision-making/risk assessment issues that should be addressed directly regardless of the use of GPS, map grids, Maydays or topographic maps.

      1. totally agree with Kevin.

        There is a very good comment in the SAFETY MATTERS report about independent firefighter behavior and leadership on page 14.

        “As wildland firefighting has evolved in the 20 years since the South Canyon Fire,firefighters receive far more training and information in order to effectively fight fires. The negative effect of this evolution is that under the banner of effectiveness, firefighters often prefer to work independently and view participation by others as
        interference. Program leaders, with notable exceptions, are content to let firefighter take this approach and are reluctant to provide the direction and leadership they are
        charged with providing. This only becomes readily evident after an accident.”

        GMH could have used additional support and information before making the decision they made. That’s not micromanagement.

    1. I think that’s because the human factors are wild cards and out of anyone’s control in the moment. There’s no fixing the decision to leave the safe area to hike through the green, but they are proposing a fast way to get the new location out.

  4. I like the idea of using MAYDAY. I like the idea of GPS tracking as well.

    We also get into the situation where the lat and long formats are different between agencies. That seems bad too.

    I dont accept that we have to die in this job.

  5. Even if this system was in use and GMH called for assistance, it would not have changed the outcome. The VLAT is not that maneuverable.

    The only thing that would have prevented this was to “hunker in the black”…

  6. Why don’t we focus our efforts on preventing people from making poor decisions in the first place instead of implementing more “procedures” that MIGHT increase the chances of saving someone when they do make a poor decision? We can let people think that they are going to be invincible because an air tanker can find them and drop on them, how is that a solution?

    1. It is my experience that we have only informal procedures for reporting of resources and their locations and all that information is controlled/managed by Divisions and Crews and there is no mandatory position reporting. If the Division Supervisor or Crew Boss cannot be reached via radio (Yarnell comes to mind) then no one knows where that resource is. In other words we rely on luck.

      “If” we using USNG and “if” there were protocols for position reporting, a fire crew could simply tack the USNG six numbers at the end of their radio transmissions. It only adds a few seconds to a radio transmission. DIVS bosses would have to assign a lookout to record coordinates. Everyone on the fireline and the overhead would know about where everyone else was….Crews, engines, dozers, field obervers, FBAN’s, drivers etc. etc. This needs to be done over the command net as well at least a couple of times a day. It adds very little work for anyone to use USNG coordinates. It helps with safety and coordination.

      It is my experience that we also don’t discuss fire behavior over the radio and “if” we used USNG we could be reporting the movement of fire across the landscape and in a very simple manner. During the operational period on large fires it is often a mystery of what the fire behavior is because everyone knows what the fire is doing immediately in their sector or Division but no one has the big picture (For the most part). Again we need protocols. Again it takes very little time. Again we rely on luck that folks know where the fire is located and how/where it is moving.

      Paper maps. They can simply be done in a few minutes. You don’t need a GIS person. You don’t need to wait hours. You flop a paper USGS topo on the copy machine and punch out 50 copies in a few minutes, quicker than you can fill a couple of cubbies.

      This is all about accountability. We can continue to rely on luck or we can change protocols and adopt some new technologies.

      We find time to transmit 10 minute hose orders over the radio and spend minute after minute discussing sack lunches over the radio but we can’t spend a few seconds to give a crew position?

  7. The MAYDAY part is a no-brainer, (and is not currently confined to just structure firefighters).
    The term “deploy’ by itself is problematic. Get people to add the second vital word, “shelters”. Both words have to be used together. A few years ago, on a fire in Oregon (Warm Springs Complex), the transmission of the word “sheltering” by a local gov. engine company caused the launch of a high risk and unneeded rescue mission.

  8. This show makes some good suggestions, but also shows a lack of understanding of fireline operations.
    1. The “Mayday” suggestion is excellent. If you train on a distress protocol then you will be able to use it when needed.
    2. “The word “deploy” or “deploying” is confusing.” To who? As pointed out in previous comments, wildland firefighters know exactly what that means.
    3. Regarding the map discussion, I don’t think the author has a understanding of the dispatch process. While firefighters always would like to have a map, they realize that it is not always possible to get one immediately. To adopt a protocol that would cause a fire to grow unchecked for several hours while waiting for paper maps sounds like a dangerous practice.
    4. There is also an assumption that a massive increase in reporting will somehow result in an increase in safety. This needs to balanced with the downside of being exposed an information overload.

  9. I think that the recommendation to use Smart Phones also doesn’t take into account infrastructure and topography in the west. Many of the areas where I work don’t have cell phone service, and as such, there is no GPS information available.

    1. Correct me if I am wrong, but modern cell phones have a dedicated GPS radio that is not dependent on receiving a cell phone signal. They should be able to get a GPS fix as long as there is a clear view of the sky.

      1. Bill,

        You are not wrong and 100% correct. However, I say that cautiously because there are some folks that are still using legacy phones that do not have a GPS receiver. Phones that have GPS receivers built in are surprisingly accurate. For all who follow the LLC technology section, there are great references to tools such as PDF maps (Avenza) that are available for android and IOS that utilize built in GPS receivers and correlate them to maps. What people misunderstand is that the GPS location used by 911 is based off of a triangulation of cell towers. That method is frequently wrong and most times the formats of hours minutes and seconds need to go through conversions to work for fire GIS. Each carrier has a slightly different format. That distinction causes confusion. Hopefully someday that will change but for now it is up to the user to share their location using an app that integrates with the GPS receiver.

        I also agree with one of the other posters above. Establishing a standard for map datums is paramount. Every GIS tech has their own preference, NAD 27 or 83, HH:MM:SS or other formats. Having a standard will allow for more accuracy and hopefully can be used for added safety in the future.

        Lastly, the debate on MAYDAY should be a moot point. Its recognizable, logical and gets the point across to others that there is an emergency. I see no viable argument that legitimately gives an instance to not implement this safety measure / protocol (what ever it may look like) ASAP. MAYDAY is used by many professions and is not patented or trade marked, plus it is fast and easy to say. After what we have all experienced in loss in our profession can we say with a straight face no, we don’t need it? Do you think our past leaders in our safety culture like Paul Gleason would really object? Do we really need to wait 20 more years of arrogance getting in the way of positive change (USFS and short haul)? I like hearing these ideas and hope more people contribute ideas that lead to positive change. Thank you Mr. Gabbert for creating such good forum with your site.

      2. You’re correct Bill about GPS and cell phones. Many phones, particularly older ones, have an additional location system based on cell tower triangulation which does require cell coverage.

        IMNSHO incomplete coverage even of GPS should not be a primary deterrent to it’s use, as long as the cost versus coverage ratio is not totally out of whack. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough.

  10. I work both sides of the house, wildland (state) and municipal/structural, and I think the Mayday concept has great merit. While all wildland firefighters know what a shelter deployment means, it’s still wording that could be garbled, and at times may get misused or applied to non-emergency situations. A prior poster noted when engines mentioned they were “sheltering” and started an emergency response needlessly. I “deploy” to fires around the country. Someone could “deploy” resources to a need somewhere. No one will “Mayday” anything. Plus, it applies to any situation in which there is an immediate threat to a firefighter’s life. A firefighter struck by a tree, a firefighter with a cardiac event, an engine or dozer rollover. A Mayday clarifies that you have a life threatening event, not a boo-boo. As one well-known example, perhaps in Dutch Creek, if someone had called a Mayday instead of reporting a broken leg, it might have perked folks up quicker to the severity of the situation, who knows. A Mayday, followed by a LUNAR report, is a great way to quickly, tidily, and without any room for misinterpretation, declare that one or more firefighters are in immediate jeopardy.

  11. Technology used correctly and applied in the right circumstances can aid us a great deal in doing out jobs in a safe and efficient manner. But as professionals we need to use common sense in avoiding situations that we can’t get out of if things go wrong.

    1. With all due respect, B.Morgan, it appears that you are suggesting that “professionals” should never have “accidents.” Not all accidents are preventable, given that humans are fallible and information in a busy, imperfect fire environment can sometimes be imperfect or incomplete. Sometimes it takes far more than common sense to anticipate in advance a situation that you cannot get out of if something unexpected goes wrong. Sometimes it is impossible to work on a wildland fire under those circumstances.

  12. Rich, if communications are bad, how, exactly, are crews going to be able to report their location?

    1. Radio communications are usually pretty good on most fires, speaking of equipment and repeaters. What we are missing is protocols for how we speak and what we speak about on the radio. I complain that we don’t get reports over the radio on current fire behavior but we in the fire world don’t train folks on how to relate/report fire behavior over the radio. There are no on the job requirements for any positions to give position reports or fire behavior reports…we only suggest they do this and at the end of the day that they fill out a Unit log. Who wants to fill out a unit log after you come off the line at 8 PM and you are tired and hungry?..basically no one, and I don’t blame them a bit. If we had mandatory position reporting even a couple times a day it would be a huge improvement over what is done now.

      I think that operations folks can easily provide position reporting using radios, by tacking on the six numbers of their USNG coordinates, at the end of radio transmissions. Over the radio, Over cell phones if there is coverage. By texting it…if there is coverage.
      You would think with all our technology there could be satellite/cell phone coverage on all fires.

      Communications is never perfect and sometimes you get what you get due to circumstances. We don’t need to overburden fire crews with needless protocols but a couple or several transmissions a day on position locations or fire locations is not that big a deal. But if this is an option and not mandatory it will generally never happen. If I were a crew boss I would simply designate one of my squad bosses to take care of this..and to record on paper USNG coordinates of the fire and other other nearby folks as they come across the radio.

  13. Hmmmm even with Bill’s idea of the Holy Grail

    Again…aviation has evolved faster than LMA technology and its uses and application….GPS approches, Foreflight, ADS-B, yada yada

    Now it is time for the LMA world to get with it…I mean how many years did the ideas of hoist extrication come about after the military has had it for 50 + yrs and then the expectation that the LMA are not going to see it in their $3.98 USD ideas of contract application and to see that passed down in the the contract process…are they buying the hoists for the ships???

    Same idea for alll these “commo problems” military has their problems…different business. There is a reason for dependable comm there,too.

    But, here in the LMA world, deriving ideas from the military ALL the time and what? Nothing comes of it, especially in the MAYDAY arena…….when did that get invented and how many others have used the call sign for trouble?

    The only call sign for trouble is the many goofy policies that have come about in both State LMA and Fed LMA around FCC assigned frequencies and the conundrum of good idea fairy ideas that have come to fruition for just about everything else

    What happened to all this SPOT technology that pilots have been using for at least 15+ years…yeah yeah I have read the MDTC report on SPOT.

    The technology is out there, even that drone technology, that the LMA seem to have on their minds….if Bezos can deliver packages, the the LMA’s could deliver something similar in their area of operations, especially if they purport to be calling the safety card. For organizations that have colorful websites and explanations of how they are taking care of the natural resources, they are doing a very limited job in the firefighter safety arena. Maybe it is time for an entirely new paradigm shift in training and it ‘s a little more than sandtable exercises….cuz what has been the ongoing mantra of we have been doing for years this way, has been quite apparent with no real changes

    It is time for the drawing board…AGAIN…for all these folks…lives sure are not worth all the timber , sagebrush, ceoanthus, greasewood, manzanita, cheat grass, etc

  14. There are some great ideas in the presentation. I would like to make two points about some underlying assumptions.
    First, both the presentation and the comments seem to pre-suppose that the crew was doing something that needed to be done. Preventing chaparral from burning does not need to be done. In fact, there is plenty of good science demonstrating that putting out wildland fires is often the worst thing we can do.

    Second, some of the comments referred to how the military does things. The military gets around $700 billion a year from the taxpayers. Wildfire agencies get (wildly estimating) what, about $3 billion? Wildfire agencies are constantly bombarded with pressure to ‘privatize.’ There is not much pressure to privatize the Marines. You know the meme, military are ‘good’ government employees. Land managers are ‘bad’ public employees. Hundreds of politicians have gotten elected off of this concept. Both the military and municipal fire organizations are almost comically well funded compared to wildfire agencies. These excellent suggestions are a little unrealistic in the context of federal land management agency budgets.
    To summarize, wildland fire is nothing like structural fire. We are fire managers and we ought to start acting like it. And we don’t have much money.

  15. Some replies after each >>>
    1) Everyone in the wildland firefighting industry knows exactly what “deploy” or “deploying shelters” means >>> well, watch the video of the fire crews nearby hearing the words real-time. They were not sure what they heard – that was the origin of the comment. As someone else mentioned, I have ‘deployed’ to many incidents.
    2) I see they failed to mention anything about human factors. >>> the intent was to provide a fast & easy tool for geo-location & prompt these discussions. Six digits is easy and can be routine & value-added, if minds are opened.
    3) Regarding the map discussion, I don’t think the author has a understanding of the dispatch process. While firefighters always would like to have a map, they realize that it is not always possible to get one immediately. To adopt a protocol that would cause a fire to grow unchecked for several hours while waiting for paper maps sounds like a dangerous practice >>> several hours is your paradigm. Mine is a few minutes. See:
    4) I think that the recommendation to use Smart Phones also doesn’t take into account infrastructure and topography in the west. Many of the areas where I work don’t have cell phone service, and as such, there is no GPS information available. >>> shows a non-awareness of what is available. A $89 Garmin Etrex needs only batteries. A smart phone with GMAP4 open can function without internet and show real-time position of the user on a USGS topo. See:
    5) Second, some of the comments referred to how the military does things. >>> funding is not applicable to these suggestions at the FF level. Army & Marine recruits are taught that knowing their position can save their life. What about brand new wildland FFs; do they have that in-grained? If not using USNG or MGRS there is no way to transmit position in as few as 6 digits, fast, right now!. 6 digits is 100 meters square {362 880}. Not good enough, add 5,5 for 10 meters {3625 8805}. So, if the leaders foul up and place the FF in a poor position, should the FF just take it and have no means to report his position out of the mess to someone that may assist? These are tools for the toolbox.

    To those the realize the presentation has merit – thanks. And thanks to Bill for the forum. See links:
    a) Florida Fire Chiefs Assn.
    b) A map without a grid is just a picture. A gridded map is a tool.

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