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.


Firefighter refresher, 2009

I just finished the 2009 version of the “Fireline Safety Refresher Training”.  I thought it was pretty good, but leave a comment if you have taken it and have an opinion.  Here are some of my thoughts:

  • I think it’s great that the National Wildfire Coordinating Group “coordinates” this annual nationwide refresher by preparing a DVD, instructor materials, and a student workbook.  It’s a good way to be sure we get consistent, quality information out there.  Before they did this, some organizations, if they did any annual refresher at all, would just put on “Standards for Survival” or some other canned, repetitive program every year.
  • The DVD included a talk by Jennifer A. Ziegler, PhD., Department of Communication, Valparaiso University. She is well-known in the wildland fire community for her work on the human factors of fighting fire and has spoken at many wildfire conferences.  In fact Wildfire Today quoted her on February 26 when we introduced our series of articles about the 13 Watch Out Situations.  On the refresher DVD, Ms. Ziegler gives some excellent information about the genealogy of the 10 Fire Orders.
  • There was an entire unit devoted to “Fire Operations Doctrine”.  Doctrine was developed by the U.S. Forest Service and was unveiled at their Pulaski Conference a few years ago.  The video in the refresher training talked about it, but never did define it.  The Department of Interior firefighters I was training with were left scratching their heads trying to figure out what it was. But the student workbook did give some basic information about Doctrine.  Correct me if I am wrong, but as far as I know, the Department of Interior Agencies have not adopted Doctrine.  I have some calls in to try to confirm this.
  • Here is a passage from the student workbook about Doctrine:  “In order to generate effective decision making in fire operations and to cope with the unpredictable nature of fire, commanders’ intent must be lucid and unambiguous, and lines of authority must be clearly articulated and understood.  Subordinate commanders must make decisions on their own initiative based on their understanding of their commanders’ intent.”
  • The DVD had a lengthy video about the Idaho City Hot Shots.  It had some great footage of fire, tree felling, and action shots, but other than being entertaining it added little to the training.
  • A lot of time was spent on weather.  I have seen many presentations in fire classes by meteorologists who got far too technical, showing, for example, charts that were undecipherable by firefighters.  But in the DVD a TV weatherman (from I believe Channel 6 somewhere) provided great information about “sky watching” and interpreting clouds.  He showed some time lapse films that were very interesting.  This was a good example of a speaker analyzing his audience and presenting technical information in a manner that could be easily understood…..a quality of a good TV weatherman.  Fire instructors should take note.  Later in the unit other time lapse films taken in Australia were less useful.  We were asked to predict the weather based on the films, which was asking a little too much of the average firefighter.
  • A section on communicating with aircraft was succinct and very worthwhile.
  • A case study of a situation on the Indians fire on the Los Padres National Forest in California last year was very thought provoking.  On that fire, which burned for many weeks, an engine crew and some members of a hot shot crew that were conducting a burn out were in a sort of burn-over when a massive fire whirl, or fire tornado as I would call it, caused the fire to change direction. One firefighter estimated they were exposed to 80 mph winds blowing burning embers and large tree limbs around. Several firefighters received some serious burns.
  • We were told that the maximum time allowed for getting into a fire shelter has been reduced to 20 seconds.  And I have to admit I did not make it on the first try, missing it by 2 seconds.

I want to thank the fire staff at Wind Cave National Park for putting on a great class today.

So, what were your impressions of the 2009 firefighter refresher?

“13 Situations That Shout Watch Out”

The evolution of the “13 Situations that Shout Watch Out” and the “18 Watch Out Situations”.

From a paper by Jennifer A. Ziegler, PhD., Department of Communication, Valparaiso University:

Although it is still a mystery about precisely when, where, or how the original 13 Situations that Shout ‘Watch Out’ were developed, there is good reason to believe that they originated in the late 1960s, and most likely after 1967. Officially, there were 13 “Situations that Shout ‘Watch Out’” in effect through the summer of 1987.

Then, five items were added to the list when NWCG developed the “Standards for Survival” course later that year (1987). At that time, the name was also changed to 18 “Watch Out Situations,” and the sentence structure of each item was altered from the subjective “You are…” to a more objective description of each situation.

1987 was also the year the Fire Orders were reordered, and the Standards for Survival course and subsequent trend analyses of the Watch Out Situations emphasized how the two lists were supposed to work together. Although the Fire Orders were reordered (again) in 2003, the list of Watch Out Situations has remained unchanged since 1987.

“Basic 32” wildland fire training

In 1972, when I was on the El Cariso Hot Shots near Elsinore, California, the crew, led by Superintendent Ron Campbell, saw the need for standardized basic training for wildland firefighters. At the time, there was nothing, just collections of papers, research, and some books. Some people had written some lesson plans, but there was no widely available, organized training curriculum that could be used to take someone off the street and put them through a structured multi-day course in wildland fire suppression.

In what is now seen as a remarkable accomplishment, the crew created a 32-hour course, complete with lesson plans, a slide-tape program, tests, and a student workbook, to fill this need. Over the next several years, dozens of copies of the program were made and distributed, mostly around the Cleveland National Forest and other areas in southern California. Later it was converted to video tape which made it a lot easier to put on the training, and the popularity spread even further.

Tom Sadowski and I took most of the photos, the slides, that were used in the program. Recently I converted over 800 of my slides, prints, and negatives to digital form, including some copies I had of some of the original slides that I took that were in what became known as the “Basic 32” training.

13 Watch Out Situations from the 1970s

The photo at the top of this post is from that “Basic 32” program, and was one of the 13 images of what was then the “13 Situations That Shout Watch Out”.

I will post the other 12

From March 19 through 30 I will post the other 12 of the color images from the “13 Situations”, one each day.

Here are the 18 Watch Out Situations as they are today.

1. Fire not scouted and sized up.
2. In country not seen in daylight.
3. Safety zones and escape routes not identified.
4. Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior.
5. Uninformed on strategy, tactics, and hazards.
6. Instructions and assignments not clear.
7. No communication link with crewmembers/supervisors.
8. Constructing line without safe anchor point.
9. Building fireline downhill with fire below.
10. Attempting frontal assault on fire.
11. Unburned fuel between you and the fire.
12. Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can.
13. On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below.
14. Weather is getting hotter and drier.
15. Wind increases and/or changes direction.
16. Getting frequent spot fires across line.
17. Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zones difficult.
18. Taking a nap near the fire line.

Jennifer Ziegler
Jennifer A. Ziegler, Ph.D., at the 9th Wildland Fire Safety Summit in Pasadena, Calif., 2006; Photo: Bill Gabbert
Dr. Ziegler will be presenting a follow up poster at the 10th Wildland Fire Safety Summit in Phoenix, April 27-30, regarding the origin of the original 13 Situations, called “Help Uncover the Mystery of the Original 13 Situations That Shout Watch Out”. One aspect of the Situations that has captured her interest is that they were originally intended to be operational tactics and not safety guidelines.
A question she will be asking at the Safety Summit will be “What is the 19th Watch Out Situation?”