"Safety" or "risk management" in wildland fire?

The Colorado Fire Camp sent out a message from their Twitter account to their 101 followers on October 21 which said:

#OSHA vs. wildfire agencies: Safety & Health no longer goal of #NWCG structure, new focus on risk management http://bit.ly/4oy38E 2:50 PM Oct 21st from TweetDeck

To say that safety and health are no longer goals of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) seemed rather surprising, so I went to the link, which leads to an organization chart showing the Committees of the NWCG.


A portion of the chart is shown here on the right. As you can see, the organization is changing. The “Safety and Health Working Team” is becoming the “Risk Management” committee, and the “Incident Operations Standards Working Team” is merging with the “Training Working Team” to become the “Operations and Workforce Development” committee.

To say that “safety and health is no longer a goal” of the NWCG is misleading at best. And yes, the term “safety” in the organization chart has been replaced with “risk management”. But that does not mean that “safety and health is no longer a goal”.

Here are some definitions of the term “risk management”.

  • Risk Management is the identification, assessment, and prioritization of risks followed by coordinated and economical application of resources to minimize, monitor, and control the probability and/or impact of unfortunate events. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risk_management
  • The process of determining the maximum acceptable level of overall risk to and from a proposed activity, then using risk assessment techniques to determine the initial level of risk and, if this is excessive, developing a strategy to ameliorate appropriate individual risks until the overall level of risk is reduced to an acceptable level. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/risk_management
  • Risk management is the active process of identifying, assessing, communicating and managing the risks facing an organization to ensure that an organization meets its objectives. www.lesrisk.com/glossary.htm
  • The technique or profession of assessing, minimizing, and preventing accidental loss to a business, as through the use of insurance, safety measures, etc. Origin: 1960–65. Dictionary.com

I exchanged some email messages with Michelle Ryerson, the fire safety program manager for the Bureau of Land Management, the current chair of the Safety and Health Working Team, and interim chair for the Risk Management Committee. I asked about the reason for the changes and she said the name change better reflects their approach to safe and effective fireline operations. The reorganization of the NWCG gave the groups an opportunity to change the names, encompassing a more comprehensive programmatic approach.

“We are in the process of converting over”, she said, “but have not been officially chartered under the new title of ‘Risk Management Committee’ (mission will remain the same) — plan to have conversion happen early spring of 2010 and will make note of it on our website”.

I asked what the effect of the change would be on firefighters. She responded: Continue reading “"Safety" or "risk management" in wildland fire?”

OSHA issues "Serious" and "Willfull" violation notices to USFS over rappelling fatality

On July 21, 2009 Thomas Marovich, 20, of Hayward California incurred fatal injuries when he fell while performing routine rappel proficiency skill training at the Backbone fire Helibase in Willow Creek, California. Wildfire Today covered it HERE, HERE, and HERE.

We have not seen an official accident report about the accident, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued violation notices to the U. S. Forest Service related to the incident.

The first one is a “Serious” violation that involves the procedures for the use of the rappel equipment. OSHA provided in the document four specific “abatement methods to correct these hazards”. They involve equipment such as the Bourdon snap hook, a Mallion Rapide Tri-Link, and the HR-2 rappel harness.

The second is a “Willful” violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.  OSHA accuses the USFS of failing to provide requested information about the accident. In fact, the USFS stated in writing that they would not comply with OSHA’s request.

Here is an excerpt from the violation notice OSHA sent to the U. S. Forest Service in Eureka, California, on October 2, 2009, about the “Willful” violation:

Excerpt from page 8 of OHSA’s notice to the U. S. Forest Service

OSHA apparently concludes that the only way the USFS could be in compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act and Executive Order No. 12196 is if the incident must be “kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy”, but then says it involves neither.

One has to wonder if the recent trend of prosecuting people involved in accidents led to the refusal of the USFS to release the information OSHA requested.

OSHA and U.S. Forest Service Reach Settlement About Esperanza Fire

Esperanza fire OverviewThe Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Forest Service have reached a settlement which modifies some of the “serious violations” that OSHA found after the Oct. 26, 2006 fire in which the five members of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57 were killed during a burn over.

According to the Press-Enterprise:

“Under the settlement, two of the six violations were withdrawn and the four others were amended, said Jason Kirchner, public affairs specialist for the Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service.

Kirchner said the main issue for fire officials was that OSHA initially viewed some firefighting guidelines as safety rules that had been broken.

“We felt it was an incorrect assessment,” Kirchner said. “They were not intended to be unbreakable rules. They are tools to help evaluate the situation and make decisions.”

Kirchner said the remaining four serious violations have been addressed in the Esperanza Accident Review Board Action Plan that was devised by the Forest Service.

The serious violations showed the fire agency did not “furnish places and conditions of employment that were free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm …”

It noted that instructions from the branch director were either “poorly communicated, or misunderstood” by firefighters. Firefighters were not equipped with maps to familiarize themselves with the area and terrain. The report also noted that the firefighters were ordered to provide structure protection and ended up directly in the path of the strong winds and fire, resulting in the fatal burnover of their fire engine.”

The crew of Engine 57: Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Jason McKay, 27, of Apple Valley; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto; and Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley.

(photo is from the official USFS/CalFire Factual Report)


UPDATE November 12, 2013:

Esperanza Fire Factual Report, and the USDA Office of Inspector General’s Report on the fire.