What is the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety?

Camp Fire Northern California
Firefighters on the night shift at the Camp Fire in Northern California, November 2018. Inciweb photo.

It has been a while since we wrote in detail about what in 2013 we first called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety.

It is a system that could track in real time the location of firefighters AND the fire, all displayed on one screen. This data should be available in real time to key supervisors and decision makers in the Operations and Planning Sections on fires. Knowing the positions of personnel relative to the fire would be a massive step in improved situational awareness and could reduce the number of firefighters killed on fires. Too often firefighters have been surprised, overrun, and sometimes killed by a rapidly spreading wildfire when they did not know where the fire was and/or their supervisors did not know the correct, actual location of the personnel.

Not everyone on a fire would need to monitor the location data all the time, but at least one person should be given the responsibility to be sure that a rapidly spreading wildfire does not overrun the location of firefighting resources. Darkness, smoke, and terrain can obscure the location of the fire from firefighters on the ground.

A drone orbiting high over the fire far above air tankers and helicopters could use near infrared cameras to see through smoke. A safety officer, for example, could be given the duty of ensuring that firefighters are not surprised and become entrapped by flames. Depending on the size of a fire and its activity it might only take one person to be sure firefighters are in safe positions. More complex or more active fires might need more.

Several times the report on the Mendocino Complex issued last week mentions that firefighters did not know for sure where the fire was. In addition, for a while no one knew where the six firefighters were that had been entrapped and were running from the fire. All six of them had suffered injuries and needed to be rescued. It was quite some time before they were located after searching with trucks and a helicopter.

The locations of firefighters could be provided by the newer Bendix-King radios many firefighters are already using that have built-in GPS receivers. Small devices that could fit in a shirt pocket could do the same thing and be provided by the interagency fire warehouse system, shipped to the fire like radio caches. The data could be sent through an on-the-ground mesh network, device to device, and be relayed to a server by cell phone towers or through a receiver on the drone orbiting the fire and then to a cell tower or satellite.

Ideally a safety officer given this duty would be at the fire and would be familiar with the fuel, topography, and weather. But in a pinch, or perhaps during the very early stages of a fire it could be done by a qualified person anywhere, as long as they had an internet connection.

In addition, it is very important for the Planning and Operations Section Chiefs to know in real time where the fire is so they can better plan and deploy resources to locations where they will be the most effective. Often Incident Action Plans are made using obsolete fire location information. By the time firefighters get to their assignment in the field sometimes it becomes obvious that the fire has moved and the plan, tactics, and strategy have to be changed and resources are relocated. Real time situational intelligence will reduce the lag time for deployment of resources to the locations where they are most needed.

Fire Behavior Analysts that could continuously observe the fire with the available video could make much more accurate, valuable, and timely Fire Behavior Forecasts. The fire spread information that their models develop could be displayed immediately on the map, enabling the Operations Section Chief to make better-informed strategic and tactical decisions. Any firefighters that show up in the predicted growth area could be alerted.

The technology to provide real time personnel and fire location information has existed for years. A number of state and local agencies are already using various versions of the location tracking systems. Putting a drone in the sky with an infrared camera above the firefighting aircraft could be done today. Linking these two sources of information so that they can be displayed on a map can be done. The military does this every day, tracking the location of the enemy and the friendly forces. Firefighters lives are just as valuable as soldiers’.

The five federal land management agencies and the states with significant numbers of wildland firefighters need to implement a Holy Grail system as soon as possible. It can save lives. There is no acceptable excuse for not getting this done. Government officials that drag their feet on this should have trouble sleeping at night.

Some Senators and Congressmen have been mocked for their lack of knowledge about technology, but they are way ahead of the five agencies on this issue. The federal fire directors should be embarrassed that it is literally taking an act of Congress to get them to begin using a Holy Grail system.

And, please don’t say this system that can save lives is not necessary, and that all we have to do is to tell firefighters to follow the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders or the other check lists. The Orders have been around for 62 years. Someone just saying “follow them” will not magically make it happen. That has been said millions of times in the last six decades and still, between 1990 and 2015, an average of 17 wildland firefighters were killed each year. Continuing to do the same thing while expecting different results is not realistic.

I’m not saying the Orders should not be followed. They should be. But continually saying “follow them” has still resulted in too many fatalities. We need to do that, and a lot more.

21 issues frequently identified in firefighter entrapment reports

Can lessons actually be learned?

Horse Park Fire
The Horse Park Fire in Colorado, May 31, 2018. Screenshot from the Hotchkiss Fire District video.

The 43-page facilitated learning analysis about the entrapment on the Mendocino Complex of Fires was well-researched and skillfully written. Six firefighters received burns and other injuries when they had to escape from the fire by running through unburned vegetation.

The intent of the analysis and hundreds of others like it is for firefighters to gain knowledge from the dozens of identified lessons learned that were meticulously documented, hoping that they will not be repeated by those who read the report.

That sounds very straight forward and simple.

But will reading about something that occurred on a fire months or years ago and hundreds or thousands of miles away actually influence someone’s behavior, performance, or decision making ability? Intuitively, we may say, “Yes. Of course. Learning about something that went wrong on an incident will keep us from making similar bad decisions later.”

A comment left by Paul regarding the article about the facilitated learning analysis was interesting:

Nothing “new” in the “Lessons Learned”. After decades in the fire service, makes me wonder if Lessons can be really be learned (and applied) at an organizational level. Seems they are constantly learned at the personal level.

Paul makes a good point. Those of us who have read numerous after action reports have seen almost all of the identified lessons many times before. Below are 21 issues mentioned in the Mendocino Complex report that were identified on the August 19, 2018 incident-within-an-incident.

  1. Interpersonal communications
  2. Communications system (radios & repeaters)
  3. Organizational structure
  4. Inadequate briefings
  5. Span of control way out of whack
  6. Inadequate knowledge about the real-time location of the fire
  7. Crew resource management
  8. See something say something
  9. Play the what-if game
  10. Turn down assignment
  11. Interagency rivalry
  12. Inadequate lookout ability due to terrain
  13. Metro firefighters and those from a different fuel type thrown into a complex wildfire situation
  14. Escape routes
  15. Safety zones
  16. Not knowing the real-time location of firefighting resources
  17. Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting
  18. Burn victims not being sent to a burn center
  19. Very long travel times to fireline assignments
  20. Personnel shortages on Incident Management Teams and Unable To Fill resource orders on fires affecting tactics and safety
  21. Failure to declare an Incident-Within-An-Incident

Will identifying these issues still another time in a well-written document help prevent them from recurring? We have always assumed it will. But if so, why do the well-intentioned reports continue to list many of the same items?

In a perfect world an important lesson to be learned would be described once in a report. It would then become global knowledge in the firefighting world and the issue would never again have to show up in an after action review.

If these documents and formal classroom training is what Paul refers to as the “organizational level”, does he have a point that the most frequent way firefighters learn is from personal experience?

How do we increase the effectiveness of lessons learned reports?

Is there a different, or innovative method that could transplant these lessons into the personal mental “slide shows” that experienced firefighters consult and refer to when they are faced with a tough decision in the field?

Without doubt, someone will say all we have to do is abide by the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and 18 Watch Out Situations. The Orders have been around for 62 years. Someone else just saying “follow them” will not magically make it happen. That has been said millions of times in the last six decades and still, between 1990 and 2015, an average of 17 wildland firefighters were killed each year. Continuing to do the same thing while expecting different results is not realistic.

Firefighter physical exams can save lives

Physical exam firefighter save life
Screen grab from the video.

As we reported earlier today, the Bureau of Land Management is beginning to provide medical exams for federal Emergency Firefighters (EFFs) in Alaska. The goal is to increase safety by identifying pre-existing conditions that could be aggravated by the arduous duty of wildland firefighting.

These two videos, each about two minutes long, tell the stories of firefighters who discovered during the physicals that they had life-threatening medical conditions. They were then able to take actions which probably saved their lives.

Alaska emergency firefighters to undergo medical exams starting in November

Alaska EFF firefighters
The Kobuk River #2 Type 2 EFF Crew working on a fire in the Lower 48 in 2018. AFS photo.

The Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service in partnership with the Department of Interior Medical Standards Program (DOI MSP) will soon provide medical exams to federal Emergency Firefighters (EFF). The goal of the exams is to increase safety by identifying pre-existing conditions that could be aggravated by the arduous duty of wildland firefighting.

The medical exams will be provided in approximately 28 Alaska villages through mobile medical units and by scheduled appointments at 18 facilities throughout the state.

Starting in November EFFs in Alaska who are hired on an as-needed basis will need medical exams once every three years and self-certify in between years. The medical screening established by the DOI MSP will screen EFFs for any disqualifying medical conditions prior to participating in the Work Capacity Test (WCT), otherwise known as the pack test. Only wildland firefighters performing arduous duties are required to undergo medical exams and pass the WCT.

Schedules for the exams will be posted on the BLM AFS EFF webpage .

For the past two years, Alaska EFFs were granted exemptions to these medical screening requirements. The first phase of implementation of the medical exams began in 2015 and only included regularly employed Department of the Interior wildland firefighters. Applying the requirements to Alaska EFFs was originally planned to begin in 2017, but implementation was delayed until measures were in place to provide mobile units in rural Alaska to conduct the medical examinations. The exams do not include drug testing or affect State of Alaska EFFs.

There is no cost to the EFF for the examination, however, if the individual chooses a location other than their local village BLM AFS will not cover the associated travel costs. After the exam is completed, a determination will be made regarding the candidate’s eligibility to participate in the pack test and the arduous duty of wildland firefighting.

The BLM AFS provides wildland fire management for the Department of the Interior and Native Corporation lands in Alaska and provides oversight of the BLM Alaska aviation program. Firefighter safety and the safety of the public are core values and are fundamental in all areas of wildland fire management.

For more information, EFF candidates can email AFS_EFF@blm.gov or call EFF Program at 1-833-532-8810 or (907)356-5897.


Gloves produce a strong opinion

Travis Dotson wrote an article posted on the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned website titled “Gloveless Idiots” expressing his strong opinion about those who point out that firefighters seen in photos sometimes are not wearing gloves. Mr. Dotson used terms like “Glove Nazis” and “Gloveless Idiots”. Maybe the provocative terms were chosen in order to stir up debate, or express his belief that it is OK in certain situations to not wear gloves.

By Travis Dotson

Wildland fire lessons learned center

Some people don’t like the picture at the top of this page. Here is part of an email we received:

“The current Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website home screen pictures three wildland firefighters working in the black with hand tools. From my perspective they appear to be less than 10 feet apart and two of them aren’t wearing gloves. Have NWCG standards on Line Construction and PPE changed?  I always speak up on these type issues since this is a pending Condition Yellow 9 Line IWI.”

Here’s another one:

“Just sharing that the header picture strikes me wrong, unless you are trying to show a lesson to be learned….no gloves and using hand tools seems out of place, given that we teach people to use gloves and keep their sleeves rolled down — am I missing something?”

So let’s talk about the picture, or rather the practice the picture captures — wildland firefighters working without gloves on. First of all, let’s do some acceptance around the topic:

  1. It happens. This picture depicts reality. This is how work gets done, whether we want it to be done that way or not.
  2. This is a divisive topic.

Number 1 is self-explanatory. Number 2 seems silly, but it’s true — we like to “Us and Them” the crap out of this hot potato. There is a bright line between the Glove Nazis and the Gloveless Idiots.

Glove Nazi’s have super clean Nomex, no tolerance for nuance, and certainly wouldn’t know which end of what tool is best used to fry grub worms (or why you would fry grub worms).

Gloveless Idiots are a bunch of babbling backwoods booger eaters who have no sense of cause and effect.

Well, we won’t get far if we believe either of those extremes will we? (But I bet you bought one of them anyway.)

OK kiddos, let’s sooth our hurt feelings and come back to the table for a little slice of compromise pie.

Gloves protect our hands. Gloves make some tasks more difficult.

Individuals make personal decisions about risk all day everyday. (Insert your favorite daily risk decision example here. Most people use driving, so don’t use that one.)

When and where to put on gloves is the ultimate “efficiency / thoroughness trade off” dilemma. It’s a pretty tough nut to crack.

What if…

  • Every time you saw a photo of firefighters working without gloves on you thought: “Wow, those folks must have a very compelling reason not to wear gloves…I wonder what it is?”

What if…

  • Every time someone asked why you aren’t wearing gloves you thought: “Wow – this person really cares about my safety, that is so kind.”

More acceptance. Fewer assumptions.

What if.

Legislation advances toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety

esperanza fire fatalities
Five firefighters that worked on this engine were killed on the Esperanza Fire October 26, 2006 while protecting an unoccupied house. The firefighters did not know the location of the fire, and their Division Supervisor thought the crew was at a different, and safe, location.  A similar situation occurred on the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 where 19 firefighters were killed. The crew did not know the location of the fire and others assumed they were in a different, and safe, location. Photo from the official Esperanza Fire fatality report.

A Senate Bill introduced in January of this year took an important step through the legislative process Tuesday. The Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act, Senate Bill 2290, was approved unanimously by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It still has to be acted upon in the House of Representatives and the full Senate but this unanimous vote in committee is a good sign. It was introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and co-sponsored by Cory Gardner (R-CO).

If the bill passes and is actually implemented by the federal land management agencies it would generate progress toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when one or both of these critical pieces of situational awareness were unknown. Recent examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Experanza Fires.

The technology to monitor in real time a fire and firefighting resources has existed for years. Various systems are being used already by a few state and local agencies. The military does it for their war fighters, monitoring the enemy and their own forces. If implemented on fires, it will save lives. Firefighters lives are as important as soldiers.

The key points, below, in the legislation as currently written, have requirements for the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. The completion dates will be established from the time the legislation is signed.

  • Establish a research, development, and testing program, or expand an applicable existing program, to assess unmanned aircraft system technologies, including optionally piloted aircraft, across the full range of wildland fire management operations. (within 180 days)
  • Develop consistent protocols and plans for the use on wildland fires of unmanned aircraft system technologies, including for the development of real-time maps of the location of wildland fires. (within 1 year)
  • Develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal Type 1 wildland fire incident management teams. (within 1 year)
  • Establish a system to track and monitor decisions made by state and federal wildland firefighting agencies to flag unusual costs, and those that endanger firefighters or deviate from an applicable fire management plan. (no time requirement)
  • Assign air resource advisors to Type 1 incidents. (no time requirement)
  • Establish a system to collect data on firefighter injuries that were treated by a doctor, and all deaths during the Work Capacity Test, vehicle crashes, and aircraft accidents. (no time requirement)
  • The two Secretaries will work with NASA to establish a “Rapid Response Erosion Database” and maps that would make it possible to evaluate changes in land cover and soil properties caused by wildland fires. (no time requirement)
  • The two Secretaries, NASA, the Secretary of Energy, and the National Laboratories shall establish and maintain a system to predict the locations of future wildfires for fire-prone areas of the United States. (no time requirement)
  • Conduct a study to determine the feasibility of operating aircraft at night when managing wildland fires. (within 1 year)

A press release issued by Senator Cantwell’s office (below) gave a shout-out to Wildfire Today for our relentless pursuit of the Holy Grail. Here is the complete text:

Cantwell Bill to Modernize Firefighting Technology Passes Committee

Legislation would bring state-of-the-art technology, including real-time mapping and GPS locators, to firelines across the country

Washington, D.C. — Today, at a business meeting of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) – the committee’s top Democrat –  secured passage of her bipartisan Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act. The bill passed through committee unanimously.

The bill, co-sponsored by Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), increases the use of technology to keep firefighters and communities safe, better reduce the risks from wildfires, and increase the effectiveness of wildfire response.

“We owe it to the brave men and women who risk their lives to fight wildfires to equip them with the best available technology, to keep them safe, and to ensure their efforts are effective,” said Senator Cantwell in her opening statement before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Included in the bill are measures to increase firefighter safety by providing crews on wildfires with GPS locators and using Unmanned Aircraft Systems to scout out and map wildfires in real-time. Wildfire Today refers to the simultaneous use of mapping aircraft and GPS locators as the ‘Holy Grail’ of firefighter safety. The bill also helps protect families and communities by assisting with smoke forecasting and planning for the impacts of smoke from wildfires.

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