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From TheySaid, 1/9/04

Dozer, great post. Mellie, you rock.

Fire Pup- You ask wise questions. Keep it up. Here’s a definition I like; Situational Awareness is your awareness of the fire, and what you and others are doing in relation to the fire and your goals. SA changes as time passes, the fire changes, or your location changes.

SA is different for an IC. You not only have your personal SA to worry about as you roam around the fire, you must also maintain a bigger picture SA for everyone on and around the incident.

This is something I discovered a few years ago that I find useful. A method was developed to identify the four different levels of SA that can exist in a person’s consciousness. In this system, called the Harral system, condition yellow was identified as the ideal SA state, where you are actively focused on identifying hazards. Condition orange is when you have identified a hazard that has not yet been mitigated. Condition red is a mostly unconscious reflex response to save your life, like jumping out of the way of a falling snag. Or running from a fire that is about to overrun your present position.

The sneaky one is the fourth state, condition white, which is an absence of situation awareness. The problem with SA is you can be in perfect condition yellow SA, focused on identifying hazards, doing great, and in the next second become distracted and instantly be in condition white and have no SA at all. It is very easy to drift from condition yellow to condition white without ever being aware of it. Sometimes these lapses are very short, sometimes they are lengthy. And sometimes bad things happen during these lapses.

Ab- Thanks to you and the folks who said kind things about my recent posts. I have to warn you up front this is another long one. I guess you could call this chapter three of my trilogy; Return of the Fire Dork.

I’ve been trying to make sense of all of the Cramer posts and other wildland fire issues that have been discussed on this site over the past few months. I can’t ever recall a time when there was so much uncertainty and pessimism over the future of our business. Poor old Smokey has really gotten pounded in recent years. Sometimes it seems like we just keep lurching from one disaster to the next.

My heart goes out this new year to all of my USFS brothers and sisters whose lives have been turned upside down by our latest reorganization and the Albuquerque mess.

In the midst of all this uncertainty and deflated morale sits one of the premier wildland firefighting organizations in the world. All of our state and federal wildland fire programs have been under the gun in recent years, but none have seen greater challenges than the United States Forest Service fire management program.

And the Big Green Machine has been getting hammered lately. How did we get to the point where many of our Type III ICs are declining to accept future Type III assignments? How many collective years of invaluable experience and training dollars are going down the drain right now because our agency doesn’t seem to understand what is happening to our best mid-level fire leaders? What kinds of impacts will this massive loss of experience have on wildland fire safety and potential future fire leaders?

The more I reflect on our present beleaguered state, the more I believe it comes down to one underlying problem.

Unreasonable expectations.

The United States Forest Service is trying to operate a twenty-first century program with a twentieth century mentality.

Let me explain why I think this is so. Consider this statement from the R4 “Key Messages for Forest Service Fire Managers/ Lessons Learned About OIG Investigations” release: “Fire managers and members of Incident Management Teams who act with due caution can answer the following three questions in the affirmative (YES)… Did you have a plan that followed agency policy and guidelines? Was it a good plan? Did you follow the plan? The Forest Service will support you and your actions if you can answer YES to all three questions.”

Let’s examine those three questions for their inherent flaws. First, “Did you have a plan that followed agency policy and guidelines”? Don’t make me laugh. I feel quite safe offering two weeks of my take-home pay to any USFS Type III IC who can even NAME all of the interagency policies and guidelines that apply to every area of wildland firefighting operations, let alone remember and correctly interpret which ones apply while you are attempting to manage dozens of interagency resources on a ripping wind-driven fire that is minutes away from burning homes in a subdivision.

In fact, to make it a little more sporting, I’ll even spot you a few of the sources of agency policy and guidelines that today’s Type III ICs are apparently expected to memorize and recall at will:

Forest Service Manual
Interagency Fire Operations Guide (Red Book)
Fireline Handbook
Fire Business Management Handbook
Hazmat Emergency Response guidelines
Regional and national engine contracts
Regional and national crew contracts
Regional and national helicopter contracts
Pay rules and regulations for Administratively Determined (AD) employees
Emergency Equipment Rental Agreements for fallers, dozers, etc
Interagency Pocket Response Guide
USFS Health and Safety Code Handbook
PMS 310-1 Interagency Training and Qualifications Guide
Interagency Helicopter Operations Guide
Ten Standard Fire Orders
Eighteen Watchout Situations
Thirtymile Abatement Checklists
Wildland Fire Situation Analysis

That’s enough for now; I don’t want to make this TOO easy. Remember, two weeks of my take-home pay to the first person who can pass the Misery Whip ICT3 Information Overload Challenge.

Seriously, Ab, how about if we ask They Said readers to help finish this list of ALL of the applicable policy and guidelines that type III ICs are supposed to know these days? Maybe we can show management why this dog won’t hunt.

There are two other major flaws built into this question:

  1. It wrongly assumes that all Type III ICs have the ability to learn, retain, understand, and readily recall at will any and all of the hundreds of policies and guidelines that apply to wildland fire suppression, and that they have been properly trained to interpret and apply all of the policies and guidelines that apply to wildland fire suppression.

  2. It fails to take into account current behavioral science knowledge of human information processing limitations, and fails to recognize that stress, fatigue, overtasking, distractions and other factors can limit a person’s ability to recall or recognize important information.

How about the second question; “Was it a good plan?” Puh-leez! “Yes, it was a lovely plan, a jolly good plan, a really tip-top, gee whiz, slam bang plan”! Unfortunately, this question doesn’t pass the rather elementary test of the old military maxim that “even the best laid plans rarely survive contact with the enemy”. I have never been on a gobbler with multiple resources where something unexpected did NOT occur. If the fire changes, if something unexpected happens, or if something you expect to happen does not happen, then you must re-evaluate and modify the plan. For many reasons, Type III incidents are often one long string of modified plans.

And the third question is even worse; “Did you follow the plan”? See the answer to the question in the preceding paragraph. Then consider what Managing the Unexpected says about planning in Chapter 3: “A Closer Look at Process and Why Planning Can Make Things Worse”.

From page 79 of Managing the Unexpected: “Plans, in short, can do just the opposite of what is intended, creating mindlessness instead of mindful anticipation of the unexpected”. And from page 81: “To manage the unexpected is to be reliably mindful, not reliably mindless. Obvious as that may sound, those who invest heavily in plans, standard operating procedures, protocols, recipes, and routines tend to invest more heavily in mindlessness than mindfulness”.

It probably goes without saying that mindlessness on a wildfire is not a good thing. The people who believe that good plans equate to safety on wildfires probably mean well but are missing a vital point. Plans are important, but most real safety decisions on wildfires are made at the individual and small-unit level rather than the command level.

So is there a way to turn things around in the Forest Service fire management ranks? I believe there is, but it will take a high level of commitment from senior Forest Service management and congress to make it happen.

We need to start by recognizing that the wildland fire community, like many entities these days, is in the throes of major cultural change. Just think about the staggering changes in technology, and in society in general, that have occurred in recent years.

This is my own more-or-less chronological list of some of the major cultural influences that have impacted Forest Service firefighters in the past twenty-something years.

1980s: The end of the glory days for the timber beasts, large scale clear-cutting on national forests mostly ends. Decreased budgets lead to force reduction, which includes many timber specialists who had provided invaluable “militia” capability on wildfires. Nationwide, dozens of initial attack and district/forest brush disposal crews are left unfunded or disbanded. Many of the new Forest Service “ologists” choose not to participate in fire suppression.

The Forest Service and other state and federal wildland firefighting agencies adopt the Incident Command System to standardize wildfire management positions, training standards, and terminology nationwide. Managing natural ignition wilderness fires for resource benefits begins to increase. Record fire seasons are becoming more and more frequent on national forests in the western US.

The first use of personal computers begins to alter how our agency uses and shares information. Fire managers begin to use GPS, GIS, RAWS, FLIR, multiple frequency programmable radios, and many other technological aids. Women and minorities begin to fill more positions in the wildland firefighting workforce.

1990s: A continuing stalemate exists between environmental groups and the Forest Service over timber cutting. Forests struggle with downsizing and identity crisis; i.e., “if we don’t cut timber, what are we”? Many forests, districts, fire management zones, dispatch centers, etc consolidate or join with other agencies for “increased efficiency”. At large, our society is becoming more anti-government and increasingly litigious. Computers and many other forms of technology become everyday work tools.

Throughout the nineties, there is a steady decrease in budgets and the number of forest/district wildland firefighting resources, and a steady increase in the use of contractor/emergency hire/AD firefighting resources. The Dude and South Canyon fatality fires generate intense focus on the USFS fire program. The South Canyon fatalities stimulate OSHA to begin looking into the Forest Service and the world of wildland firefighting.

In 1995, the Human Factors Workshop marks the first real effort within the Forest Service to unite wildland firefighting with modern behavioral science. Behavioral scientists such as Karl Weick, Gary Klein, Curt Braun, and others help illuminate shortcomings in present wildland fire training, organizations, and culture. The Tri-Data Wildland Firefighter Safety Awareness Study is chartered to evaluate the wildland firefighter culture.

The nineties also witnessed some of the most severe and destructive fire seasons in the history of the western United States, and recorded some of the highest average annual temperatures in human history. Most credible scientists now conclude that global warming is real, and is happening at a faster than expected rate. The term “megafire“ is coined for the large, long-term, expensive wildland fires that are becoming more frequent.

2000+: In the post 9-11 world, everything changes. Interagency Incident Management Teams help manage the aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters, and manage the enormous space shuttle recovery operation. National IMTs are now considered part of the Homeland Security apparatus for managing biological, chemical, or nuclear incidents in addition to the normal wildland fires, floods, hurricanes, etc.

The National Fire Plan, a much-anticipated move to modernize and improve working conditions for federal wildland firefighters, has one year of full funding before 911. Many of the projected National Fire Plan goals remain unaccomplished today due to lack of funding.

Destructive escaped prescribed burns like Lowden Ranch and Cerro Grande help bring attention to the massive wildland/urban interface fire problem and the unnatural fuel buildup caused by decades of fire suppression on public and private lands. Wildland fire supervisors and prescribed fire managers are now advised to carry a minimum of $1,000,000 liability insurance “just in case”.

The Thirtymile and Cramer fire investigations instigate more changes, checklists, and increased scrutiny of the USFS fire management program. Following the Thirtymile Fire, Washington congresspersons Hastings and Cantwell help create legislation to authorize the Department of Justice to investigate wildland fire entrapments and fatalities on federally managed fires..

In 2003, the war in Iraq begins. Military aircraft, aircrews, and soldiers that have been used to fight wildland fires in recent years become less available. Based on present projections, the military’s heavy commitment to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terror will continue for at least several more years. Military assets will likely remain unable to supplement wildland firefighting efforts on a large scale for the foreseeable future. In light of the record federal budget deficit and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the operating budgets of all federal agencies will probably be tight for the foreseeable future.

After a series of catastrophic mid-air breakups of air tankers, in 2004 air tankers nationwide are grounded for inspection and evaluation. A Blue Ribbon panel of experts produces a report which is highly critical of the Forest Service aviation program. The contracts for most of the aircraft that have until recently served as airtankers are canceled.

Megafires and destructive fire seasons continue. Contract engines and crews increasingly supplant Forest Service engines and crews on wildfires and prescribed burns. The ironically named Cost Reduction Action Plan (CRAP) investigates management of large incidents to find ways to save money. The initial report excreted by the CRAP investigation says that we spend too much on jerky. No more jerky for firefighters.

Despite the fact that our IMTs now routinely manage national disasters for FEMA, the general posture of the present administration and congressional majority toward federal agencies and employees of the Forest Service remains decidedly negative, unless there is a big column in the sky and a possible photo op with heroic, charcoal smudged, hardhat wearing, Nomex-clad firefighters. Roadless areas are no longer off-limits, and the Forest Health Act now appears to be targeting the last big trees left on public lands, instead of fireproofing at-risk urban-wildland communities.

There are now pockets of progressive thinkers in the federal wildland fire agencies, like the people with the Fireline Leadership program and the Lessons Learned Center, but in general we are still saddled with an antiquated system that fights real progress at every turn. In one of our latest self-inflicted injuries, the Forest Service converted critical fire management positions to the 401 series, which means that you now need a biological degree to qualify for our most important fire management jobs. Fire experience? Whatever.

In 2004, Alan Hackett becomes the first Type III Incident Commander in the history of the Forest Service to be drummed out of the ranks and branded as a criminal. Other than redacted investigation reports and the ongoing barrage of Bad News Directives and e-mails, our leaders are ominously silent.

And here we are in 2005. The general morale of USFS employees today is the lowest I have ever observed in my career.

So how do we get a grip on issues as huge as those which presently confront our wildland firefighters? When you think about our challenges in the context of the many sociological and technological changes that have occurred over the past few decades, we’re not really so different from anyone else in the world.

I view what is presently happening to the Forest Service fire management organization as an inevitable nexus of an older culture and organization colliding with sociological changes, new technology and a better understanding of human performance issues. We need to move beyond what I call the stick stacker mentality, the notion that wildland firefighting is a simple job for simple people.

In the twenty-first century, successful wildland firefighting requires an extraordinary combination of physical and mental skills. We need more PFTs and appointments, not less, to develop good leaders and the cohesive and well-trained kind of workforce that can help make burnovers rare instead of common.

Some really fundamental questions need to be addressed today, like how much and what kind of training should firefighters have to have before being exposed to the wildland fire environment? What is an adequate frequency for recurrency training for critical stressful events, such as entrapments? How much and what kind of training and experience should our fireline supervisors have? How should we screen for leadership qualities in our future leaders? Which type of Type 3 incident management structure would work best in today’s wildland fire environment? Is there anyone else out there who has dealt successfully with problems similar to the ones we are facing?

I read an article a few years ago about Ray Brunacini, the Chief of the Phoenix Fire Department, who helped institute major changes within his own organization. They went from being a strict rule-bound and somewhat struggling organization to a very successful organization that empowers firefighters by requiring them to observe just three simple rules: Prevent Harm, Survive, and Be Nice. The Phoenix Fire Department managed to improve their morale, their standing with the public, and their safety record by eliminating a restricting maze of distracting regulations and encouraging employee initiative. They realized that information overload and complexity were barriers to safety that needed to be fixed.

A good place to look for a successful model of training people to react correctly during unusual stressful events is the airline industry. The airline industry has markedly improved their safety record in recent years by acknowledging the importance of human factors in training flight crews. Crew Resource Management (CRM) training is now mandatory in the airline industry around the world. Flight crews spend many hours in flight simulators learning how to react as a team to unusual emergencies, in a sense “programming” them to react properly if a similar circumstance is ever encountered in flight. Periodically, flight crews return to the simulator to refresh on reacting to certain emergencies, or to learn how to respond to newly identified types of problems.

To JD- My compliments to you for your wisdom, and your compassion. You understand one of the key points I have been trying to make over the past month. This paragraph from your 12/17 post describes it very well:

“If you are not training regularly for what you MIGHT encounter once in a life time you probably won't react in the same way you would an everyday occurrence. One shelter drill a year is not enough. One day refresher is not enough. 6 minutes is not enough. Sand table exercises for TYPICAL fires are not enough. We need to train more on real life A-Typical scenarios. How often do we walk the woods with our crew and seek their input and challenge their knowledge?”

That is an excellent description of why weaknesses within the present wildland fire training and qualifications system need to be reviewed and changed. Classroom exercises with paper, videos and Powerpoints are fine for some things and important to the firefighter education process, but we need to understand that Recognition Primed Decisionmaking is what really powers the firefighter decisionmaking machine. Is there anyone out there who really believes that watching a twenty minute video and deploying a plastic training shelter on a wet lawn in March actually prepares you to deal with a potential deployment situation on hot August afternoon in the mountains?

As for qualifications, there are holes in our present qualifications system big enough to fly a 747 airtanker through! Leadership abilities and experience need to be put back on top where they belong, instead of being treated as an afterthought.

The modern military understands the RPD concept very well, that is why they emphasize “train as you fight, fight as you train”. I had the privilege a few years ago to join a group of wildland fire people on a two-day staff ride of Gettysburg with a group of outstanding young Marine officers. We then went to Quantico and observed groups of junior Marine officers conducting complex sand-table exercises of military engagements. We also got to try out the Leadership Reaction Course, which is a facility and process designed to test the abilities of people to lead, follow, work as a group and make good decisions under duress.

I came away from our Gettysburg-Quantico trip feeling that there were many things that the Marines were doing that WE should be doing. I was very impressed at the competency of our modern Marine officers, their attitudes about leadership, their studious and professional nature. I would hate to be on the receiving end of their bad intentions.

And we should not overlook our own successes. Our Interagency Incident Management Teams are recognized worldwide for their ability to respond on short notice, travel, quickly set up complex organizations and basecamps, and manage large incidents of many kinds. When our group was at Quantico, a Marine lieutenant colonel told us that the Marines, who are known for being a quick-reaction military force, very much admired and are studying the ability of our IMTs to mobilize and be quickly effective.

We have other bright spots, like our Hotshot crews. A good Hotshot crew with seasoned leadership, motivated personnel and esprit de corps is the best firefighting machine there is today. And smokejumpers, the masters of the backcountry improv, have standardized to the degree that a relatively small national force of smokejumpers is able to quickly mobilize jumpers from different bases to areas of high initial attack activity. The ability of the jumpers to rapidly form effective temporary working unions on remote wildfires with other jumpers and firefighters gives them a unique flexibility and makes them a valuable asset.

And there are many, many good Forest Service fire management people, helitack crews, engine people, IA crews, and others out there who are just begging for a fair playing field and a chance to succeed.

It still seems strange to me that during the same period we became more aware about human factors and the importance of leadership, crew cohesion and good communications to wildland firefighter safety, our agency has become addicted to using a hodge-podge of contract or Emergency Hire fallers, dozers, crews and engines. Many of these people/crews have minimal or no fire experience, weak leadership, no cohesion, and don’t communicate well. And while AD fire hires, especially the ex-fed people, are generally well-trained and experienced, many of them are our own retirees who will soon be too old to play anymore.

We can do better. We have to do better if we are going to be a viable firefighting force in the future.

The point to my rant on recent history is; how can we improve our situation in spite of our many recent organizational and cultural changes and the constraints under which we must presently operate?

I think any answer to our predicament must start with our national leaders. Many fire people out here are yearning for someone in upper management to step up and visibly support us. We want to be appreciated for our dedication and our skill and our years of service to our country!

We want someone who has the vision and guts to tell congress that we need a Good Samaritan-type law to protect our wildland firefighters from unreasonable criminal and civil liability. We want someone who can convince congress that we need stable budgets year after year if we are going to retain a skilled and cohesive wildland firefighter workforce and keep our people safe. We want someone who has the ability to recognize that any real improvements to wildland fire safety MUST be based on a deep understanding of human factors and human limitations. And we want someone who will stand behind us and support us when we lose one of our troops.

A good way for our senior managers to demonstrate that they stand with us would be to re-open the books on Alan Hackett. Acknowledge the many systemic failures that helped set up the Cramer accident. Alan should be reinstated to his job, and if he needs retraining or reassignment, then do that. But if his punishment and treatment as a criminal is allowed to stand, the message it sends to people like me is You May Be the Next Scapegoat.

For the record, I have also joined the growing list of USFS Type 3 Incident Commanders who will no longer serve in that capacity. It is kind of a shame, because it took me many years to get that qualification, and I used to enjoy the challenge. My personal risk assessment tells me my employer may not back me up if something bad happens on one of my Type 3 incidents, and I just can’t afford to take that chance anymore.

Thanks, Ab, great forum. It has been interesting.

Misery Whip

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