Rules held sacred, but effectiveness under fire

Rules held sacred, but effectiveness under fire

25 November 2006

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USA — Working at night, the men were trying to cut a control line around the fire when it turned on them. They dropped their tools and ran. The flames were faster. Eleven firefighters died.

The Inaja tragedy happened 50 years ago today in San Diego’s backcountry, and it changed how wildland fires are fought in America. In a way, war was declared. There was a new determination to understand the enemy, and new rules of engagement for firefighters.

Since then, there have been more changes: more gadgets and more sophistication. But the rules – the Ten Standard Firefighting Orders – have endured and become, in the words of one expert, “almost a sacred text.”

With pointers about weather, escape routes, lookouts and communication, the rules are taught early on to every new firefighter and drilled into firefighters’ heads through repetition for the rest of their careers.

The orders are printed on laminated cards they carry in their wallets and on stickers they put on their helmets. The orders are painted on the walls of fire stations.

“They are the building blocks for everything we do,” said Carlton Joseph, a Rancho Bernardo-based deputy fire chief for the Cleveland National Forest.

But foundations sometimes shift, and there is an ongoing debate in the fire service about the effectiveness of the rules. Some say more emphasis needs to be put on training firefighters to make sound decisions under stress, instead of expecting them to followorders.

The debate rises whenever there’s another fatality, such as last month’s Esperanza fire that killed five firefighters in Riverside County. Investigations of fire deaths typically include an evaluation of whether the Standard Orders were followed; authorities have announced that will be part of the Esperanza probe.

That, too, is controversial, said Jennifer Thackaberry Ziegler, an assistant professor of communication at Purdue University, who has studied the orders extensively.

Victims’ families sometimes decry the way the orders are used “as a checklist for blame in investigations,” Ziegler said. “Citing the number of orders violated tends to direct attention to what the firefighters on the ground did, as opposed to organizational factors such as whether the safety training they receive is effective.”

The Inaja fire came just three years after 15 firefighters were killed in the Rattlesnake fire in the Mendocino National Forest, and seven years after 13 smokejumpers died at Mann Gulch in Montana. Inaja was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Ziegler said.

The fire was started by a 16-year-old boy on the Inaja reservation, who later told investigators he “got a crazy idea” to throw a match into the grass to see if it wouldburn.

By the next afternoon, the fire had consumed about 25,000 acres, burning north toward Pine Hills and west to the El Capitan Reservoir. Crews were sent to cut containment lines.

At about 7 p.m. on Nov. 25, a night crew arrived at a steep canyon along the San Diego River, about nine miles southwest of Julian. Most were volunteer firefighters, inmates from the Viejas Honor Camp.

The men were cutting and scraping a line from the canyon rim to the riverbed. The fire was on a side ridge, roughly 1,000 feet below them. It flared suddenly, jumped into a ravine and raced toward them.

A crew boss near the rim saw the flames and told the crew to flee. Six men made it out, but 11 were engulfed by a “flash-over,” a simultaneous ignition of gases generated by the fire as it roared up the canyon. Of those killed, three worked for the Forest Service, seven were honor camp inmates and one was a guard.

In early 1957, Richard McArdle, chief of the Forest Service, created a task force to study Inaja and other fatal fires and recommend ways to improve safety. The group issued a 30-page report that highlighted the need for better training, especially in fire behavior.

“Up until then, there wasn’t much training or technical information available,” Joseph said. “They realized they needed more expertise so they could anticipate what a fire might do.” The ten standard firefighting orders

1. Keep informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts.

2. Know what your fire is doing at all times.

3. Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.

4. Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known.

5. Post lookouts when there is possible danger.

6. Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively.

7. Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces.

8. Give clear instructions and insure they are understood.

9. Maintain control of your forces at all times.

10. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.

SOURCE: U.S. Forest Service

Borrowing an idea from the military, where “General Orders” guide soldiers, the task force also recommended implementation of Standard Firefighting Orders. McArdle approved them, and their use became widespread.

“You learn them the first days of training,” said Bill Clayton, a local division chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “If you don’t learn them, you do a lot ofpush-ups.”

At the time the orders were adopted, an average of six wildland firefighters were fatally overrun by flames each year in the United States. By 2003, that number had dropped to two per year, according to a Forest Service study.

Many credit the Standard Orders and a string of other innovations – training, weather equipment, fire shelters, attack helicopters – with helping to save lives.

The devastating Cedar fire in 2003 started only about 1½ miles away from where the firefighters died in the Inaja blaze in 1956. Joseph said Inaja was on his mind as he helped direct the forces battling Cedar.

“It was one of those slides in the slide tray,” he said. “It played into the decision-making there.”

Part of the connection was personal. His father, Kenneth, worked for the Forest Service on Inaja. He was the crew boss who saw the flames and urged the men to get out of the canyon. He survived, but his best friend, Carlton Lingo, didn’t. Carlton Joseph is named after him.

Another part of Joseph’s thinking on the Cedar fire stemmed from the Standard Orders. They helped determine what not to do: send crew members into the San Diego River canyons to fight the fire by hand that first night.

“To hike people in, with no escape route and no safety zones (both required under the Standard Orders) – we don’t do business that way,” he said. “Had we put people in there, something similar to what happened before might have occurred there.” Wildland firefighter fatalities

A list of major wildfires in which five or more firefighters died:

1943: Hauser Creek, California,
11 firefighters killed

1949: Mann Gulch, Montana, 13

1953: Rattlesnake, California, 15

1956: Inaja, California, 11

1959: Decker, California, 6

1966: Loop, California, 12

1968: Canyon, California, 8

1990: Dude, Arizona, 6

1994: South Canyon, Colorado, 14

2006: Esperanza, California, 5

SOURCES: National Wildfire Coordinating Group; International Association of Wildland Fire; U.S. Forest Service

Most veteran firefighters have similar stories. Patrick Withen, a University of Virginia sociologist who has worked 24 summers as asmokejumper, said he’s been in tricky situations where the orders pop automatically into hishead: “Now where exactly is my lookout?”

But some of the orders can also be frustratingly vague, Withen said. The lastone, for example, says, “Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safetyfirst.”

Asked Withen: “How do you use that?”

Compounding the problem, the Standard Orders aren’t the only list firefighters are supposed to know. There is also a list of 18 potentially dangerous situations; another with seven rules concerning downhill fire-line construction; four common denominators of wildland fire tragedies; the LCES (Lookouts, Communication, Escape routes, Safety zones); and others. Withen added all the rules once and came up with 59.

Some of the guidelines overlap. A few years ago, Withen proposed consolidating them into 10 “essential” factors in wildland firefighting that could be monitored for safety during a blaze. He said he’s received positive feedback from other firefighters, but no official endorsement.

Controversy about the effectiveness of the Standard Orders has been swirling since 1994, when 14 firefighters perished in the South Canyon blaze in Colorado. The investigation blamed a “can-do” attitude that led crew members to violate eight of the 10 rules.

“There was almost a moral outrage on the part of the investigators that the rules had been broken,” said Ziegler, the Purdue professor. She said fire administrators “lowered the boom,” issuing edicts that the orders should never beviolated.

One of the investigators, Ted Putnam, a Forest Service firefighter and equipment specialist from Montana, refused to sign the final report. He argued that the orders are flawed and too easily used to point fingers – a way for management to avoid responsibility for shortcomings in organization and supervision.

He said more attention should be paid to the “human factors” on a fire line, such as sleep loss and fitness level, and that better training is needed for decision making in stressful conditions.

His feelings were echoed in a subsequent survey of wildland firefighters. They urged development of “a safety culture that encourages people to think rather than just obey the rules.”

Forest Service officials are moving in that direction, with more training in situational awareness, leadership and risk management. “We’re not there yet, but we’re making strides,” Joseph said.

Nobody expects the Standard Orders to disappear anytime soon.

“It is almost a sacred text,” Ziegler said. “It means a lot to firefighter culture, and people are afraid to change it. The orders are traditional. They function, in a way, as a memorial to the dead.”

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