Western wildfire fatalities: Officials look to training overhaul

Western wildfire fatalities: Officials look to training overhaul

25 December 2013

published by www.missoulian.com

USA — In the U.S. Forest Service today, everyone fighting wildland fires must take certain courses, and every promotion requires completion of higher-level classes. The tests would be difficult to fail, though.

The passing score is 70 percent.

Nonetheless, the curriculum is detailed, scientifically based and rigorous.

But while the Forest Service has formalized its requirements for leadership education and advancement, that hasn’t happened among its wildland firefighting partners – the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Fire Administration System-Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Jim Cook, a retired fire superintendent with 37 years of wildland firefighting experience, would like to see curriculum institutionalized by all wildfire agencies to require more than the two mandatory classes: L180, a four-hour class on Human Factors and Wildland Service, and L280, a two-day course on Followership to Leadership.

“You’re talking about changing the whole culture,” he said, with effective leadership development, standardized curriculum, common shared experience and credible expert instruction.

“We don’t really have a process to screen our best and brightest and help develop them. We could prepare entry-level and mid-level leaders better than we do now, especially in the first two or three years when you’re leading other people’s kids.

“We have good leaders, don’t get me wrong,” Cook said. “(But) we don’t prepare our leaders well enough, soon enough, to put them into these situations. You’re talking about flawed humans in a hazardous environment.”

While such an education overhaul would require infusions of time and money, it also could ameliorate problems that inevitably occur when mixed crews from varied agencies suddenly are thrown together on large fires, where good leadership is imperative.

“Let’s wait till 25 years into their careers and teach ’em what they need to know,” joked Randy Skelton, deputy fire staff officer on the Payette National Forest in Idaho. “I agree with (Cook); it needs to be a lot more structured. We don’t have any systematic way of working through the ranks.

“I would throw everything we have (except leadership curriculum) out the window and start from scratch. People who write and hold classes – that’s collateral duty. The courses don’t evolve very well,” Skelton added.

Hotshot superintendents are well-trained and work with their “students” at all times, said Joe Brinkley, manager of the McCall Smokejumper Base.

“FMOs (Fire Management Officers) have training and qualifications,” he said. “But then they’re not there (working the fire) to mentor those firefighters. When it’s game day – OK, good luck out there.”

Still, Brinkley notes, “the firefighters of today are light years ahead of where we were.”

Brinkley’s brother Levi, who was a member of the Prineville Hotshots, was one of 14 firefighters who died on Storm King Mountain west of Glenwood Springs, Colo., during the South Canyon fire on July 6, 1994.


The most riveting education model for wildfire personnel today, hands down, is the staff ride, a learning tool used by the U.S. Marine Corps and Army since the 1970s.

On fire staff rides, students are driven to the site of a fatality fire and actively participate in group exercises that help them develop decision-making skills. Put in the shoes of their predecessors, they’re guided to question: “What would I have done in this person’s place?” “How detailed should the guidance from a superior to a subordinate be?” “Can a senior leader make use of a competent but overzealous subordinate?” “What explains repeated organizational success or failure?”

The study of leadership aspects in a staff ride transcends time and place, says the Staff Ride Library of the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program.

Cook and Larry Sutton, a BLM training unit leader at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, are credited for developing the South Canyon Staff Ride, which often reduces participants to tears as they see how easily they could have made the same failed decisions under the same circumstances.

“I have never had any training that relayed messages as vividly as this did. I have never had training that left me both excited about what I learned – as well as awestruck by what I learned,” one participant comments on the WFLD Program website.

It’s a far cry from simply hiking the mountain and observing the terrain.

“Visiting a site is so much different from a staff ride,” Skelton said. “You put people in today’s situation. As a facilitator, you try to guide them into decisions. It has to be engaging and interactive. You can’t script it.”

“One of the main focuses … became instilling more tools to promote intuitive – rather than analytical – thinking,” Robert Holt says in training documents. Holt is superintendent of California’s Redding Interagency Hotshot Crew, which leads a South Canyon Staff Ride each spring.

Many staff rides now are available, on Mann Gulch outside Helena, the Thirtymile fire in Washington or the notorious Great Burn of 1910, in which forest ranger Ed Pulaski, who invented the standard firefighting tool named for him, saved a ragtag group of foresters, miners and others fighting a fire on the Coeur d’Alene National Forest. It burned 3 million acres across Idaho and western Montana, killing an estimated 85 people and burning several towns.

Another effective educational tool is the safety training videos, such as those South Canyon fire survivor Eric Hipke produces, used in annual spring refresher training to further underscore safe practices and good decision-making before the wildfire season gets underway.

The videos, available for public viewing on YouTube, dissect fire and human behavior on a given fire, reliving every element the crews faced, from weather patterns to tough terrain to a fire blowup. People who fought the fire often narrate, reviewing their mistakes and good decisions, and the lessons learned are carefully and dramatically chronicled so students learn from others’ experiences.


Staff rides, safety videos and improved safety training, however, enhance the skills only of those people who fight wildfires for a career.

That leaves out two extremes that have a powerful effect on how wildfires are fought: the contract workers brought in on a moment’s notice and the bosses who deliver edicts to the fire managers below.

Contractors might constitute half of the workforce or more on any given wildfire.

“You have no idea what’s showing up,” said Alex Robertson, deputy fire staff officer for a vast swath of Oregon, working for the U.S. Forest Service and BLM. “Not all contractors are created equal. As an operations section chief, I get plenty of resources, but we have to really pay attention. Do they look fit enough?

“When hotshot crews show up, you know you’re at least getting a certain level. It’s very difficult. That’s the human factors side. How do you lead people you’ve never worked with before in high-stakes, high-stress incidents? It’s about making money for them.”

Such challenges only underscore the need for well-trained, competent leaders who constantly observe not only fire behavior, but also human behavior.

“Humans make mistakes. Some experienced, some novice,” Cook said. “We a lot of times put them in the fray without much differentiation.”

Meanwhile, seasoned fire managers report to officials in Washington, D.C., who may be from forestry, fisheries or recreation.

“People who come into these situations aren’t coming from fire,” said Robertson. “Many times, they have zero experience on fire, but we’re coming to them for decisions. … It could mean a bad deal for some poor firefighter on the ground because of a decision made many miles away.

“We’re trying to explain risk and exposure to someone who doesn’t know what it means to be on top of a snag patch with flames 100 feet high.”

“I’m looking at 20-plus years in fire service, but decisions are being made by somebody with 90 days,” said one manager, whose identity is being withheld to protect his career. “It may be a very talented, brilliant individual, but they don’t have the same mental slides. It’s troubling that somebody with 90 days’ experience is making decisions for firefighters nationwide.”

“Why would we hire non-fire people into a fire agency?” asked another supervisor, whose identity also is being withheld. “But it still happens today. People in charge of fire and aviation should have an understanding of fire and aviation. But the people in charge don’t.”

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