Wildland Case Studies Show Why Trust Matters

Wildland Case Studies Show Why Trust Matters

01 September 2015

published by www.firehouse.com 

USA: — Wildland fire is a coalition effort. Your safety, success and resilience depend on your cooperators, and your working relationships with them. Trust is essential.

Trust is a key factor in many accidents, successes and close calls, but its full impact is often missed.

Traditional approaches to safety focus on compliance and prevention, which have helped the fire service make great strides. However, fire is inherently dangerous and dynamic. Not all hazards can be eliminated. Not all events can be predicted. There is always the potential for sudden chaos and complexity. How do you prepare? It comes down to resilience, the ability to adapt to change and trouble. This article uses two case studies to show why trust is essential and how to build it.

Case Study 1: The Coal Canyon Fire (South Dakota, 2011)

On Aug. 11, 2011, federal, state and volunteer firefighters responded to a fire on the Black Hills National Forest, near Hot Springs, SD. Less than two hours into initial attack, fire behavior changed suddenly and entrapped two firefighters in an engine. The following is adapted from the Serious Accident Investigation (SAI) Report:

As they drive, they are soon surrounded by active fire, heavy smoke and intense heat. Inside the cab, the crew lead pulls out his fire shelter and gets ready to deploy it. They drive past a draw and find a wall of flame across the road. They try to turn around and drive back down the road. The vehicle stops against the embankment, just above the draw. Soon it stalls. The driver struggles to get his shelter out of his pack, so the crew lead drapes his shelter over both of them.

They expect they’ll have to stay here and ride it out until the heat passes. Flames quickly engulf the engine, and it begins to burn. They make two mayday calls, contact another firefighter on the road, and request bucket drops. It gets hotter and harder to breathe.

On the road, a firefighter (Reese) sees the fire subside slightly and radios the entrapped firefighters. He tells them if they can make it out of the engine, now’s the time to go; they just need to get 50 feet back down the road. The entrapped firefighters trust him and decide to make a run for it. (The full report of the incident is at bit.ly/CoalCanyonSAIReport.)

In the chaos, the crew lead was unable to get clear in time and was caught by hot gases. The driver managed to get clear of the vehicle and survive. Because of the tragedy, it can be tough to ask what made survival possible for one of the firefighters. But if we do pose the question, we gain a vital insight that can save future lives.

Put yourself in the cab. You’re stuck—out of options and the situation is getting worse. Under the fire shelter, you can’t see anything. Look out the window, and there’s only smoke and flame. It’s bad in the cab, but it’s worse outside. If someone radios you to leave the cab and run through fire, would you? What if the person calling is from a different agency? What would it take for you to go?


These firefighters got a shot at escape, because they knew and trusted their cooperators. This single factor changed the outcome of the entrapment. They knew and trusted the person they heard over the radio, because they already had a working relationship with him.

From the SAI Report: “When the driver was asked why he trusted Reese enough to leave his fire shelter, get out of the vehicle and run through fire, the driver said, ‘I have a close relationship with Reese. Because of who he is and because it came from him … that was what we had to do.’”

How did they get to know and trust one another? Training together. Agencies in the area hold joint large-scale scenarios, live-fire exercises, simulations and classroom training. Training together builds trust and familiarity across agency lines.

Why did they train together? Strong leadership. Twenty years earlier, agency relationships were described as “very contentious” with “mutual resentment and animosity.” Local leaders decided to fix this: “We all just finally understood that the old ways and the animosity were getting us nowhere, and that it’s not about ourselves. We were not serving the people on the ground. We weren’t getting the firefighters what they needed. That’s wrong. We … needed to set the example” (SAI Report). The Report goes on to note one official as saying, “It took 10 years of deliberate effort to transform relationships among cooperators.”

Case Study 2: SOLAR MTZ Response Plan (Southern California, 2008–present)

The second case study is from a Mutual Threat Zone (MTZ) in Southern California, where agencies from San Bernardino, Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside counties came together to transform interagency relationships through the development of the SOLAR MTZ Response Plan. This case study focuses on three fires from before, during and after the plan’s development. These fires were all in the same MTZ, just a few miles from one another.

In May 2008, the Carbon Canyon Fire started in the MTZ. Multiple agencies sent a full brush response. The fire was contained under 250 acres, in a single operational period with no structures lost—a successful outcome. However, there were significant problems with communications and coordination. Commanders joked they nearly had to throw rocks at other agencies’ engines as a last resort to get them to stop because they couldn’t reach them by radio. Aircraft from one agency dropped on another agency’s firing operation. Internal training documents used stinging phrases like, “A cast of a thousand … and nobody is talking!” and “Lots of good independent action, and the fire was put out.” Leaders saw the potential for bigger problems in the future, and decided to fix it.

In October 2008, local departments held a multi-jurisdictional meeting to conduct a sand table exercise and discuss these issues. They agreed on the need for a common communications plan. They also saw significant hurdles from agency differences in technology, culture and policy.

Then in November 2008, the Freeway Complex Fire burned in the same area. It was managed through unified command with six incident commanders (ICs). The multi-jurisdictional meeting in October was already paying off. Arnie White, CAL FIRE Deputy Chief of Operations for Southern California (ret.), said that one meeting was enough to initiate trust: “People recognized one another and had spoken already. The October meeting helped this fire go better in terms of unified command with six different ICs. If it weren’t for the October meeting, the Freeway Fire would have been even rougher.”

Something else happened on the Freeway Complex Fire: An engine was entrapped, with firefighters yelling for help over the radio. Engines from a neighboring agency were close by but had no idea because they were not using common communications. There were no severe injuries, but there was certainly the potential for them. This was one of several near misses.

The Freeway Fire was a turning point. Fire Chief John Hawkins of the CAL FIRE Riverside Unit and Riverside County Fire Department recalls, “This fire took us from an individual viewpoint to a multi-agency viewpoint, a systems approach. The responding agencies all did their own thing initially. We each treated it like our fire, as in, it belongs to our fire department. We all did that. Instead, it needs to be OUR fire—as in, it belongs to all of us. During the closeout of the Freeway Fire, everybody recognized we could do better. We can and we should. It’s time to break out of our boxes and move ahead together.”

In spring 2009, agencies from San Bernardino, Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside counties developed the SOLAR Mutual Threat Zone Response Plan. One purpose was to improve the interagency communication system (including radio frequencies, dispatch protocols, and preplanning by common mapping) and to form working groups to assess and update the plan annually. Those were the formal aspects of the plan.

The other main purpose was to improve working relationships at all levels. To this end, they established interagency training programs. The Los Angeles County Fire Department already held annual in-house workshops for chiefs, as well as brush scrimmages. SOLAR adopted and expanded these into multi-day, multi-agency programs. They are now the SOLAR Commanders’ Workshop and Tonner Canyon Brush Exercise.

Additionally, leaders made it a priority to meet informally at local restaurants to invest in working relationships at their level. Fire Chief Tim Shackelford of the Chino Valley Fire District summarizes the leaders’ intent: “We need our neighbors. We have never had a fire in a vacuum. You have to work with who shows up. And ‘How are you?’ is a lot better than ‘Who are you?’ You have to get those interpersonal relationships sorted out before smoke’s in the air, if you don’t, you’re going to fail.” Chief White adds, “The issues of the day tend to push relationships down the priority list. You have to make them important. Because they will be when there’s smoke in the air. You have to invest time on the front end to reap the benefits.”

David Thomas, Assistant Chief of Operations with the Orange County Fire Authority, describes how the leaders’ intent has become a reality: “We’re seeing better success this way. When we respond with cooperators, we all feel like it’s ‘our fire,’ regardless of whose dirt it is. Human nature is to be territorial, until you get to know each other. And a stressful incident isn’t the time to start getting to know each other. SOLAR forced us to get together, drop boundaries and do the work to establish relationships. So now, when we have incidents and we need to make decisions together, we already have those relationships. It’s just a better way to manage incidents in multi-jurisdictional areas, and it gets better over the years.”

These successes have led other groups of agencies to develop similar plans. For example, the PROS Plan includes agencies from Camp Pendelton, Riverside County, Orange County and San Diego County.

In July 2012, firefighters responded to the Euclid Fire, a small brush fire in the SOLAR MTZ. Deputy Chief Jeremy Ault with the Chino Valley Fire District served as first on-scene IC. His account shows how the SOLAR Plan affected operations:

“I had just been promoted to battalion chief. We had a grassfire. And it was in a complex area. There were three dispatch centers and four agencies responding at once. I was a bit uneasy. But having these relationships established ahead of time, that added to my confidence. The faces showing up at the command post were already familiar. We had trained together, so we were familiar with each other’s procedures.

I assumed command as first on-scene IC even though it was in another agency’s jurisdiction. When they arrived, they allowed me to continue running the fire. If we didn’t have that relationship in place already, I think they probably would have taken the fire.

The call went incredibly smoothly. In years past, those incidents didn’t go so smoothly. Egos beat you to the command post, and there wasn’t much trust. The remarkable thing about this incident is, it wasn’t really remarkable. Everything went well.

My lessons: Train together ahead of time, it helps bridge that gap when you’re in harm’s way. Training with your neighbors in the off-season makes a difference—makes THE difference.”


The same pattern appears in these case studies: Leaders decided to improve interagency relationships. They trained together, which built trust. Safety, success and resilience in the field improved.

Trust is essential. In critical moments, trust (or the lack of it) can change the outcome. You already know this from your personal experience, too. Yet trust is often undervalued in the fire service; it is rarely recognized as an essential safety factor.

Application at company level

The Fire Orders say to maintain communications with adjoining forces. That’s hard to do when you’re strangers. Think of the men and women in the fire station down the road. Your safety and success will depend on them on a future wildland call. Is that good news or bad news? Either way, it’s inevitable. You can’t change their agency, but you can change your relationships. The question: How can you strengthen working relationships? What opportunities are already available, in your scope?

For a small investment with big payoff, make opportunities to train together. The Leadership Development toolbox (fireleadership.gov/toolbox/toolbox.html) offers tactical decision games, sand table scenarios, AARs and other team-building tools. These exercises are even more effective when you bring in your neighbors—that’s coalition building. Training together is one of the best ways to build resilience for a dynamic and dangerous environment.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien