When wildland firefighters die in the line of duty I often feel a sense of real frustration. OK, I admit it, I also get angry. Not everybody appreciates that and people have challenged both my views on firefighter safety and my occasional angry reaction publicly, privately, and anonymously. I am OK with that; we don’t get very far as agencies, as a community, or as an industry without putting stuff out in the open, talking about it, and working it out. In fact, I think we need to do that a lot more.
But back to my anger: why get angry when tragedy strikes? First of all, anger is a natural reaction; the second of the five well-known stages of loss and grief, and we are all subject to it. No one should be surprised when they or a colleague experiences anger (or any of the other five stages — denial and isolation, bargaining, depression, or acceptance) when firefighters die. To expect people to experience one stage of loss and grief without the others is simply unrealistic and unreasonable.
On the other hand, I am ticked off about firefighter safety, I intend to stay ticked-off, and I think we all need to get a little ticked-off about firefighter safety. Not angry at the firefighters who die or get hurt; not angry at their supervisors who screwed-up and let their people down; but angry at agencies, an industry, and a community that is adapting far too slowly to all that we have learned about human factors and the human dimensions of fire. The human factors movement, as I call it, is entering its 20th year, people. What are we waiting for?
So what would I have people get angry about? Well, first, we have a fundamental problem that we will not address. We do not understand the dimensions or significance of wildland firefighter safety. Back in the late 1990s, when I was a member of the TriData consulting team, nobody knew how wildland firefighter safety compared to the safety of other firefighters, or how wildland firefighting compared to other high-risk occupations. And we still do not. How do our rates of injury and fatality compare to other industries? Perhaps, statistically, we are as safe as we can be. I doubt it — but does anybody really know? If someone does know, that information needs to get out where people can see it, hear it, kick it around and, most importantly, use it to inform major policy decisions.
Second, we do not make good use of what we already know or could easily know. I often wonder if we are putting time, money, and effort in the right places to affect meaningful change and improvement in firefighter safety. Are current efforts making a difference? If someone has done that analysis, again, that information needs to see the light of day. I have to say, a casual look at trends in the Safety Gram data does not suggest that our current approaches to firefighter safety are highly effective. On the other hand, it is possible that we are doing all we can do and there will be 70-80 serious incidents per year, six people will deploy their fire shelters on an average year, and 16 wildland firefighters will die annually — no matter what.
However, I do not know anybody who wants to be that person who contributes statistically. It is easy to talk about firefighting being a risky business and how “stuff happens” and how some people are going to die when you are not talking about your brother, sister, father, mother, spouse, friend, or self; and that’s an attitude that has become disturbingly common,
Nineteen years out from South Canyon and fifteen years on from the TriData Study, I believed, perhaps naively, that we would not again see a large group of firefighters burned over, except perhaps under the most unusual of circumstances. Then came the Yarnell Hill incident. I knew no one on the Granite Mountain IHC. Yet that one hit me hard because it served as a reminder that, while we have made many dents in the firefighter safety culture of the 1990s, those dents have been too few, too small, and may be in the wrong places.
The U.S. wildland fire community seems completely unwilling to even discuss whether, when tragedy strikes, the wildland fire agencies can effectively investigate themselves or their interagency peers. Nor do we seem able to entertain the thought that perhaps it is time to explore a radically different approach to serious accident investigation. This is key: we cannot improve on what we do not know or understand, and we cannot know or understand what we do not seek.
From my perspective, it seems that good, smart, well-meaning people keep tinkering at the edges of serious accident investigation policy and process in the interest of continual improvement. However, one must ask whether the results are generating learning and change on the fireground — practical, behavioral, meaningful change in the behavior of firefighters and the improvement in their safety.
Finally, and this is something that really and truly ticks me off, when tragedy strikes, people and their agencies are lawyering up and clamming up. If true, as reported, that personnel with direct knowledge of the Yarnell Hill incident refused to speak with investigators on instructions of their agency, somewhere there should be a whole lot of soul-searching going on. We know better than that. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that people and agencies withhold information because they are afraid — afraid of the consequences of sharing what they know. Wow, that does not say much about either the safety culture or the learning culture of our community, or perhaps it says too much about the current state of both!
The problems I describe above are big problems, ones that are not going to be solved by an annual refresher or other training session, a SAFENET, a speech or two, meetings, a policy memo, or a poster. I recall that, at one juncture near the end of the TriData Study, the assembled Chiefs of Fire and Aviation were advised to start by “picking the low-hanging fruit.” While good advice at the time, that approach persisted for too long and it seems we still have not reached for the high branches. These are problems that require resources. These are problems that require data and analysis creating a foundation for informed policy decisions. These are problems that require the ability to produce direction, alignment, and commitment. These are problems that require bold, decisive, and coordinated action at multiple levels of multiple agencies. These are problems that require leadership.
BIO: Mike DeGrosky is Chief Executive Officer of the Guidance Group, a consulting organization specializing in the human and organizational aspects of the fire service, and an adjunct instructor in leadership studies for Fort Hays State University. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.