I was approached to provide annual safety refresher training for employees of Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest. In both instances, the Fire Management Officers were interested in a new and interesting approach to required, annual training and wanted to use the just- released Lessons Learned course materials.
I have been a part of TriData's project consulting team on the Firefighter Safety Awareness Study for four years. As such, I know that awareness, understanding and appreciation of the study and its recommendations are not widespread at the lowest, field levels of the agencies who commissioned the study. 18 months following the release of the final report it is common to find both primary and collateral duty firefighters who have little or no knowledge of the study or its implications.
Though one should expect gradual implementation and transition in large, decentralized bureaucracies such as these, creating an understanding of the study's recommendations and implications at the "pointy end" of the sponsor agencies represents a critically important priority.
Understanding that this would be the case, I recognized an opportunity to accomplish several desirable aims. We could simultaneously provide effective safety training, raise awareness of the study's findings, while teaching people to employ a risk management process. Further, we would do so by employing a state-of-the-art training package, studying case studies of fatality fires using a lessons learned approach.
The situation presented me with an opportunity, to introduce the Firefighter Safety Awareness Study to more than 100 participants in the training sessions I conducted. I discussed the value of the final report to operational/field level managers and supervisors, and provided information on how the participants might obtain the report either in hard copy or on the Internet. 10
However, my primary objective was to provide effective safety refresher training for the participating employees. Some participants had primary fire control responsibilities, but many were collateral duty firefighters, with a wide range of experience. Nearly all had attended annual refresher training before, some for many years, and most were weary of a standardized training package that had been in use for several years.
The NWCG's Lessons Learned: Fatality Fires Case Studies course provides an excellent opportunity to reinforce key findings of the Wildland Firefighter Safety Awareness Study. To suit the nature and need of my target audiences, I chose to focus on improving situational awareness, using a risk management approach, improving communications, the dangers of command transition and fatigue.
One can better understand the importance of each of these topics by examining the study report's analysis of their contribution to firefighter safety problems.
Situational awareness is a combination attitudes, previously learned knowledge and new information gained from the work environment that enables the firefighter or tactical decision maker to gather the information they need to make good decisions that keep their people and themselves out of harm's way. The situationally aware firefighter anticipates fire behavior and other physical and organizational challenges to their safety, clearly communicates their assessment and calibrates their team's understanding of the situation. Situational Awareness represents one of five fundamental steps in the risk management process which forms the cornerstone of the Lessons Learned courseware.
As previously noted, a five-step risk management process provides the foundation of the Fatality Fire Case Studies course. The process provides firefighters and tactical decision makers with a decision making aid for identifying and mitigating hazards during fireline operations. Additionally, it provides an important framework within which firefighters can better apply existing tactical safety guidelines.
It is the author's opinion that fatigue is a much greater firefighter safety issue than acknowledged by U.S. firefighting agencies. Fatigue mitigation receives a great deal of "lip service," but little effective action. This situation exists because addressing firefighter fatigue in the U.S. means that firefighting agencies must take on some very tough issues. Firefighter fatigue mitigation will require basic changes in operational period length and timing, assignment duration, the quality of rest afforded in fire camps and, most fundamentally, the way in which American firefighters are paid. Fatigue mitigation strategies carry a significant price tag; and fatigue has become the great, un-talked-about firefighter safety issue.
I focused on these particular principles for a number of reasons. First, TriData treats each of them as top priorities in the final report of the Firefighter Safety Awareness Study. In addition, each of these topics are interesting to operational level fire personnel and areas where real change can be effected by them. Finally, each of these topics is well supported by one or more of the nine case studies presented in the Lessons Learned: Fatality Fire Case Studies material.
However, one should note that the existing case studies can reinforce other key findings of the Firefighter Safety Awareness Study, including:
I found it important to discuss, at the beginning of each session, a key finding of the study. The Firefighter Safety Awareness study clearly advocates improvements in the realism and field relevancy of training provided to firefighters. These improvements will require a variety of training approaches, including simulations, case studies, interactive exercises and the dissemination of "lessons learned" through training. In addition to changes in training methodology, a fundamental broadening of content and focus is called for.
The Lessons Learned: Fatality Fire Case Studies course is certified by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, and therefore is an objectives based package. Objectives describe precisely what is to be learned in terms of expected student performance, detailing how the trainee will learn to perform.
The purpose of the Lessons Learned course is stated in two objectives. First the training participant is asked to demonstrate awareness of the value in the study of historical fatality fires. Second, given a fatality fire case study, students are expected to identify causal factors using a risk management process and then determine the lessons to be learned from an analysis of those causal factors.16
The course intends that the first objective will largely be met through use of an introductory video tape. However, I have found that there is as much to be gained from a follow-on discussion that asks the participants to consider why they might study lessons from fires of the past. Typically, discussion ensues regarding four main points which are very timely and relevant to the U.S. wildland fire community.
In addition, the pool of federal employees who are willing and available to fight fire is shrinking due to a number of factors including downsizing, early retirements, disenchantment and de-motivation and an unwillingness to release collateral duty firefighters from their primary responsibilities.
However, there is a growing dissociation between the behavior of firefighters and the stated safety guidelines of their agencies. Nearly forty percent of one thousand firefighters surveyed in the Firefighter Safety Awareness Study reported that standard safety orders are frequently violated.17