This paper is about failure. Specifically, it is about the importance of an Incident Controller’s ability to recognize when strategic actions are not progressing toward incident objectives. It is also about the importance of an Incident Controller’s ability to initiate change when change is needed to achieve the safest, most cost-effective result.

We often tend to blame failures on extreme weather, hazardous fuel conditions, or the firefighter’s inability to observe safe practices rules. Rarely do we focus on the incident objectives or strategies that often predestine a tactical failure.

When results are not as intendedwhen we experience failure we must initiate, in ascending order, a change in either tactics, strategy, or incident objectives. Chronic failures (those that recur repeatedly over time regardless of the strategies or tactics employed), must eventually prompt a change in Fire Management Plan objectives.

Failed objectives. Failure, in the context of this talk, is defined when results fail to achieve intended incident objectives. Simply stated, a breakdown in the model described above occurs.

We can all recall incidents when our actions missed the mark. Failures occur for various reasons, but this lesson will focus on the most commonly observed management-related reasons.


"Base all actions on current and expected fire behavior."

Our inability to objectively observe and act on the situation at hand often leads us down the path of failure.

Maintaining situational awareness is an important component of decision-making under stress.

There may be a tendency for the responsible Incident Controller to think that:

         all will be well.
            This is understandable.

Incident Controllers represent the best of our collective national fire suppression talent. These persons are not chosen for their temerity when faced with a crisis. They are expected to "dig in" and be prepared to deal with the long siege to achieve success. More than most, they are expected to "keep calm, think clearly, and act decisively."

The job requires consummate skill, the ability to resolve conflict, versatility, the ability to motivate others and a certain amount of audacity. In dealing with "typical" complex fire incidents, you wouldn’t want it any other way.

If the Incident Controller cannot solve the problem, it is often viewed as a failure to obtain enough suppression resources, or the right type of resources or some other operational constraint. There is no built in assumption that management of the incident might be failing due to extraordinary conditions and factors and that the basic overall strategies being utilized may no longer be appropriate. There may be a tendency to blame uncontrollable factors such as weather, fire behavior, resource shortages, inadequate performance, etc. In an attempt to justify the non-attainment of the suppression objectives. To call into question the strategies which are being use, strategies which are proven and "comfortable," might be viewed as a "failure of will" and tantamount to admitting defeat.

Curiously, failures often occur because we tend to judge the situation as:

       we remember it,

           we suppose it, or

               we wish it

Successful strategies must be based on an objective, real-time, real-condition assessment of the fire behavior situation, the production capabilities of available resources, and the Incident Controller’s ability to adjust to and manage the level of complexity that confronts them.


As simple as it seems, failure is often the result of poorly defined or incompatible objectives.

Poorly defined objectives: (if you don’t know where you’re going, it’s difficult to know when you arrive).

Objectives must be clearly defined and measurable if we are to distinguish success from failure.

For example, when we list "ensure firefighter safety" as an incident objective, how can we determine success or, short of an entrapment, recognize failure?

If, instead, the goal is supplanted with objectives that specify the use of lookouts, firefighter’s proximity to safety zones, and adherence to other specific safe practices orders, meaning is given because the measure of success becomes more tangible.

(It takes on extra meaning when, once violations are observed, these responsible are relieved from the line.)

Another example, "Minimize damage to endangered species habitat." What does that mean? How do we measure it? The goal becomes an objective when it is changed to read, "Exclude fire from the riparian zone in Smith Creek."

In this example, clarity of the objective will enable us to more precisely separate success from failure.

Incompatible objectives: Incident objectives must reflect the intent of the situation and be attainable. Frequently, Incident Controllers will direct that suppression actions employ least cost strategies and provide for firefighter safety. Sometimes those objectives become mutually exclusive of one another.

In the case of multiple objectives, failures can often result when incident objectives compete with one another. For example, our Incident Action Plan may list a provision for firefighter safety and a requirement for protection of endangered species habitat. If the riparian zone in Smith Creek is in decadent chaparral running up a steep south-facing canyon, we may be setting ourselves up for a serious failure if we commit firefighters in pursuit of habitat protection. Of course, within reason, there may be room to mitigate the exposure and achieve both objectives.


Scale of consequence. Typically, we tend to select that strategy having the highest probability of success; we risk overlooking the consequence of failure.

We need to utilize analytical processes which provide for assessing the consequence of failure. It is an important concept because, despite however high a value we attach to probability of success, there may be times when the probability of failure – however small – may be of enormous consequence, especially when lives are at risk.

Probabilities should not be viewed with the certainty that they sometimes imply. Remember, our probabilities are largely developed subjectively and may often be overly optimistic because they are developed in a team setting.

Let’s look at an example. In our efforts to protect the riparian zone in Smith Creek, we may attach a relatively high probability of success to a direct attack strategy because we’ve mitigated risks. For instance, suppose we opt for a night operation because risks will be reduced as a result of lower temperatures, higher humidities, and a calm wind. But what if our mitigating measures collapse? A night operation may provide a false sense of security and inflate our feelings of success. What if, in committing to a night operation, the effects of a nighttime inversion over a thermal belt predispose an unexpected blow-up? The consequences of failure – however low the probability of failure – would almost certainly involve the losses of life. In this case – in decadent chaparral fuels in a canyon – our decision to commit firefighter to a direct attack may be irretrievable: if failure occurs, we don’t have the opportunity to simply fall back and try again.


"Consider falling back to the "best ridge," rather than the "next ridge."

           John Maupin
           Incident Commander, USA

Today’s fire environment in many countries is significantly different than it was a decade ago. But, ask yourselfare our incident objectives any different? Are our strategies any different?

Failure to recognize differences in today’s fire environment may put the people that you manage on an incident at considerable risk.

"Our strategy would have worked if this had been a normal year."

           Dome Fire Entrapment Interview, 04/96.
          (48 shelters deployed, 1 engine destroyed)


When an incident turns into a prolonged campaign, other external factors and influences begin to affect the Incident Controller. He/She may determine that this new, extraordinary situation requires establishing new priorities. What was initially important may be less important now. Containment and control of the fire may have become secondary to responding to these new challenges. The mere loss of more acres may be less critical, from the Incident Controller’s perspective, than responding to newly surfacing political and social concerns.

In short, the entire emphasis in management of the incident may shift, intentionally or unintentionally, to a strategy of "damage control" in an attempt to cut losses and reduce liabilities.

It is fair to say the current standard operating procedures used in managing large fire incidents does not deal with this type of situation very well. It can provide for some awkward moments for the Incident Controller. He/She wants success, but may be uncertain of how to proceed; of how to make the best of a bad situation. There is a need to provide a means to turn what is mostly negative into something positive.


Incident Controllers must be able to accurately assess progress during critical incidents. This assessment must be a process to re-evaluate how the Incident Management Team is coping with the incident, what the probabilities are of the IMTeam achieving the assigned objectives, and if these objectives cannot be achieved, then what is a reasonable, safe and appropriate alternative.

The primary goal is to provide a means for the Incident Controller to effectively deal with the situation at hand; to provide a policy direction which is visible and defensible form the standpoint of safety, economics and other factors. While it will remain the overall management goal to suppress the fire, this may require some form of interim strategy until conditions are more favorable. When resistance to control is high, there may be resistance on the part of Incident Controllers to quit the field of battle. This is not being proposed. Rather, it should be a policy to exercise sound management principles, good judgement and a lot of common sense in light of unprecedented conditions to explore some alternative ways to achieve our objectives while minimizing risk.


You will be overseeing some of the most complex incident situations that develop.

You will need to see situations as they are.

You will also need to make certain that results – as achieved with tactical operations developed form selected strategies – are aligned with incident objectives.

You will also need to say:

          " enough is enough"

                 when it needs to be said.

After all, if you do not, who will?

"But they emerge from the teleconference having accepted increased risk once more. Following rules, doing their jobs, they made a mistake. With all procedural systems for risk assessment in place, they made a disastrous decision."

          Diane Vaughan

Rick Gale
Chief; Fire, Aviation and Emergency Services
United States National Park Service