by Bill Fish
Much has been said in recent months about having a “passion for safety,” holding individuals directly accountable for safety, and strengthening our “sensitivity to basic safety standards so they permeate every fiber of our strategy, tactics, and basic fire operations.” These are certainly basic tenets of a fire suppression ethic where attention to safety is of paramount importance.
Our training materials, handbooks, and manuals all include strongly worded references to safety. For example, The Fireline Handbook states, “Each individual and especially supervisors have and must redeem their safety responsibility” (NWCG, 1989). There is virtually no place where our attention to safety is left out or not emphasized.
We know how to do the suppression job safely. There was little learned during the last fire season to drastically change our fundamental tactical approach to fighting wildfires. Our approaches to teaching firefighting techniques are solid.
To truly focus on our “passion” for safety, however, there is one aspect of our daily awareness that needs attention. Our emphasis on doing this dangerous job safely needs to be fine-tuned with a discussion about incident attitude or outlook and an awareness that some organizational situations, physical difficulties, and inconveniences have a profound effect on our frame of mind and our ability to focus attention on safe processes. We know what safety is, we know what things to watch out for, but our ability to concentrate on this aspect of our wildfire suppression responsibility often is impaired by barriers that are a part of every incident we get assigned to—from the smallest lightning fire to the largest project fire.
To be sure, firefighting operations have come a long way over the years. We now have some conveniences that not too many years ago were unheard of or impossible to access. Attention to crew well-being is constantly a point of emphasis. We have guidelines for rotating crews between rest and recreation and active duty—guidelines that are an important aspect of fire resource management. Even with these improvements, however, we still need to deal with such intangible factors as crew morale, frame of mind, and the very strong link between the psychological states and our ability to concentrate on doing the job safely.
Have you ever been dispatched to a fire thinking “Why didn’t we get sent to Arizona (or wherever) instead of that crew? They got the last good fire, and we always seem to be getting the bottom of the barrel when it comes to fire assignments. What’s wrong with those people in dispatch? They need to do a better job of assigning the good fires.” Or have you ever been dispatched to a fire only to find out that someone else had been there before your crew and barely scratched a fire line? When the fire kicks up again, crosses the line, and makes a run, you might grumble, “What’s the matter with those folks; can’t they do the job right? Why do we have to come back and do the job they should have done in the first place?” Or have you ever been left out on the line past your scheduled pickup time because of human error? Did you ever have trouble getting equipment from supply? These situations are not that uncommon over the course of a fire season for many reasons. Sometimes one or more of these events can occur over the course of a line shift.
Now how do you suppose these events (or combination of events) impact your ability to do the job safely? The answer to this question might be that it shouldn’t have an impact, but the real answer is that it probably does. It takes special attention and vigilance not to allow these common occurrences to influence or mask attention to safe firefighting tactics. Being physically tired, emotionally out of sorts, or even uptight about the coming assignment are potential indicators of a poor frame of mind that needs attention.
Of course, we as firefighters have the right and responsibility to point out a mismanaged situation. Knowing we have a chance for feedback to our supervisors and that they will respond to our feedback should also improve our attitude in the long run. Similar to how we provide post-incident crew and individual performance appraisals, we need to ensure that there is a feedback loop to critique incident management. Such a process allows crews assigned to any incident the opportunity to review their individual incident experience and know their review will feed back to the incident management structure and responsible line officer.
In closing, I urge that all of us continue to be aware, take stock of our attitudes about the duty ahead, and help coworkers maintain a positive attitude so their personal safety won’t be at risk. Teamwork is an integral part of wildfire suppression activities. Teamwork is needed to do our job safely. Incident attitude needs to be positive so that it does not impair our ability to think clearly and act decisively.
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