A prudent tactical action in extreme wildland fire conditions
Firefighters are flexible and adaptive individuals with a strong mission focus and drive to complete the calling of protecting life, property, and the environment. This core desire is what binds us in our past and present culture. This desire, this drive, can collectively be our best asset, but at times it can be to our detriment. There are times that the wildland fire environment conditions combine to such a degree of intensity that no matter how determined we are as a culture to protect, the chance of success is impossible. At every rank, at every level of supervision, we must recognize that this fact of overwhelming intensity produced by the current wildland fire environment is a condition that at times cannot be beaten-no matter what we commit to that mission. Our collective responsibility to ourselves and to our communities is to maintain our situational awareness when operating in extreme conditions, know when conditions align that force us to change our tactics, and ultimately get out of the way.
The Three Rs
Firefighters must be vigilant in the task of constant crew and personal safety assessment. Three simple steps must continuously be a part of our risk management and integrated into the larger requisite task of maintaining situational awareness:
Recognize: This concept of recognition and avoidance is simply stated in the tactical action of “fire front following.” Although this tactical action is directly associated with the process of structure defense, I would suggest that even perimeter control resources should use this well-defined and understood common terminology. The process is quite simple: using one’s understanding of wildland fire behavior inputs to process, recognize, and predict that the combined fire behavior will be too significant to work in front of. What makes this process so challenging is the high-stress, time-compressed environment when working in the wildland and especially when fire conditions deteriorate and fires explode.
The act of recognition is imperative. Every firefighter needs to be active in safe and effective tactical decisions. Our job is to suppress the fire and protect the values at risk, but more frequently than ever before fire conditions force us to step aside. Firefighters need to understand that when the alignment of fire behavior ingredients occurs, producing rapidly moving intense fire fronts, our best choice may be to move to a position of safety until energy passes or decreases.
The simple analogy of train tracks can be used to make the point. Let’s say for this analogy that you have a job assigned to work on the railroad ties of the track. You mission is simple: replace a worn-out tie to prevent possible future damage to the tracks. You are aware that your mission puts you in harm’s way because you know this is an active track and large trains come down the track every afternoon. Because of this known fact, you would be smart to pay attention to the time of day and use your senses to be aware of possible additional trains coming that are not regularly scheduled. At this point you have just completed the recognition step of constant risk management. You recognize the hazards you face; you know that the power and weight of a train on the tracks traveling at 50 miles per hour (mph) are far greater than you and your engine company. You also have recognized that if you don’t step to the left or right off of the tracks before the train arrives at your location, you will most certainly lose in that encounter.
Reevaluate: You see that one large step in either direction will take you only a second and that will place you out of harm’s way and in your temporary refuge area (TRA). As you begin to work, you become very mission focused and your head is down as you pay close attention to your project. However, you maintain discipline in checking the time frequently and quickly stopping to listen and look down the tracks in each direction. Then it happens: You feel the vibrations in the ground and begin to hear an approaching train. You can’t see it yet, but there is no doubt one is coming down the track. You are now completing the reevaluate step of constant risk management. You know a train is coming, and you also know that regardless of the size or speed of the approaching train, certain death awaits if you do not engage your predetermined plan of stepping to the left to your TRA. There is no stress in this decision because you have already determined that it is not safe for you to stay on the tracks when the train is passing and you must step off of them before the train arrives.
React: As the train nears, you engage the plan and step left to your TRA. You have completed the react step. The train blows by at 50 mph. It is loud; it is windy; and, despite your experience and familiarity around trains, it is even a little thrilling. Once the train has passed, you step back onto the tracks and resume your assignment with minimal delay, and your constant risk management process begins again.
Beware of the Fire Front “Train Tracks”
This train track analogy explains quite effectively the process of fire front following. The challenge before all wildland firefighters is to be able to remain disciplined, diligent, and active in recognizing the conditions around them. Once conditions change, firefighters must reevaluate their safety by determining whether they are on the “tracks” of the approaching fire front. If it is determined that you are, or if you are told by another that you are, you react by moving to the TRA you have identified when you first arrived at that location to perform your assignment. The process is simple, and simple is good in high-stress environments. By having a risk-management process in place, and a predetermined response to changing conditions, our internal and collective stress levels are arguably reduced.
Recognize, reevaluate, and react must continuously be a part of our risk management and integrated into the larger requisite task of maintaining situational awareness.
Fire front following as a tactical action combined with TRA use maximizes the safety of firefighters with the assignment of fire perimeter suppression and structure defense. It is efficient because it reduces the amount of time required of suppression resources to reengage with their previous assignment. It will still be challenging conditions behind the fire front. There will still be plenty of hazards that personnel need to avoid or mitigate. But as a firefighter who uses this process, you will be alive. There shouldn’t be any feeling of helplessness or failure by personnel who choose this tactical action, because their actions after the fire front passage are vital to the defense of the values at risk.