What does a well-founded risk decision look like wildland fire lessons learned center electricity invented or discovered

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This paper is the result of an ongoing dialog around risk I’ve had within the post-Yarnell Honor the Fallen group. One member posed the rhetorical but critical question: “Should we be risking lives for suppression efforts or not? “ That prompted my response in The Big Lie essay on the levels of risk I think wildland firefighters operate in routinely, and how we could be more intelligently accepting that risk.

I have been doing a presentation the last few years called “Luck Runs Out.” Where “The Big Lie” was more a problem statement, “Luck Runs Out” is meant to focus on actionable, practical steps forward for IMTs and Agency Administrators. What follows started not as an essay but just a handout to go with that presentation, so it was meant to have the context of that larger presentation, although people have told me it reads okay on its own as a stand-alone piece. See what you think!

The difficult truth is that wildland firefighting is a high risk-endeavor. Consider the policy that all firefighters on the line carry fire shelters. It is an overt acknowledgment that each time firefighters directly participate in a wildland fire suppression or management activity, their lives are at risk. Moreover, the wildland fire environment is exponentially increasing in complexity, magnifying the risks. gas national average 2008 What is not keeping pace, however, is our sophistication to plan, operate and support within that complex risk-filled environment. Our tools fall farther behind each fire season.

In an attempt to address this challenge, leaders often make declarations like “ No structure is worth a life!” While true, the statement lacks any meaningful guidance. In contrast, it is the job of any risk professional to determine exactly what risk level the structure is worth. And while that assertion may appear straightforward, applying the concept continues to confound senior wildland fire managers.

Second, we must conduct a meaningful assessment of the risks firefighters might encounter. The current risk analysis (ICS Form 215a) on the NWCG website reflects a 1970’s approach to risk. One lists the risks and then mitigations for those risks. It does not quantify the risk in any way, nor is there any discussion of the risk level after mitigation and whether that residual risk is acceptable.

On the severity axis — You can do a few things on the mitigation side that might influence severity. A jumper’s Kevlar suit, for example, will help when smacking into a tree, but there is good chance the jumper will still break some bones. Similarly, a fire shelter might move the consequences from being a fatality to just being a burn victim, but nonetheless, a significant risk remains.

So most of the decisions concerning risk have to focus on the probability axis. For good risk decisions, a model like this should be part of the AA Briefing and on the wall next to the 215A for discussion. “ Should we knowingly risk lives?” –- would more appropriately be re-phrased to “Should we put people where the likelihood of something bad happening is elevated?” You can see on the matrix how quickly risk escalates when you move from Remote to Unlikely to Possible.

One of the inherent challenges in risk management is, as humans, we can’t feel when the odds go from 1 in 1,000,000 to 1 in 1,000. But the universe tracks all that perfectly in real time. This is the discussion that should be happening in front of the 215A. Not just listing the threats and mitigations of rocks, snakes and lightning, but having the dialog and knowing that the real risk is somewhere halfway between the most probable fire and the worst-case fire. gas mask drawing Judging how likely it is for an operation to encounter that next elevated risk level and considering the conditions that might precipitate it become essential.

When things move from Unlikely to Possible that’s a big jump, and leaders must reconsider that risk/gain calculus. Unless there’s a cabin in the woods full of babies, puppies and kittens, then the answer is clearly: No, we should not be putting firefighters in a place where the likelihood is moving into the upper end of Possible and the resulting risk Extreme.

Within the wildland fire environment, risk levels are routinely going to be medium or high risk. There probably isn’t anything humans can do to avoid that. We should have very high expectations of our AA and IMT decision makers in terms of critical thinking and their sophistication in making acceptable risk decisions, which means we need tools worthy of the actual risks that firefighters are taking in the current suppression paradigm. Under that current model, we are risking lives and consequently, we have a duty to make sure it’s being done intelligently.

In military special operations, a risk must be determined as necessary during the planning process in order to accomplish an objective. “ If we do this, here’s the necessary risk we’re going to have to take.” At that point, the question gets asked “ Does the outcome justify that risk?” if so, that becomes the acceptable risk. If not, then you try and mitigate risk down to the acceptable level. If you can’t get it there, it’s not acceptable and military operators look for another way to accomplish that objective with lower risk. In some cases, the objective must be abandoned all together because the risk is too high relative to the outcome.

The difference in special operations is that the small unit (i.e. crew) is heavily involved in the mission planning and the risk decisions. That’s not true in wildland fire –- an echo of why we still have Great Depression/chain-gang era terms like Crew Bosses in wildland fire job descriptions. In wildland fire, risk planning, mitigation and decision-making often occur absent those who will directly encounter the risk. electricity formulas physics This places a significant responsibility on the AA and IMT staff to discuss strategic and operational risks at the Common Operating Picture (COP) meeting each day, in reviewing the planned end state, and creating (or validating) objectives based on VaR. These strategic and operational risks must be further validated and refined at the strategy and tactics meetings, where the staff flesh out the necessary risks.

“ No tree is worth a life” only tells you what a tree is not worth. But what is it worth? What is the acceptable risk around protecting a tree? A structure? A subdivision? Clearly, the leadership’s responsibility is to make and communicate that decision, but absent a meaningful way to make the acceptable decision, operators are often left to interpret this ambiguous intent on their own.

The shortcoming isn’t a result of the absence of concern, desire or intent, but rather the lack of the necessary tools for wildland firefighters to make any kind of objective decisions about acceptable risk. And that’s because there is nothing that maps the priority of values at risk to the acceptable risks to protect them. We want that to be very clear. Very simple.

Below is an example of what that mapping might look like. As with many examples, things are missing and you may not agree with how the VaR have been prioritized, but that’s intentional. A finished, interagency version should be clear enough so that there is no misunderstanding or disagreement. It is part of the pre-determined playbook. Pending a “Red Book” version, this is an AA and an IMT responsibility to develop and communicate to all:

This would provide a more quantifiable approach. Inevitably, there will always be situations that despite well-planned mitigations, we’ll still have a residual risk score of high risk. static electricity in the body effects Let’s say a 25 using the above laminated card. This is when we must circle back to the beginning — the values at risk, the “ purpose” in leader’s intent. By looking at the acceptable risk table example, you’d see that High risk is just not an acceptable risk to save three chicken coops and a hillside of PJ.

Now what? If we cannot lower the risk through alternate tactics, then we’ll need to back up to the previous C&GS meeting-Strategy. We’ll have to find an alternate strategy to lower that risk and still accomplish the objective. If we can’t create an alternate strategy to lower the residual risk to acceptable, then we need to back up even more and re-look the objective the strategy was meant to accomplish. This process would force decision makers to become way more strategic on suppression actions –- continue the evolution in engagement thinking that moves towards the best ridge versus the next ridge.

The question remains, what if we have to accept high risk? Let’s use our earlier example – “ OK, we’ve planned all these mitigations and we still have a residual risk score of 25, high risk” – but this time, let’s use a different value at risk and the same acceptable risk guidelines. “ The VaR is one of the primary transmission lines of electricity to Phoenix and it’s 114 degrees. High risk is acceptable because if that power shuts off some at-risk people are going to die.” That’s probably a very appropriate risk level.

Finally, in order to have a well-founded risk decision, it is essential to share the risk. Shared risk has been a recent buzzword in wildland fire, but it’s important to truly understand what it means. Shared risk means national leaders create the acceptable risk guidelines based on values at risk, such as the example table. This means they’ve shared the accountability and the risk of putting firefighters to protect the powerline in the example above. It means AA’s and IC’s make the prioritization of the values at risk part of the delegation and dialogue. This increases the quality of fire management interactions with line officers in pre-planning and once fires start.

The net result of this is that everyone involved—national leaders, agency administrators, incident commanders—share in the accountability. It means IMT’s conduct risk assessments with proper tools for the gravity of the job, use more objective criteria, and create leader’s intent with task, purpose and end state. By tying purpose back to a specific VaR, and making the decision on whether the risk is acceptable, now they share in the accountability.

But shared risk means it is also shared down to the operator level. This is way more than having a simple turndown protocol. In the current system, the turndown consideration is completely subjective. “ I just don’t feel comfortable.” When operators receive a Division Assignment Sheet (ICS 204), they have no way of knowing what risk level they’ve been asked to accept, so they have no start point to go through the risk management process at their tactical level. A quality 204 would include this: Special Instructions: Risk Level – HIGH – due to increased density of snags in Division A.

If we routinely included the task, purpose, end state on a 204, then each DIVS and crew leader would also understand the VaR they’re being asked to protect. If we included Low, Medium, High, etc. on the 204 then they would know the risk level the IMT decided was acceptable for that VaR. If the acceptable risk guideline table was in the IAP, then they would have all the required ingredients for their own “ Does the outcome justify the risk?” assessment at their level and — most importantly — to judge acceptable risks as conditions change throughout the shift. Even in a string of mop up shifts, low risk yesterday could be high risk today because of a wind event overnight. gas density conversion Now crew leaders and sub leaders too, are accountable for risk decisions. That’s what shared risk truly looks like.

Fantastic write up Mark, progressive and to the point. The concepts are easy to recognize, and should not be hard for ANYONE inheriting or operating in the decision making process to come to grips with. My fear is that folks in the upper echelons tend to get “worried” when our partners divulge cut rate information as if the Forest Service was advocating for this or that from people. Simply put, this is education that has been needed for a long time coming, and will continue to be needed from outside the organization/ outside the box thinkers such as Mark and MCS. I applaud all of those that continue to allow information and education such as this to be disseminated, discussed, and acted upon. If … or hopefully “when” ” management” wants to get out of the “managing” game and apply leadership will it be revealed that articles and concepts like this are a veritable gold mine of cultural and operational change. Sometimes its messy when we look in the mirror and realize we have been doing things wrong. The first step to success is then to admit it and open up the vulnerability. Thanks MCS, Mark and the Lessons Learned Center.