An Unobstructed Path

By Erich Roden

As I write this, Southern California is on fire; when this is read, it will be in the recovery and rebuilding phase—particularly in the fire departments and firefighters who took part in the unimaginable job of bringing these record fires under control. The fires also claimed the life of beloved Cal Fire Engineer Cory Iverson, who was based in San Diego and working one of the blazes northwest of Los Angeles. The loss of Iverson demonstrates the unbelievable and inherent risk facing wildland-urban interface (WUI) firefighters.

As we look to manage the inherent risk in any firefighting environment, we must first acquiesce to the argument that we can’t manage away all the risk; however, we must continue to think we can. I know that this sounds ridiculous, but hear me out: Knowing this allows us to start off with noble intent while dealing with the problem logically, with practical solutions that aren’t muddled with blame. This is where after actions, line-of-duty-death reports, and tactical control measures fall short. If you start with the right passion and take blame out of the equation right off the bat, then you can work through the solutions, contingencies, and control measures much clearer. In other words, you create an unobstructed pathway of systemic risk management of environments, tactics, and people.

Progress in dealing with environments, tactics, and people comes from not making the same mistake twice. The obvious way to remove risk, or incorporate risk avoidance, is by avoiding the environment itself—by removing it. Say what? Consider this: WUI firefighters spend a lot of time doing this by conducting controlled burns adjacent to a fire’s predicted path of destruction. The problem with this control measure is that it’s staffing intensive. What if there was another, unconventional way to help in this endeavor? Well, one Colorado town figured one out: goats. Yes, goats. This community and its fire department incorporate goats to reduce the fuel loads on the landscape infrastructure. Al Petrillo tells us this unusual but ingenious story. What other unconventional ideas can you come up with?

Conversely, we can’t use livestock to reduce the urban fire environment, but we can employ fire codes and, like goats, eat up the risk by getting more firefighters involved in the code development process. How? Read Jack Murphy’s new column on Taming the Fire Environment and get involved. Moreover, community risk reduction (CRR) is not just a sexier name for public education. It has turned public education and myriad other technologies, programs, and municipal intelligence into a stronger core of the fire service. Dave Donohue explains why CRR really matters and the impact that it has on communities to reduce risk.

Another systemic component, in addition to environment, is sound tactical operations. While this may seem like a shopworn and general topic of discussion during post-incident analyses, it’s the bread-and-butter service application that is there for all to see. Anthony Avillo and Ed Flood bring us some Full Contact Leadership this month on how every tactical action can alter the course of events dramatically. We can’t ignore tactics, but this is still not the place to blame, either. The rest of any systemic risk management in the fire service falls under the management, training, and expectations we employ on our own people. Steve Marsar gets candid about the fact that it can be very difficult for company officers to make decisions in many situations. Marsar tells us why pain felt over making a decision is often greater than the pain of actually making it. The incident safety officer at an incident has many decisions to make at an incident, including the big one: stopping the operation. To be up to this challenging assignment, you must follow Richard Marinucci’s advice this month: Be competent, eliminate complacency, and never get cocky.

Making sound decisions comes from experience and, almost always, through mentorship. But what happens when your mentors start leaving as you begin to get some real seniority? David Rhodes helps you find the place to seek counsel when all the mentors have gone. You’re never alone, especially with Rhodes around. Finally, whether you think so or not, one of the hardest environments to manage is your home life. This will always be a distraction at work if it becomes tougher than the environment you’ll fight fire in. Karen Jackson knows this and gives us three principles for a happy marriage.

As you’ll find in each forthcoming issue of FireRescue, the fire service is more systemic than you think. Everything is interrelated and must be managed without placing blame, considering everything and looking for unconventional ways to manage it all. If you think systemically, you’ll begin to manage your environments, tactics, and people accordingly and find the causes that you can prevent from repeating.

This issue is dedicated to Engineer Cory Iverson and the men and women who gave their all during the California wildfires in 2017.

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