Latest Storm King lessons focus on human behavior
It’s been 11 years since the Storm King Fire catastrophe, but experts continue to stir the ashes for fresh lessons. Many of those lessons involve human behavior rather than fire behavior.A conference in April focused on human factors behind wildfire decision-making and accidents, and marked the 10th anniversary of a landmark workshop on that subject that followed Storm King.In June, the U.S. Forest Service created a foundational doctrine for wildland fire suppression, aimed at changing firefighter thinking to reduce the chances for future firefighting tragedies. And on June 27, in a special Fortune magazine issue on decision-making, a business professor analyzed one supervisor’s decisions prior to his dying along with 13 other firefighters on Storm King Mountain. The 14 died July 6, 1994, when the fire blew up on the mountain, just west of Glenwood Springs.The continuing focus on the tragedy encourages Ted Putnam, who helped investigate the fire but refused to sign the investigative report, arguing it failed to adequately address human factors behind the deaths. The year following the fire, Putnam and others began exploring that subject in a workshop. Now retired from the U.S. Forest Service, he’s encouraged to see that interest in the subject continues to this day.”There’s a lot of people working on this stuff currently, which is good,” Putnam said. “A lot of the work I had done after (Storm King), I almost thought nobody was listening. In fact I almost kind of gave up on it.”Dick Mangan, president of the International Association of Wildland Fire, said some “very good people,” including academic researchers, are now focusing on human factors that can lead to deaths among wildland firefighters.”It’s kind of the new and hot topic right now” among some in academia, he said.Among the firefighting community, many are recognizing that making improvements in areas such as weather forecasting and safety gear isn’t as important as improving thinking and decision-making by firefighters and supervisors.”To me that’s pretty exciting, because that’s really where you make the major gains,” Mangan said.Mangan also had investigated the Storm King Fire, and like Putnam refused to sign the investigative report. He contended U.S. Bureau of Land Management fire managers in Grand Junction should have been held accountable for their actions in the days before the deaths.Mangan served as chair of the association’s April safety summit, held in Missoula, Mont. The association gave Putnam its safety award at the summit.Both Mangan and Putnam particularly praised a paper presented at the event by Dr. Jennifer Thackaberry, of Purdue University’s Communications Department.”The findings from the (Storm King) fire accident investigation reflect an organization at odds with whether it manages safety as a virtue or safety as a duty,” Thackaberry wrote.Even at the time of a 1998 study, some firefighters felt that the federal wildland firefighting orders regarding safety were “hard and fast rules never to be broken,” while others insisted that they were simply guidelines for flexible decision-making in the field, Thackaberry stated.A duty ethic “says that it is possible to determine objectively what is right and what is wrong before the fact. Therefore, one should always determine, and do, the ‘right’ thing in every circumstance,” Thackaberry wrote. “An ethic of virtue, on the other hand, says that it is impossible to program people to deploy objectively rational decisions moment by moment. Rather, what is possible is to cultivate virtues in people so that right decisions become a matter of habit.”Such highly academic discussion isn’t going unnoticed by firefighting leadership. Tom Harbour, national director of fire and aviation management for the Forest Service, said the mounting number of rules being imposed on firefighters “probably has finally reached a tipping point.”The agency’s new firefighting doctrine will seek to ask firefighters to focus instead on the doctrine, the intention of their commanders, and all that they have learned, “and then focus their brains on dealing with the fire and the situation, not trying to remember 47 rules that may apply in this particular situation or 32 that may apply in this situation.”There will still be rules, Harbour said. But the point of the new doctrine “is not to have people going into these things looking inward trying to remember the rules but looking outward trying to have all that stuff in the brains and then apply it to the dynamic situation they’re encountering.”Harbour said the Forest Service is trying to learn from the Marine Corps and Army Special Forces, where people make critical decisions under stress.The agency also is paying attention to academic types such as Thackaberry and Michael Useem, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania who Harbour said has studied decision-making by mountain climbers, soldiers and others.Useem also authored the recent Fortune article, which examined nine key decisions by smokejumper Don Mackey, who assumed a supervisory role on Storm King Mountain. Useem questions some of those decisions, like taking a safety risk by having crews cut a fire line below the flames, and praises others, such as issuing evacuation orders to firefighters that saved their lives.Mangan said it can be hard for surviving families when the decisions of those who died are questioned. But he said it’s important to try to understand how people think in such situations in order to help others make the right calls in similar situations.Michelle Ryerson, a Storm King survivor who now works in the BLM’s Office of Fire and Aviation in Boise, Idaho, co-authored a paper for the April safety summit in which she said 70 to 80 percent of accidents “are associated with human error.”She and co-author Chuck Whitlock, a Forest Service retiree, noted that a system for analyzing human factors already exists elsewhere in the world of accident investigation.”This model has been used primarily in aviation-related accidents, and we are currently working towards implementing it for ground wildland fire accidents. …” they wrote.Mangan is happy to hear of the government’s new direction in looking at human decision-making.”I fully support what they’re doing. It’s the right approach,” he said.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. email@example.com
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