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Although the nation’s latest wildland fire season has come to a close, it is not too soon to begin preparing for the next one. While today’s fire service demands constant preparation in all specialties, that is poignantly true in wildland fire suppression.
Learning to stay out of the “gun sight” – the path an approaching wildland fire takes and where it is most intense – is the objective of performing a complex analysis of fire behavior and applying the information.
Engine company officers should apply the lessons learned from the 2011 wildland fire season in preparing for the 2012 season. A logical question many will ask is “What kind of fire season will it be?” I have a simple answer: “The worst fire season ever.” I say that to trigger the mental preparedness that must begin today for officers expecting to perform and ensure the safety of an engine company in the complex arena of wildland fire suppression. Will it be an extreme season because of prolific rainfall spurring extensive vegetation growth, or will the lack of moisture cause drought conditions and low fuel moisture?
If officers begin pre-season refresher training and skills-proficiency demonstrations by planning for “the worst fire season ever,” then collectively we increase the likelihood we will be pleasantly surprised by our skills and safety record. Wildland fire suppression demands a high level of training, experience and education to safely and effectively engage personnel and equipment. The wildland fire environment is complex and dynamic. There are numerous reasons for this complexity – the basic behavior of fire, the modification of fuels by human activities, the potentially large size of an incident because of a lack of walls to keep fire from spreading across a diverse topography and the variability and uncontrollable impact of weather. All of these factors, and scores more, combine with the human factor of development, watersheds and infrastructure to produce a potential incident theater capable of testing our best commanders and officers and ultimately jeopardizing every firefighter responding to these incidents.
Engine company officers can focus their individual and crew development and training on three general areas to improve response safety and readiness:
• Pre-season preparedness through education and skills proficiency
• Pre-response and daily incident intelligence gathering
• Post-incident/post-season critiques and adjustment
Although these may seem overly simplified, the fact remains that we can improve our safety and provide a superior service to the public if we concentrate our efforts in these key areas. Furthermore, by breaking this large, complex topic into smaller segments, we can focus our efforts, limit finances and target our time to yield the maximum benefit.
Beginning with the education side, the fire service is placing more emphasis on formal classroom education. Officers must educate those under their command relative to the intent of the material and how to bring it into day-to-day operations. We are obligated to provide the classroom training to fulfill the variety of checklist requirements being placed on the fire service, but we are also responsible for helping our crews apply the knowledge gained in the classroom to the field. Nowhere is this skill more necessary than in wildland fire.
The diversity of classes available on this topic is immense, and a modern firefighter can spend vast amounts of time attending the classes and prerequisites necessary to become qualified in a multitude of positions within the Incident Command System (ICS). There are many ways to bring that material to life by connecting the classroom material to what we do in the field daily. The process starts with a task-book system and demonstration of the acquired knowledge applied to a real-case scenario. The possibilities include holding hands-on drills of hose evolutions and line construction to using fire behavior prediction skills to crank out estimations of critical fire behavior elements with supplied weather and topography input. The bottom line is clear: Officers have a responsibility to train subordinates on the dangers they may face, the skills and equipment to deal with those dangers and ultimately with information on where they can go to escape those dangers.