WILDLAND FIREFIGHTING: Staying Out Of the "Gun Sight"

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.


Pre-season preparedness

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.

Officers must be prepared to deliver vital information in preparation for a fire season and test members’ knowledge, skills and abilities at the station level. Specifically, treat preparing for the wildland season as you would pre-planning a building or target hazard in your first-due district. Know your enemy and know you are most likely to encounter it in your local and larger response area. Drive out in those areas that have a wildland urban interface problem; look at the fuels of the current and past years. Look at the new developments and pay special attention to areas that have inherent dangers built into them such as poor access, limited water and a lack of areas of survivability during a wildland fire.

One approach is to go out as a company and visualize the fuels and topography in the area, take photos and run simulation-based scenarios with the resources with which you would be responding and with a weather forecast likely for that area. This is a scalable drill that can be dialed up or down in complexity depending on the experience of the engine company. Skills covered would include reading a map, operating a radio, predicting fire behavior and tactically applying air and ground resources.

The idea of wildland refreshers is not always the favorite topic of training, but it is invaluable in preparing firefighters for the upcoming fire season. It is the responsibility of all engaged in wildland fire suppression to know the rules, the 10 standard fire orders, the “18 watchouts,” LCES (Lookouts – Communications – Escape Routes – Safety Zones) and other information, but it is the officer’s responsibility to deliver that material in a fresh and interesting manner and to ensure it is retained.


Pre-response and daily

incident intelligence gathering

On a daily basis, encourage firefighters to observe the weather, listen to the activity going on in the local area and know how the fire season is progressing nationally. There is no reason a person with access to the Internet and 10 minutes cannot have mountains of fire-season intelligence at his or her fingertips.

The National Situation Report, available at http://www.nifc.gov/nicc/sitreprt.pdf, provides a concise listing of all the incidents occurring within a geographic region, with basic statistics and information about ongoing or initial-attack fires. The first fire listed under a geographic region is deemed the number-one priority fire for that region and will receive the bulk of the requested resources. This is important for the officer to know, because with a little research and a short briefing, the company now knows where the fires are, which are the most active and which they will be likely to respond to as the incidents grow and require additional resources. Specific information about a geographic location, especially weather, terrain, hazards and improvements in that area, is found at http://gacc.nifc.gov/. This page is the Geographic Area Coordination Centers (GACCs) portal. GACCs are scattered across the nation and are responsible for intelligence gathering and priority setting of fires within geographic regions. From here, you can go to a variety of sites, all of which have specific fire information and links to information important to the development of site-specific situational awareness.

Without question, one of the most imperative responsibilities of the officer in a wildland incident is to quickly and constantly evaluate the potential of the fire. This critical function is the foundation on which crew safety and tactical success are built. Although this appears to be a relatively simple concept, you cannot overestimate the complex interaction between wildland fire behavior variables and incident-specific fire behavior.

The officer, or any crew member for that matter, must start with a basic analysis of fuels, weather and topography. These “ingredients,” which influence each other and are directly linked, can interact in a multitude of combinations, yielding favorable and unfavorable fire behavior. The resultant fire behavior produced by these ingredients determines crew actions, effectiveness and ultimately safety. The goal of this frequent analysis is to maintain an accurate awareness of the fire’s potential to produce behavior that could negatively impact personnel safety.

Simply put, the ingredients on any given day, in any given location, combine in a recipe to produce a product. The product of this unique geographic location and time-specific recipe is the observed fire behavior. Change any one of the ingredient’s parameters and the fire behavior will change. Instinctively, all firefighters understand the interrelationship of ingredients, but applying these instincts in a timely manner is the key to safe operations. The interactions of the recipe ingredients change in complexity over time and space. The ability to process all of the variables improves with experience and training, but it is, unfortunately, affected by distraction, fatigue, complacency and a multitude of other factors that erode effectiveness.


Decision-making tools

Numerous decision-making tools are available to firefighters at a wildland incident. They include fire-behavior processors, charts and computer software. However, none are intended to override the firefighter’s brain. These tools help ratify or clarify what firefighters intuitively should be thinking while operating at a fire of any size and complexity. There is no doubt that fire behavior is a dynamic force that moves, breathes, accelerates, slows, propagates and, in some cases, defies logical thought. Sometimes, even the most seasoned veteran personnel underestimate the fire’s potential. However, this should just strengthen our resolve to consistently, frequently and accurately evaluate the fire’s potential.

To assist with this decision process, a simple question can be asked by all personnel at any location: “Where do I want to be and where do I not want to be when this fire makes its move?” How to stay out of the “gun sight” is the objective of performing a complex analysis of fire behavior and applying that information. If we are disciplined in our asking this question and evaluating the potential of the recipe presented, personnel safety is improved. Take an objective look at the fire behavior inputs: temperature, relative humidity, slope, aspect, fuels and so on and apply them to the topography; then, determine whether you in a safe location.

This is a proactive thought process. If completed accurately, it should assist with the critical decision of locating a safe area to operate. By evaluating the potential presented by the fire environment on every shift, day and night, firefighters are better prepared to answer the question of where the “gun sight” is now and how to avoid it.



critiques and adjustments

When an assignment or season ends, reflect on the experience and correct any critical or potential safety issues. A company officer will know when correction is needed. There are many ways to accomplish this, but the most simple and effective way is to conduct a daily After-Action Review (AAR). This simple, non-punitive or non-inflammatory process identifies what the mission was for that day, whether it was completed and how the process could be improved. The best time to conduct it is immediately after a shift while events and situations are fresh in everyone’s mind.

Another technique is to bring the assignment experience to the next pre-season refresher. Keep incident maps and Incident Action Plans (IAPs) and use them as training aids. Those who participated in the incident can provide personal accounts of what the fire did that day. Photos and video obtained during the assignment provide the basis for a training library for future classes or scenario-based training.

Never pass up an opportunity to conduct corrective training. The time spent will increase the safety of your crew and lead to an overall better performance on any incident large or small, local or regional. Make pre-season training a priority and deliver it to your crew in a compelling way. Training delivered with passion is never forgotten. You and your crew will benefit the next time you are trying to stay out of “the gun sight.”


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