Leadership in Forest Fires: Innovation – Is the risk worth it?

(This is the last of a four-part series.)

"A measure of the degree of absence of risk or conditions that may result in death, physical injury or property damage." – Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Operations


Risk is inherent in life. We can perform a risk assessment after a risk assessment, but each gives rise to an estimate. The difference between risk and uncertainty is infinite. We are therefore faced with the following question: "What risk am I willing to assume?"

The very reason for insurance companies is to share the risk … at a cost. You pay to transfer some of your risk to a larger group. We understand (maybe not like) the way insurance companies operate, but what about the risks associated with our work, in this case the fight against wildfires?

"Firefighting operations present inherent risks that can not be eliminated even under the best of circumstances." (Lead in the Forest Fire Service, page 10)

As noted above, there are risks in the field that can not be eliminated. Some risks, such as danger trees, can be easily detected; others, like cancer, PTSD and worn out body parts, do not show up immediately, sometimes not until it's too late. We can not transfer this risk to someone else, so what is the reward of the associated risk? Money? Sense of purpose? Adventure or excitement? Is the reward worth the risk?

Scientists are studying the health effects of fire operations on forest firefighters, which is good news. However, we have a culture that honors dirty PPE and filthy firefighters, minimizes the impact of emotions, struggles for the balance of life and a high suicide rate and has a biased awareness of risk. How many firefighters will have to get sick or die before we have a rational awareness of the risks associated with fighting wildfires.

STOP CANCER graphic: Clean your hood after a fire. Always shower after each fire. Never put dirty PPE in the living areas. Clean your PPE regularly. The escape is deadly. Do not forget to take annual medical exams.
(Although structural in nature, you get the point! Credit: unknown)

Let's talk about PPE. Managers know that firefighters do not like to wear excess of "things". This "material" mitigates your risk, usually without any financial impact for you. When you do not use it or you do not wear it, you have chosen to violate the policy and accept the risks. In many cases, fireline supervisors subscribe to the action. Is the risk worth it?

Is risk management part of why we have trouble filling positions? As we learn more about the health effects, are fewer people willing to put their health and relationships at risk? Is the risk becoming too important for the reward? Have we failed to innovate enough to protect the people we consider our priority?

A skeleton firefighter in bed while the supervisor tells him that he has finally launched a cancer screening policy
(Credit: Paul Combes)

The reward is specific to the individual. Rewards could include a pay raise, but health issues remain. Better personal protective equipment could mitigate the risks, but the cost to the agency is high, as does the impact for the employee. Maintaining the status quo will not change the scoreboard. We need innovative thinkers and innovators who do not fear failure and question the process.

When you fear to fail, you often make much more conservative decisions and the advances do not stem from conservative thinking; they come from that kind of thinking that goes a long way. – Steven Justice, Advanced Development Programs, Lockheed Martin RET

Barriers punctuate the path of innovation. During my 35 years of service in forest fire services, we witnessed a significant change. I am ready for a big and bold change – a change that recognizes the real value of the forest fire professional.

An example of innovation

Watch the report of The Sun on the "super-soldier" of the US military.

What emotions do you feel? Were you angry that we chose a military example? Is there an approximation technology that will make humans less valuable, maybe even replace us on fire?

Perhaps you have seen the potential of this new way of thinking. Innovators challenge current processes. Threatening the current business model is hard for senior management to accept, but leaders are innovators. Leaders defy the status quo. Change is on the horizon. Will you be the barrier or the agent of change.

Leadership Challenge in Forest Fires – Fucking A Little Further

Think about the following questions:

  • Set the risks and rewards for you.
  • Do you measure risk based on what has happened in the past without regard for the future?
  • Do you have a realistic awareness of the risk involved?
  • Do you take more risks than necessary?
  • Have you developed a personal risk management strategy?

Check out these articles on risks:

Rewind: If you've forgotten parts 1, 2 and 3 of our series, be sure to check them out and watch the Blackbird – Legacy of Innovation trailer.

Pam McDonald is Writer / Editor for BLM Wildland Fire Training and
Workforce Development and NWCG Leadership Subcommittee member.
The expressions are those of the author.