Monday, July 1, 2013

Preventing Tragedies in Wildland Fire Fighting

We mourn the loss of 19 of the very best and brave wildland fire fighters, the Granite Mountain Hotshots*, at Yarnell Hill (Prescott), Arizona. As painful as this loss was, it behooves us, the scientific research community, to advance our understanding of fire science and fire fighter human factors to prevent such future tragedies. 
*Hotshots are an elite group of wildland firefighters, with a demanding regimen of physical and fire science training. They carry around 40 - 50 lbs. of gear, food, water, fire shelters, etc., and are dropped-off as a small group, where they fight the fire on their own. For example, they create a fire line, by starving the fire of its fuel (getting rid of brush, dry chaparral, brittle oak brush etc.) to keep the fire from spreading. They have a lookout who observes the wind patterns, weather, progression of fire, etc., on the fireground in real time, to help the firefighters develop their strategy and tactics -- and keep them safe. (A video of the Granite Mountain Hotshots that was filmed in April 2012 is available below this article.)

Started by a lightning strike on Friday, the fire spread to 8,000 acres. (Via NY Times)

Given the nature of the events at Yarnell Hill -- a burnover where the wind radically shifted suddenly and the flames changed direction without warning engulfing the Granite Mountain Hotshots -- posing the following research questions and finding answers may close the gap in our current knowledge on wildland firefighting. Thus enhancing risk assessment, situation awareness and decision making of firefighters and their commanders, supplemented with advances in communication, sensing and computing technologies that truly deliver utility, usability and safety to the crew on the fireground.
  • Computational modeling of fire fighting by treating it as a physical & socio-technical complex systems. This complex system will consist of various heterogeneous agents (physical and human) -- fuel source (for the fire), heat intensity, oxygen levels, wind patterns and fire fighters' characteristics (knowledge, skills, abilities, training, physical fitness, cognitive readiness, experience -- i.e., capabilities & limitations). Furthermore, the human / organizational (socio-technical) element will encompass operational strategies and tactics (protocols), equipment and machines.  Thus these various agents produce their own signals and interact with other agents at the boundaries (a.k.a., signal-boundaries of a "dynamic generated systems" in complexity and chaos theory). This modeling may enable the commander and his/her crew to predict in near real time the behavior of the fire and effort/resources needed to starve it off fuel and oxygen to bring it under control; advise received, as needed from a central command center, who develop a macro level situation awareness with computational model providing proactive decision support;
The above picture from

  • Advance research in fire fighter (human) sensemaking, situation awareness and naturalistic decision making of complex scenarios in volatile, high stakes and complex settings to understand the fidelity and validity of situation assessment. Understand how firefighters / commander makes a decision on how to engage or disengage from a fire and how do they perceive risks (loss / gain) and probabilities to inform their decision making in real time.
Note the communication gear, the 2-way radio in front -- and inside the radio pocket -- of the harness on the Fire Jacket. 
(Communication and Computing technology is discussed in the next bullet point)
"Rick Cowell, the 55-year-old superintendent of the Tahoe Hotshots, addressing his crew during the Stafford blaze." *Photographer:* Kyle Dickman  via Outside Magazine
  • Signal and imaging technologies (aerial and geospatial sensing and analysis), including command and control (radio communications and computing), that best integrate human and systems to enhance safety. The design of radio communications between the "lookout" and the "hotshots" on the fire ground -- as well as group communications between centralized command & control, lookout and hotshots (shared situation awareness) -- are vital to enhance situation awareness. In other words, comprehend the current conditions, particularly risks and hazards arising due to the fuel source and wind/weather patterns; and, more importantly, project the future trajectory and progression of the fire. Furthermore, the utility and use of large screen, data / computing devices on the fireground for use by the lookout or the hotshot squad leader, where data is fed from ground / aerial sensors (e.g., dropsondes) and video/images from central servers, should be investigated. Even though, this technology may provide valuable thermal and weather intelligence, it also poses the danger of cognitive / attentional tunneling and information overload causing the firefighters to loose situation awareness of dangers in the immediate physical  vicinity.
Thus it is vital to formulate the right research questions, find answers in terms of training and technologies, to prevent future tragedies resulting from volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous factors, time stress -- that are inherent to wild land fire fighting.

Video: Granite Mountain Hotshots


This video of the Granite Mountain Hotshots was filmed in April 2012. Chillingly, it shows the crew practicing the deployment of their fire shelters (aluminum foil and silica sacks that reflect radiant heat). Prior to this tragic and wicked conflagration the Prescott Fire Department -Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew had never before been forced to deploy shelters in a fire. The LAST RESORT... Fire shelters have saved the lives of nearly 300 firefighters since 1977. Story credit: Stand with Arizona 

Thanks to -- and via -- Brotherhood of Fire 

News Articles

NPR: "19 Firefighters Killed In Ariz. Wildfire Called Deadliest In Decade"

PBS Newshour Video Report:  
Part 1: Ariz. Inferno Kills Elite Firefighters
Part 2: Firefighters Who Perished in Arizona Faced High Heat, 'One of the Hardest' Tasks

AZ Central: Wildfire experts: More than 1 factor spawned Yarnell tragedy

Further Reading:
Outside Magazine, on being a Hotshot: IN THE LINE OF WILDFIRE 

About the author:
Moin Rahman is a Principal Scientist at HVHF Sciences, LLC. He specializes in:
"Designing systems and solutions for human interactions when stakes are high, moments are fleeting and actions are critical."