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."


  1. I think it would be important to help establish how much of the decision making is individual, versus group-oriented. What information is communicated? To whom? How much time is involved?

    Some of my research is related to facilitating communication in such environments, so I'm incredibly interested in how these groups communicate and make decisions.

    ~Trey Roady

  2. I think having Option Awareness on top of Situation Awareness is key in this kind of situation ( for a great article on OA).

    If you haven't heard of this concept before, OA has three parallel levels to SA, but in understanding the options that are available (Level 1), what the range of effects you should expect from each option(Level 2), and the relative tradeoffs of different metrics among the options (Level 3).

    What makes OA useful is the idea that instead of just thinking about the most likely result of taking some action, you can also look at the range of results, possibly identifying some worst case scenarios that might be unlikely but worth avoiding if possible. In theory, Level 3 OA would help you anticipate and avoid black swans.

    1. Excellent point on OA. I will certainly read the article published in the JCEDM. What also caught my attention was (in the abstract) that OA brings together both rationalistic and naturalistic decision making.

      Theoretically, and under non-time stressed and unambiguous situations, it may not be a problem. But when stake are high and in time stressed situations, it might be a challenge to operationalize it as one has to cycle through and simulate the "options" before embarking on a course of action.

      Probably, once I read the paper, it may throw some more light on this issue and OA's actual utility in "live" circumstances in the field.

  3. 100 per cent of all major burnover tragedies involve crews working or travelling along the flanks of fires, in what is known as the "Dead-man Zone" (Cheney, Gould & McCaw, 2001; also see here - In addition to this, the 4 factors found by the USDA Forest Service Task Force in 1957 to be a factor in all 5 of the major burnover fatalities (11 or more fatalities - thus the Griffith Park Fire 1933; the Blackwater Fire, 1937; the Mann Gulch Fire, 1949; the Rattlesnake Fire 1953; and the Inaja Forest Fire, 1956), these being (USDA Forest Service, 1957, p.2):

    1. Unexpected fire behavior - Basic elements not understood; indicators of change in usual fire behavior not recognized; local fire weather forecasts not obtained, inaccurate, or not understood;

    2. Instructions - Not followed, not clear, or not given;

    5. Communication -Not available, not used, or broke down;

    8. Escape plan -Not formulated, not explained, not executed.

    Since then there has been intensive research into fire behaviour, so that we can better understand (1). There has also been a realisation that essentially all burnovers occur on 'Transition Fires'(Dreissen, 2002). Then there have been studies done on the size of 'safety zones' needed in worst-case scenarios

    So I would agree, there were multiple factors involved in this tragedy, the fact it was a 'Transition Fire' (Dreissen, 2002), that the Crew was in the 'Dead-Man Zone' (Cheney, Gould & McCaw, 2001), too far from their safety-zone or if they reached it is was inadequate (Alexander, Ackerman & Baxter, 2009; Butler & Cohen, 1998; USDA Forest Service, 1957) and they experienced 'unexpected fire behavior' (USDA Forest Service, 1957).

    The problem is that there was an obvious breakdown of some sort, given that extreme changes in winds, and fire-behaviour is the product of (1) the passage of a cold-front (High); (2) the interaction of topography with localised weather systems; or (3) the product of some sort of channeling, foehn-type winds (subsidence) over the lee-side of a mountain range or some local weather event, generally one that is known. That suggests the breakdown may be in communication and/or instructions (USDA Forest Service, 1957).

    It is going to be awfully sad if this is yet another in a long line of incidents that fall into a pattern recognised almost 60 years ago, from which the recommendations are still yet to be implemented.

    Aaron Troy Small


    Alexander, M.E., Ackerman, M.Y & Baxter, G.J., 2009 'An Analysis of Dodge's Escape Fire on the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Terms of a Survival Zone for Wildland Firefighters' Summary Presented at the 10th Wildland Fire Safety Summit, April 27-30, 2009, Pheonix, AZ

    Butler, B.W. & Cohen, J.D., 1998 'Firefighter Safety Zones: A Theoretical Model Based on Radiative Heating' Int. J. Wildland Fire, vol.8, no.2, pp.73-77 (

    Cheney, P., Gould, J. &
    McCaw, L., 2001 'The Dead-Man Zone — A Neglected Area of Firefighter Safety' Australian Forestry, vol.64, no.1, pp.45-50.

    Driessen, J., 2002 'Crew Cohesion, Wildland Fire Transition and Fatalities' USDA Forest Service, Tech. & Dev. Program, Missoula, MT, February, 2002, TE02P16 (4 July, 2013).

    USDA Forest Service, 1957 'Report of Fire Task Force' US Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, 17 June, 1957 (4 July, 2013).

    1. Many thanks for the excellent synopsis and history of "burn over" incidents, including possible causes, remedies and what needs to be done. The items 1, 2, 5 and 8 you cite are of great interest to me from a human factors science and human-systems interaction point of view. In the past, I have done a deep dive on the Mann Gulch fire (1949) and Foreman Wag Dodge's intuitive decision to build an escape fire.

      I certainly will immerse myself in the references you have cited to get a deeper understanding of this topic area. My goal is to bring human factors,social science, physics and cognitive computing (AI) to develop solutions that may prevent these types of tragedies from occurring in the future.

  4. A few additional thoughts from the author in response to an excellent critique of the article that was received in a discussion on LinkedIn Group.

    Author, Moin Rahman's response:
    "...It is to do with the 'human factor' and its interaction with the physical system (meteorology, topology, fuel source/combustibility) and technology (fire suppressing and retarding capabilities and limitations). In other words, it is more to do with the human sensemaking of the situation, situation awareness and decision making under volatile and time-stressed situations. To cite your example, about the Ekalaka MT firefighter, the simple question maybe asked what might have caused the firefighter to ignore the well known dictum that the wind changes roughly 180 degrees between 1600 and 1700 hrs? Was there any other indicator such as the presence / absence of a thunderstorm cell? Or a few instances, for this particular firefighter, where such a 'switch' didn't occur? (a.k.a., recency bias and/or base rate fallacy in Judgement and Decision Making literature).To what extent does experience and overconfidence play a role in decision making? How does the crew boss and firefighters assess risk (probability of a danger coming to pass), particularly given the fact many fatal incidents have occurred from deceptively light fuels before they flared-up? What are other throughput pressures and social factors that might come into play, e.g., getting the job done before supplies run out toother intra/inter IHC peer pressures?

    Thus given this complexity of the wildland firefighting "socio-technical systems" (human / crew + physical / technology) to what extent, if any, technology in terms of aiding human sensemaking and decision making have a role? At what point does too much information or trust in computer-aided fire modeling works to the detriment of the crew rather than aiding them.

    As for the radios' performance from different manufacturers (B Relm DPHX P25 Portable vs. Motorola), I defer to you. You have empirical evidence to prove that BK was superior to Mot, both in cost and performance.

    Finally, I too concur much like and other firefighters, even if I am Red Card Certified, my initial response too would have been the same. Putting aside my hindsight bias, the scientific question, both from a human factor and socio-technical systems aspect, as to how we could enhance the fidelity of sensemaking / situation assessment so that the crew boss / crew? How could technology aid the sensemaking process? What needs to be done with regards to training in terms of crew resource management (CRM) and shared situation awareness?
    These questions need to be asked and answered to eliminate fatal and near fatal incidents that may otherwise occur in the future.

  5. Wow, I am on big word overload reading all of this. If we take a look at all Firefighter Fatalities, a few glaring problems have reared up. One was mentioned, Situational Awareness. This is one of the big ones as far as awareness is concerned.

    There is also, Spatial Awareness. One must be aware of what their surroundings are doing independent of their situational occupancy.
    Your Spatial area is often very clouded by lack of visibility, the inadequate development of other senses such as touch and sound. One is essentially blind in the Firefighting situation or event.

    Did you perform the proper Size Up as you approached and another when you entered. Did you communicate everything you saw, felt, and heard to the next in line to maybe formulate a larger picture of what may be happening. This is the same for working Structure Fires as the Wildland Fire. They are three dimensional and you are either inside it, above it, or in some cases below it.

    The last thing we need to hear is how good others think we are. This leads to Complacency. We become the invincible teams we are told we are and we seem to forget the previous key awareness's we must keep in the forefront. In the Fire Service, I have been here some 35 years, we have been taught in the past and still should be taught about who is responsible for your safety. As an example, as a Chief, I cannot order you on to the roof, only to the roof. You make the decision of whether it is safe enough for you and your team to advance. It is also the responsibility of your team mates to make the same decision and voice concern if they see, feel, or hear something you as the leader may have not. Complacency tends to over rule this extremely important decision making process, as those who have been told they are the best, begin to feel this and not think of the basics.

    One can perform studies all day long, and those studies do not take into account the Ego / Complacency issue, as this behavior is developed and not inherent. I do not have all of this information available to make appropriate citations of a bibliography, one can simply look it up for themselves, or read the NIOSH Fatality Reports and the USFA Fatality Reports. Compare what you have read and make an educated decision. Put the money for Study Use into better training from the rookie up to they highest leader of everyone. We need to learn the same stuff. We need to get into the hands on and practical education and away from the multi media education. If you do not see what can happen and feel what certain situations feel like, look like, and even sound like, we will still be killing Firefighters of all ages, backgrounds, and education if we do not get back to the basics and away from the computer generated and presented programs. The Instructio0nal Society of today is setting up generations of Firefighter Fatalities.

    Common Sense and Logic are developed early in our young Firefighters by giving them Experience, not handing them a tablet and say research this or watch that. It is developed by making mistakes in hands on training.

    One can do all of the studies under the sun, but until one works a fire with a well seasoned and trained Firefighter, that one person has only an idea and is missing the personal experience training only gained by participation. Come walk in my shoes and I will give you the best insight into what causes these problems.

    1. Sir,

      Many thanks for taking the time to write a detailed comment. I can't agree more with almost all what you've stated. Particularly things such as error-based learning, sizing up the situation, including the dangers of using handheld electronic devices on the fire ground (which might be more of a distraction than assistance).

      Thanks again,

      Moin Rahman