This month I’d like to relate a story that happened to me last week. It made me pause and think about a multiple firefighter fatality fire that I was involved in 32 years ago. In my mind, I had already done all the thinking about this long ago event that I wanted to do. I try to keep memories of it in the far back reaches of my mind. But just a couple days ago, this long ago experience was back in my head, front and center.
If you’ve listened to story number #42 on my blog, you’ve gotten a short version of what happened that tragic day. If you’ve read my book, chapter 1 starts with more details from the fire. But whether you’ve listened to or read my account of what happened, now I want to tell you what occurred last week.
Because I played an integral part of the incident, I was recently asked to attend a staff ride with a group of mid-level Forest Service fire leaders. I always enjoy an opportunity to interact with the young and upcoming leaders. When I’m hanging out and talking with young (remember, I’m old and age is relative) fire leaders, it makes me feel comfortable, familiar. They’re who I worked with and led for so many years. So the opportunity to hang out with them for even a little while was a treat for this retired firefighter.
The point of my being a part of the staff ride was to talk about my involvement in this tragic event, specifically when 6 firefighters died and I led a group of firefighters back down into the fire to rescue one of the burned patients. I’ve told the story often enough starting with the investigation 32 years ago and then the lawsuits. But then for years, I let that story lay fallow never speaking about it. It was too painful and always brought tears to my eyes just thinking about the multiple failures of all of us involved. You know, when there’s a fatality, there’s never just one cause. The string of mistakes, missteps and over looked opportunities is almost always long. This incident is no different. I’m not going to retell the story of the fire. Instead, I want to describe the questions I was asked by the young and insightful fire leaders who sat and listened to my tale as we over looked the sad canyon down below us where the firefighters lost their lives.
Over the years, I’ve been asked all sorts of questions. “How did you decide you could safely go back down the canyon to rescue the burned firefighter?” “What criteria or risk assessment did you use?” “Was it safe?” Did you consider just saying no, it wasn’t safe to do?” The questions, up until this week had always been about the safety and logistics of going back down into an area of a fire blow-up to rescue a burned firefighter. But this week was different. The fire leaders who sat on that cold and windy ridgetop overlooking the life ending canyon down below had been spending the week talking about and reading about leadership. Their minds were focused on the leadership of the moment. The staff ride stop that I was speaking on was called “crises leadership.” Even though I consider myself a student of leadership and have read many many books on the subject, I hadn’t considered my actions a part of that genre. But I probably should have been.
Their questions caused me to reminisce and wonder about an event that had occurred so long ago. I thought I had done all the thinking and second guessing that I was going to do on this subject. But nope, there was more introspection to be done. More self-analysis. God bless those young leaders.
The questions they asked were unlike any others I had been presented with all these years. They sounded something like;
- “You were the engine Strike Team Leader, the burned over crew didn’t work for you. Did you have the authority to act?”
- Since you were in charge of structure protection and leading a Strike Team of Engines, why did the Hotshot Supervisors take direction from you?”
- “How did you establish yourself as “in command” of the rescue to save the firefighter?”
- “How did you prepare yourself for being a leader in a crises situation?”
These questions are paraphrased and not exactly what was asked. But they represent the point the fire leaders were making. There were other questions too, but they were mostly centered on the authority and responsibility to lead in the moment of the crises. It makes sense since that was what this week was about for them, leadership, not tactics or strategies.
The questions asked of me on that cold windy ridgetop made me think and examine my actions and motivations on that horrible day 32 years ago. They were right, I had no formal authority to act. The crew being burned over wasn’t in my line of supervision. They were an adjoining force, not even on my Division or Group. No one gave me permission to mount a very risky rescue mission. Those were all good point as I look back on that event.
Imagine notifying the Operations Chief, that you’re about to take an action that he didn’t know about or have the chance to approve. You’re just acting on your own. It never even occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t respond.
And why did the Hotshot supervisors follow my lead. Surely there were others around with more wildland fire experience than me. Back then, I already had 16 fire seasons under my belt. But I was a fire department Captain, not a federal or state wildland firefighter. I had previously been a Forest Service and State wildland firefighter. But when the world is on fire, you don’t have time to discuss and compare your resume’s. I had never thought about this question before it was asked of me last week, surrounded by a group young, insightful fire leaders. Good question. I’m still thinking about this one.
Thirty two years ago, I wasn’t aware of a protocol to follow that we now call “Incident Within An Incident IC.” I probably should have been more communicative of my planned actions but I wasn’t. I was in reaction mode. I had never planned out a scenario where I would lead a rescue into a very hazardous environment. I was operating on instinct with its foundation in experience not formal training. Potentially dangerous ground.
And the toughest question was, how did I prepare myself to be a leader in a crises situation. I didn’t know how to answer that question. And I’m still not sure, even after thinking about it for the last week. I suppose it starts with knowledge of the job. That much is easy. As you gain experience and take classes, you in turn build a deeper and stronger foundation of knowledge. The more experience you get, the more the formal classes make sense and you gain a real, tangible understanding of the fire environment. But that’s not the same as leadership. You absolutely need a deep understanding of the technical nature of our job to be a good fire line leader. But leadership is something more.
All the questions asked of me on the cold windy ridgetop boiled down to a single answer. When there is a leadership vacuum, someone has to step up and lead. When you’re literally surrounded by flames and a burned firefighter needs assistance, you can’t wait to have a long, involved discussion about who’s best equipped and trained to lead a rescue. If someone else had stepped forward to lead the effort and take charge, I would have gratefully stated that I’d make sure the rest of the troops made it to the safety zone and I’d let someone else lead the rescue. But no one else stepped up and I certainly wasn’t going to sit around and wait.
In fire leadership training we talk a lot about having a command presence. I suppose this instance many years ago was my opportunity to step up and demonstrate command presence. In my sixteen fire seasons at this point, I had run wildland crews and engines, then when I went to a fire department I was eventually promoted to Captain. Those are all leadership positions and I had gotten used to having a command presence at fires and other emergencies. But it’s not exactly the same. This event was different. Homes were burning and lives were being lost as I very quickly formulated a plan. This is not the time to pull out your “check list” to determine if you can safety conduct the mission and brief your crew. It has to be second nature and that’s how you communicate command presence to your crew members and co-workers. Was my command presence the reason the Hotshot Sups followed me? It’s probably a part of the reason. Someone was seen as being a strong leader with a plan and they were going to work within the plan. I think that’s why the rescue was successful.
When we find ourselves in similar situations to this crises leadership scenario, we have to be prepared. We have to have a library of images and experiences in our brain to draw upon. We have to have faced difficult challenges that hardened us for battle. Don’t shy away from tough assignments. We learn from those assignments even if we’re not completely successful. You’ll learn more when you fail than when you succeed.
The bottom line for me after spending a week thinking about it is that we never know when we’re going to be called upon to lead in a life threatening, critical situation. Be fit, be prepared and step up. All our lives may depend on you stepping up and leading.
More stories are available at BobbieOnFire.com and my entire memoir, Both Sides Of The Fire Line is available from Chicago Review Press or any bookstore.
Both Sides of the Fire Line is Bobbie Scopa’s uplifting memoir of bravely facing the heat of fierce challenges, professionally and personally. It’s available for preorder now.Order from Amazon Order from Barnes & Noble