, 2006). The ongoing investigation is being conducted by a "National Interagency Serious Accident Investigation Team," with the purpose of "determining fact surrounding the incident, identify lessons learned," and with the end result a set of "...recommendations for accident prevention purposes."
The investigation will no doubt look into the fire shelter issue, although since the firefighters are gone, the question of why shelters were not used cannot be answered. If all five men had fire shelters on board the engine, it will seem sadly ironic that those protective units were not deployed. For wildland firefighters, it is not only important for escape routes and other safety procedures to be established, but it is imperative that firefighters are in possession of the very newest, safest fire shelters; and with this in mind, the USDA / USFS "Fire & Aviation Management" Web site offers some conflicting and confusing information.
On one page of the USFS "Fire & Aviation Management" section it is emphasized that the fire shelter be deployed "where flames will not contact the shelter," because if flames do contact the shelter, "...the shelter can release gases that ignite and burn inside the shelter." In the event of a burnover, the USFS safety Web site explains, the fire shelter "is one of the firefighter's most valuable pieces of personal protective equipment... [and] in the past 20 years, the fire shelter has saved hundreds of lives and prevented many serious burn injuries."
However, the safety narrative continues, "we now know that..." when the temperatures reach about 475 degrees Fahrenheit the "glue bonding starts to break down." At this point the shelter begins to fill up with "flammable smoke and gases," and as the temperature continues to rise, more gases are rapidly released - and if flames enter the shelter, "these gases can ignite and burn." That sounds very dangerous for the firefighter who has sought protection."
Remember, the USFS safety site explains, "...The fire shelter does not guarantee your safety... [and] it was never intended to allow firefighters to make risky decisions. You must take responsibility for your own safety... DO NOT DEPLOY NEXT to GRASS, SMALL TREES, BRUSH, PILES of SLASH, or FIREFIGHTING EQUIPMENT," according to the safety information the USFS provided.
Reading that material through it causes one to wonder just how safe those original fire shelters really were, or are, for those still using them. After reading the following - "Clear away any fuels to mineral soil...Otherwise you will have to make the best of your situation" - it certainly seems like an unrealistic safety suggestion, since a burnover can swarm around the firefighters in fleeting seconds, and there would not be ample time to be clearing away an area in which to place the fire shelter. "You may be burned," the Web site continues, but "Be prepared steel yourself against the pain."
Fire shelters were upgraded in 2003 and 2005, and were recalled: The "Fire Shelter Information" page on the USFS Fire & Aviation Management Web site lists a "new generation fire shelter (available June 2003)" that offers "improved protection... [but] should be used only as a last resort." The new shelter (WFSTAR) information emphasized that all firefighters would be required to attend training sessions before using the equipment.
It was mentioned that hand-held radios (especially UHF Motorola Astro XTS 3000 radios) do not work well inside the shelter; and on the positive side, the new generation provides "significantly more protection from radiant heat and direct-flame contact than the standard fire shelter it replaces," albeit the new generation shelter weighs 4.2 pounds compared with the "original" shelter at 3.4 pounds.
The old shelter cost $50 and the newer one cost $250; but the newer shelter, according the USFS Technology & Development Program (June 2005) has a large version for "big firefighters."
Both the normal size and bigger versions of the new generation fire shelter have an outer layer of woven silica laminated to aluminum foil and an inner layer of fiberglass "laminated to aluminum foil." The large shelter is 96 inches long, 33 inches wide and when deployed, it is 19.5 inches high. It is deployed by pulling it out of its carrying case and pulling a string; it will "reduce body contact with the hot shelter material during deployment" and provide more insulating air space "between the shelter material and the occupant" (Petrilli, 2005).
And although there is obviously improvement in protection for the firefighter in emergency situations, the USFS warns against firefighters falling into the trap of "risk compensation" ("danger compensation"), technically alluded to as "risk homeostasis theory." This means, simply because a firefighter knows that he or she has a new generation fire shelter, with more protection that previous versions offered, that individual firefighter may become reckless or cavalier about the danger presented when firestorms threaten his or her safety.
Accordingly, when firefighters carry shelters, they may accept assignments with a lower probability of success, stay too long in deteriorating conditions, become lax in identifying escape routes and safety zones, or fail to monitor changes in fire behavior," according to J.D. Schindler in his essay, "Evaluating the potential for Risk Compensation with the New Generation Fire Shelter" (March 2003).
Schindler adds, "...Real progress and change" in attitudes about firefighter safety can only occur by "...learning from out mistakes and expanding our capacity to create the results we truly desire." Veteran firefighters interviewed by Schindler felt that newer and less experienced firefighters lack "...a deep respect for wildland fire, and in fact were cavalier about the dangers."
If the shelter is the only option left to a firefighter, Schindler writes, then that firefighter "has probably failed not only himself or herself, but others as well." A firefighter can only "hope" - and "hope is not a plan" - that the outcome of the shelter deployment will be determined by a better decision (such as where to deploy the shelter) than "by the decisions that put the firefighter in harms' way in the first place.
That may seem a bit harsh, since in fact the five firefighters who died Oct. 27 may have followed all the rules to exactitude and still found themselves trapped; but the world of forest fires is a harsh, unforgiving world, and hard-core training provides the best chance of survival, one would assume. For extra emphasis, Schindler quotes William Shakespeare: "Best safety lies in fear" (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3).
Meanwhile, less than a year after the new generation fire shelter came into use with great fanfare, the General Services Administration (GSA) recalled 68,000 of the new generation shelters due to a weak place in the "floor material"; the flood "comes away from the seam connecting the floor to the side of the shelter." It seems almost unbelievable that a product like this one, designed to save the lives of firefighters who are trapped by flames, would not have been thoroughly tested in the most dangerous conditions, to see if it could stand up to the pressure.
In any event, at the time the tear flaw was discovered by firefighters in the field, the Forest Service's Missoula Technology and Development Center researched the problem (according to a national Interagency Fire Center press release). They reported that "the added risk associated with the potential tearing of the shelter is very small because the location of the weakness is in the floor." Still, that having been said, the GSA was reported to be "taking immediate action to fix the problem."
Were the five firefighters in the Esperanza fire equipped with the new generation fire shelters? Were those shelters part of the group that was recalled and fixed? What size where the shelters that the five fallen firefighters had available? Those and other questions will no doubt be answered by the investigation, which is ongoing at the time of this writing.
It is worth mentioning that there is the possibility that safety standards were violated in the tragic deaths of the five firefighters; "We are not trying to find fault," said USFS spokesman Al Matecko. "We're just trying to find the factors that happened and prevent them from happening again" (Matheny, et al., 2006), said Matecko (as quoted in the Desert Sun).
On hand to help the USDA inspection team is OSHA, which found "serious and willful" violations of safety standards in the July 10, 2001 "Thirtymile" fire in Washington State. The OSHA investigation uncovered violations of "all 10 of the '10 Standard Fire Orders'" listed a bit later in this paper. The employer (USFS) committed "willful, serious and repeat violations of safety regulations" at the July 22, 2003 fire in Idaho ("Cramer fire), as well, according to the report in the Desert Sun.
There are some safety generalizations for wildland firefighters that are appropriate here; the wildland firefighter is taught to be totally aware of the four safety hazards: lightning, fire-weakened timber, rolling rocks and "entrapment by running fires." The other safety tip that all wildland firefighters are obliged to…