After 80 years of studying wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service is studying firefighters - and how to develop the behavioral traits that will keep them alive.
In the first workshop of its kind, fire experts are asking basic questions about fire crew behavior: Why are crews so reluctant to drop backpacks and tools in the face of an advancing fire? Why is the inclination to try to outrun a fire rather than seek protection in a fire shelter?
“There has never been any training in the selection of appropriate behavior in a crisis. We have never taught people how to ask the most basic question, ‘Should I stay or should I go?,”’ said Curt Braun, a psychologist at the University of Idaho.
“The only time we practice the skills that save our lives is when it happens,” he said.
Braun joined experts from academia and the airline industry as keynote speakers for the Forest Service workshop that began Monday.
By week’s end, the firefighters, safety officers and fire management officers hope to determine the fundamental behaviors essential for safe wildland firefighting - and make recommendations for new behavior-based firefighter training courses.
The attitudes of an organization have an enormous effect on decision-making, said David Hart, whose TIG Inc. trains airline cockpit crews on acting in crisis.
“Attitudes are a medication - or a virus - that affect the entire body. We use them to prioritize our tasks and to make sense of what is going on around us,” he said.
The culture of wildland firefighters is one of “can-do,” he said.
There are times, though, when the can-do attitude compromises safety, said Karl Weick, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. It is why firefighters have died, at Storm King Mountain in Colorado last summer and at Mann Gulch near Helena decades ago, still holding their tools.
Weick has studied both fires, looking at how firefighters made decisions in crisis.
“In both cases, the decision by some on the crew not to drop their tools was consequential,” he said. “Without the tools and packs, they might have been able to move 15 to 20 percent faster and could have cleared the ridge to safety.”