Alan Warnes talks to Ivan Pupulidy, the Director of Innovation and Organizational Learning at the US Forest Service (USFS). In a previous life, as a pilot, he flew a bit over 10,000 hours with the USCG, USAF and USFS.
“A fire-fighters job should be to maintain margins.” Ivan told me at AFFNA18, and added, “In aviation, we tactically and strategically manage margins. It is engineered into the aircraft’s design, built into performance data and added to by pilots who exercise risk management. We fly the aircraft within certain limitations – life-saving and life-limiting, and there is always a fudge factor built into operations.”
“The managing of margins is natural when people recognize risk. Simply put people naturally adapt to them. But the longer people are exposed to a specific risk, the more they erode those margins. Said another way, the more we believe the system is safe, the more risk we take.”
“Aviation fire-fighters, for example, are going to be risk-averse when they begin their career and they will naturally build margin into what they do. But, the more they fly operational missions the more they, unwittingly, erode them.
“Barriers have been the traditional method of protecting people from taking too much risk. However, they are likely to be converted to a production advantage. So, we have to think about that when we create safety rules. For example, should we continually use fire shelters, will the firefighters take more risks by going further in the fire if they rely on this safety barrier, or does a fire shelter offer a false sense of security?
“My team tries to uncover the conditions which influence the actions and decisions of practitioners, and then we provide a way for both leadership and the field to co-create effective tools and barriers. We shift attention from managing behaviour to managing conditions.”
Fire is a complex system according to Ivan. “Complex systems deliver uncertainty. We can follow processes and procedures but in a complex system processes and procedures can fail us when the system delivers the unexpected. Leadership must consider how to create margin pre-mission, as it is their responsibility to create a workplace wherein workers can be successful.”
“Some states don’t emphasize aggressive fire-fighting or fire suppression. Alaska has huge fires and they let many of them burn. The philosophy is that fire is a natural part of the ecosystem and that plant species have adapted to fire over centuries. So, Alaska’s attitude is not to suppress all fires.”
“Generally speaking, we used to see the US fire season start in south east of USA, then it would wind its way across into the central and south-western part of the US, then up to Montana before moving into California. But what we are seeing now is year-round fires in California and to some degree Arizona and New Mexico. Fire seasons are changing. Some of this can be attributed to global warming, another aspect of complexity.”
“The states each have different problems, California suffered terrible losses of structures last year. We have to ask ourselves how have things changed, especially when firefighters tell us they have never seen this kind of thing before. Like most complex systems there are a number of reasons for these changes. We can ask, ‘Is it global warming?” Or, is there another reason? Could be it be that our success in keeping fires small has placed us at greater risk?’ We boast a 98% effectiveness rate in catching fires when they are small, what does that do in the long run? If you keep them small, we know that it will reduce the risk of the fire today. But, that same action reduces the margins, by transferring the risk to the next generation. So as the fuel increases and there is no natural removal, when we catch it small, then on a hot dry day we have catastrophic fires that simply cannot be stopped.”
“Europe has had a profound influence on our attitudes towards fire. In the pre-white invasion of US, the Native American use of fire was, what we would consider, extreme. Fires regularly burnt in large fire scars, driven by the wind. They were very useful, the scars created fire-breaks so that the next fire would run into them and stall out. In Lewis and Clarke’s [travel] journal they noted that they didn’t have a day during their journey [1804-06] when they didn’t see or smell smoke from a wildland fire.
Creating the US Forest Service
“Around the time of the Civil War, we find that wood was the equivalent of oil. It heated houses, we paved our roads with it, we powered our locomotives and nearly every source of power and energy was related to wood. So, naturally wood became a capital resource, much like petroleum is a capital resource now. The national interest regarding this precious resource, resulted in the creation of the US Forest Service, to act as stewards of the land. The USFS found itself protecting its resources but also ensuring their use. One year after the USFS was founded, the western US was ablaze in what was called the ‘Big Burn.’ Several states suffered huge losses of both lives and property. The USFS stood as the only way to protect the timber and aggressive firefighting (modelled after military operations) was born.”
“Couple this with the European ethos that fire was the enemy and aggressive firefighting became expected. We have to remember that in Europe, farming and agriculture takes over where much of the forests were. It’s a completely different problem, a humanized ecosystem. But the attitude of fire transferred over from the English immigrants to this country.”
“Now the Forest Service is in a difficult situation where it needs to balance the need for fire on the landscape, and the aggressive suppression of fire.”
“There are clashes that sometimes result in human tragedy, because our fire fighters put their lives at risk to save trees. Usually it comes out in fatality investigations as someone saying, I knew that was going to happen. That is where my team steps in and asks the really hard question, ‘Why did it make sense for the firefighter to do what they did?’ The answer to that question often points us to the intersection of different philosophies – that of full suppression, or ‘let burn’. Sadly, the strong cultural norm, places us in a position where we aggressively attack fires, often with reduced margin, a drift toward taking more risk.”