How ethics play into wildland firefighting

Wildland fire expert will explore ways of selecting proper levels of engagement to increase firefighter safety and set up resources for success


Wildland fires are increasing each year, the season is getting longer and climate change continues to play a significant role.

This makes them more difficult and dangerous to fight.

In his presentation at International Association of Fire Chief’s Wildland Urban Interface conference in March, Chief Todd McNeal will discuss the dilemma facing suppression personnel and the desire to protect and save all when faced with increasing intensity of fire behavior.

Chief McNeal's seminar, "Ethical Engagement in Wildland Fire Suppression," will be held March 25; the early registration discount is available until Feb. 6.

Chief McNeal has 23 years of experience in the fire service — with about half of that time spent working in wildland fire suppression for the U.S. Forest Service and Park Service. He’s currently the fire chief at Twain Harte (Calif.) Fire and Rescue, maintains a position on an incident management team as a division supervisor and also responds to numerous wildland incidents every year.

He's also been an active fire instructor for the last 15 years and delivers fire management and suppression classes.

Company officers, he says, need to constantly re-evaluate the risks of wildland incidents and employ up-to-date strategies and tactics during the attack.

The "new normal"
The age-old challenge of balancing risk versus gain has been developing over a century into an explosive reality each fire season.

We continue to see huge losses of life, destruction of property and serious environmental impacts. Given today's fire behavior, success in protecting anything is challenging.

Chief McNeal explains how this destruction and costly nature of battling wildfires has become the "new normal."

"Because of changes in modern building construction, training has been adapted, tactics developed, PPE modified, studies performed … all in an effort to perform our jobs as firefighters safely," he said. "I would like to see that same leverage of scrutiny and resources dedicated to evaluating the conditions in the wildland which has changed as well."

The way to do this, he said, is to adapt to the conditions and utilize the human-ingenuity factor to develop ways to combat this "new normal."

Ethical engagement
The combination of effective fire suppression, corresponding increase in fuel loading, ever-increasing values at risk, mixed with climate change, have reached a point that is exhibiting devastating fire behavior.

One way to help curb this issue, Chief McNeal explained, is for fire service leaders to think about the risks involved and evaluate the situation prior to engaging.

"If fire service leaders recognize and acknowledge the conditions, insert a pause of evaluation, then at that moment we have collectively started to reduce the risks by engaging only when it’s safe," he said.

The word "ethics" was chosen to help facilitate a conversation about the choices made in the fire service and what leaders are asking assigned resources to do.

These four questions will be presented to those attending the session in hopes of spurring conversation and potential resolutions:

  • Is it ethical to ask personnel to engage in traditional suppression strategies and expect them to be safe and succeed?
  • Have we done our best to ensure proper briefings to current conditions?
  • Have we built an organization that can safely respond to the current incidents?
  • Have we developed new tactics and methods to ensure we have changed?

Setting up for success
During the session, Chief McNeal will also be stressing the importance of increasing firefighter safety by setting up resources for success — not injury or failure.

Suppression personnel at any rank or position, he said, should start thinking about the idea of being tactically nimble.

If leaders adapt and become fluid in their tactics, then they can act when the fire environment presents a target and pause when conditions do not allow success.

"We need to discuss, train and employ tactics that encourage strong situational awareness, solid understanding of the dynamic interaction of fire environment variables and target recognition," he said.

In the end, he's hoping attending fire officers come away with new and reasonable expectations of success during wildland operations, and more importantly, a commitment to continuing their education to keep their crews safe and able to go home at the end of the day.

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