The lookout observes the fire from a vantage point that allows him to see any threats to the personnel in that geographic area.
BY MICHAEL S. TERWILLIGER
Since the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana that claimed the lives of 13 firefighters, wildland firefighting agencies have used the 10 Standard Orders and the 18 situations that shout “Watch Out!” to prevent a similar tragedy. These rules of thumb are situations in which there is an immediate threat to firefighters’ safety and have been proven effective again and again. This information could be condensed into four items: Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes, and Safety zones (LCES). If properly understood and accounted for, these four points will dramatically increase wildland firefighter safety and survivability under active fire situations.
This simple checklist is also applicable to structure firefighting. Since I have been involved in structure firefighting, I have repeatedly seen the same mistakes that could have been avoided had LCES been applied.
At a wildfire, the lookout observes the fire from a vantage point that allows him to see any threats to the personnel in that geographic area. In my department, the safety officer (SO) from my department or a mutual-aid department fills this role well. Yes, the safety officers of adjacent agencies that respond automatically to working fires are appreciated. We do not and should not apply the SO responsibility to tacticians such as company officers, division supervisors, operations section chiefs, or even the incident commander. As in the case of wildfires, these personnel have their hands full managing their area of responsibilities and do not have an overview of the entire operation.
I do expect these Command people to request and demand that a lookout be in place. The SO is the person who understands fire behavior; has communications; understands who to call to pass on important information; and, most importantly, does not have other duties that will distract him from lookout duties. If your scene SO has other duties, assign another member as lookout.
Some may object, “Wildfires are not the same as structure fires. How can a lookout who is watching a wildfire establish itself on a west-facing slope under a crew be the same as a lookout watching the fire take possession of an attic with truss construction over an interior attack company?” You should not miss the correlation here!
At wildfires, communications failure is almost always among the common denominators in a near-miss or tragic event. It is also true for structure firefighting. Communications failure occurs when tactical radio channels are also used for command communication, which always results in overloaded communications.
What information is missed? Firefighters calling for help or the lookout telling us something is changing that might ruin your day. Dedicate yourself to preplanning your communications before the fire. Have dedicated tactical frequencies and dedicated command frequencies, and do not mix them!
If you are the incident commander and have more than one division or group and are talking on or listening to tactical frequencies, you should revisit LCES and make an adjustment. Otherwise, your communications system will be overloaded, you will be overloaded, and you will miss critical radio communications. If nothing else, you are spending too much time on tactics and not enough time on developing and working with your strategy.
Some may object to separating tactics from the command portion of the operations. Here’s a challenge: Review all the fatal or near-miss building fires in your area of responsibility. How many of these responses involved communications problems, and at how many was everyone on the same frequency? I rest my case. Before getting involved in dangerous firefighting operations, there must be a bulletproof communications plan in place and all personnel must understand the communications plan. No other option will work.
Wildfire escape routes are dynamic in that they change based on personnel fatigue, route conditions, and distance of escape route. The farther you go in, the longer it will take to get out, and the route may be compromised, too. Fatigue compounds the problem. If you are in 10 minutes with a 20-minute air supply, it’s time to go. If you do not allow for the possibility of fatigue, a compromised route, the route distance, and disorientation, you will become part of the problem, not the solution.
Having a hoseline or rope is only part of the escape route equation-you must consider time available relative to air supply and escape route distance and obstacles. Always discuss your escape routes before entering an atmosphere that is harmful to your health.
This part of the discussion is the same for structure fires as it is for wildfires. You must have two ways out, one distinct from the one through which you came in. At wildfires, it might be the area already consumed by fire. At structure fires, it might be the ladders placed at windows as firefighter or civilian fire escapes. Do you know the locations, and are they in place? Is the truck really going to do it or has command assigned different priorites?
Finally, when it is time to leave quickly we all need to exit the same way at wildfires. We maintain integrity. When we fracture, we lose firefighters. This is the same in structure fires. The company leader determines when it is time to leave; chooses the route to take; and maintains company integrity, which must stay intact. This is possible if the route is planned and discussed.
It seems this is adhered to in some fashion until there is a perceived rescue problem. At that point, is the escape route not important anymore? If you think about it, we are willing to then take a problem and most likely become part of it as fast as we can with no regard for our personal safety. Always know how you can get out.
At wildfires, safety zones are locations usually found at the end of an escape route. We must be careful to differentiate between deployment zones and safety zones at wildfires. A safety zone is an area in which your safety is not compromised and where you do not need shelters or other forms of refuge to survive. Why should it be different at a structure fire? As you discuss escape routes with your personnel, you must confirm that the safety zone, or the area to which the escape route will take you, is safe. Is the roof or the porch under which you will end up safe? Take a moment and survey the structure; realistically choose escape routes and safety zones, and make sure all personnel understand them.
So how do we use LCES at a fire? At a wildfire, if a crew or company can’t fill the four boxes of LCES, the tactical plan cannot be implemented. The same logic should apply to structure fire control. If you can’t mitigate all the problems as they relate to LCES, don’t do it. Think about it: Will you go into a burning building without communications, without a way out, or without someone watching from the outside? Rethink, adjust, and ensure that all components fit before going into that unfriendly atmosphere. If you practice, this becomes a rapid mental process, so don’t tell me that the house is going to burn down while you use LCES-I don’t buy it.
It is very clear that burnover situations that have occured at past wildfires could have been eliminated if LCES had been accounted for and followed. I challenge those in structure firefighting to look into structure fire situations in which firefighters have been injured or killed and apply LCES to those situations. If lookouts, communications, escape routes, and safety zones had been accounted for and used, in most cases the outcomes would have been different. In fact, apply LCES to any life risk incident in which you are involved-it will work.
MICHAEL S. TERWILLIGER is chief of the Truckee (CA) Fire District. He began his career in 1972 with the California Department of Forestry, where he served for 24 years in the following assignments: division chief of operations (South) in the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Ranger Unit and as operations section chief and planning section chief on a Type I team from 1988 to 1996. He is a certified fire behavior analyst. He is incident commander for Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators Team, which operates along the eastern California/Nevada border. He also instructs operations section chiefs, division group supervisors, and strike team leaders.