Tactical Decision Points: Proactive Wildland Fire Risk Management

By Todd McNeal

With the multitude of risk management protocols devoted to firefighter safety in wildland suppression operations, sometimes the simplest tools are overlooked. I advocate that the simplest safety elements are usually the best. Examples of these simple risk management tools are everywhere: in reference materials like the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), etched into our memories, and written into our agency policies. However, even with this saturation of memory aids, there are still incidents when the most fundamental and elemental safety reminders are not established or adhered to. An example of this would be failure of firefighters to establish and adhere to tactical decision points, formerly known as trigger points. “Trigger point” has evolved through time to the more refined term “tactical decision point.” The reason for this evolution is that a trigger point is in essence a decision point established prior to tactical engagement and, once reached, forces or “triggers” firefighters to re-evaluate their situational awareness and tactical progress and effectiveness and to, ultimately, help them make critical decisions regarding their safety. These decision points are simple, but they must be set, recognized, and evaluated, and when reached, they must not be ignored.

If these simple but effective tools for operational safety are not in our tactical engagement-evaluation process, our ability to manage risk is degraded. There are several types of tactical decision points, and they can be used in a variety of emergency situations, not just in the wildland arena. Decision points are always objective. They come in three basic categories:

  • Fire environment
  • Operational environment
  • Time environment

Tactical decision points should always be clearly defined objective points communicated and understood by all firefights present. The idea of objectivity is paramount, as there should be no debate or subjective nature in recognition of a decision point. For the decision point-risk management tool to work as designed, all affected personnel should have no doubt that the identified critical change in the fire environment has been reached and appropriate adjustments have been initiated.

While tactically engaged in the dynamic environment of wildland suppression operations, it is not the time to stop and debate as a group about whether decision points have been reached and, if so, about their type or kind. This compromising position can be avoided by not establishing a subjective decision point such as, “We will disengage when the flames get more orange.” What is orange to you may not be the same to all others at the incident–some people can’t even see that color at all. This subjective point won’t work; it leads to hesitation, doubt, and, in some cases, failure to recognize and respond. Obviously, this is an exaggerated example, but it illustrates the concept of subjective vs. objective quite well and demonstrates how being subjective can possibly introduce a delay into the risk-management process. What each person sees as orange or as a changing orange color is a matter of opinion and could rightfully be debated based on each individual’s concept of the color. When involved in operations with potential risk, firefighters should not waste critical time debating about what that color is or isn’t. As conditions deteriorate, all fireground personnel need to respond quickly and safely.

Tactical decision points need to be objective for maximum effectiveness. There can be no debating when these decision points are met, nor should they be ignored. Once a decision point has been realized, a person must evaluate his situation to determine if safe effective progress is still being made or if, because of changing conditions in the fire environment, it is time to adjust the plan or position. There are many examples of decision points; many will be set based on incident-driven variables. To maximize validity, decision points will be established in one or all of the three basic categories.

Fire Environment

A simple example of an objective fire environment-related decision point is the following:

When the relative humidity (RH) reaches 20 percent. Once 20-percent RH has been observed and verified, we will analyze the fire behavior and our tactical progress to determine if we are still in a safe location.

There is no debating when RH measured correctly hits 20. It is clear when the RH reaches the designated number, or any established number, and measurement of that variable is easily performed. The example decision point of RH is clearly a fire environment-based, as changes in RH influence how fire behaves. Every firefighter understands the concept of the presence or absence of moisture in the fuels or atmosphere and how that moisture influences fire behavior. In the wildland fuels, especially the fine dead or one-hour fuel class, moisture content responds to changes in RH the most rapidly. Changes in RH, or environment moisture, alter the critical fire environment variable of the fuel particles measured at 0.25 feet or less in diameter, and these are the fuels that fires start in, the fuels that predominately carry fire spread and among which the fire will spot. The science behind the interaction of fine dead fuel particles and changes in atmospheric moisture and the rate by which those particles take on or give off moisture can be modeled and replicated in a lab to provide reference knowledge to wildland firefighters. In fact, using fine dead fuel moisture as a tactical decision point is an excellent choice. It is objective, clearly falls into the fire environment category, and can be easily calculated in the field.

Both RH and fuel moisture are key inputs in the fire behavior equation and illustrate an important reminder about decision points. Tactical decision points are not necessarily transferrable from one location or fuel model to the next. What is critical RH in Florida is not the same critical RH in the western states. This obvious fluctuating critical RH level that triggers an increase in fire behavior across the landscape drives home the idea of the responsibility placed on all firefighters to be familiar with local factors that influence fire behavior. Some additional fire environment-based decision points that are objective and frequently used include wind speed, rate of spread, probability of ignition (spotting potential), and flame lengths. All of them can be measured quickly in the field, can greatly change the total output of fire behavior, and can rapidly impact the safety of the operation.

Operational Environment

Operational based decision points focus on the moving parts of the wildland suppression operations. Some simple examples of these include a loss of a lookout, loss of air support, compromised communications, pump failure, and so on. It is obvious that any one of these events or decision points, once reached, will potentially change the plan or level of engagement. At the very least, these operational changes force firefighters to reevaluate their current position and determine if it is safe to proceed with the current plan or tactics or initiate an alternate plan. Each operation will have critical elements that must be in place during the operation for it to be successful. These critical elements need to be identified and communicated so all affected personnel can pay attention to them and readily identify a loss or change in one of those critical operational components. To effectively use the benefit of tactical decision points, personnel at all levels must have multiple alternatives to the current plan and tactics. Points are set because change is anticipated. I implore all personnel when operating in a high-risk/low-frequency operation to always expect the worst possible scenario. If firefighters are prepared for the worst, and that doesn’t present itself, then most likely people will be “pleasantly surprised” instead of “tragically surprised.”

Time Environment

Another widely used objective decision point used is time environment, sometimes simply called a “time tag”. Firefighters whose background is largely comprised of structural suppression are familiar with this category and use it frequently on the fireground. A perfect example of a time environment-based decision point is the concept of an incident clock or analyzing what type of building construction you have, how long the fire has been burning, and how much progress has been made to help determine the safety of crews working on the roof or inside. This skill is used in the wildland environment and, quite honestly, sometimes the fire itself tells us when the time tag should be set. To illustrate this point, consider the following example:

You are working on a fire under a consistent and persistent weather pattern in the timber fuel model. Every day the incident action plan (IAP) calls for almost the exact weather forecast with temps reaching into the high 80s , RH dipping to the low 20s, and wind picking up to about 7 miles per hour (mph) eye level. Each day as you return to your division assignment to continue with the tactical objective of cutting line, you observe that fire activity increases in the hour between 1300 and. 1400. This daily increase in activity results in the fire transitioning from the surface fuels to the ladder fuels, and isolated trees begin to torch. As the afternoon progresses, the isolated tree torching becomes a consolidated crown fire and the increased activity does not subside until the sun goes down and the weather conditions to improve. You and your crew have been asked by the division supervisor to engage a new section of the fire’s perimeter and cut a fire line as direct as possible.

All people reading this article should be able to look at the above hypothetical, but realistic, scenario and pick out numerous decision points from each category for safe progress monitoring. To assist all firefighters in evaluating mission safety, look to the given conditions, set points, and respond in a timely manner. To illustrate the time-tag concept, look at the daily transition from surface to ladder, then to aerial fuels, and set a time tag before the actual transition occurs to reevaluate that you and your crew are in a safe location and the tactics and assignments are still valid and obtainable. Don’t wait until the transition of increased fire behavior happens–always build in a positive safety margin! The fire environment is dynamic, and the firefighter’s risk-management thoughts need to be as well. The challenging part about the wildland decision points is the fact that they can vary so widely across the diverse environment of fuels, weather, and topography.

Once a tactical decision point has been reached, do not ignore it! Use that mental reminder to reevaluate the safety of your operation position or tactics and then decide how to proceed based on those findings. Some of the clear choices are to continue with current tactics, hold in place until conditions change again, or to ultimately disengage and fall back using escape routes to the designated valid safety zone. There will be times in wildland suppression operations when that is all that can be done. The conditions today, or the proverbial recipe of fuels weather and topography, are combining in such a way at that specific location to produce fire behavior that is unstoppable. The bottom line is to make the risk-management process successful through the wise selection of decision points, recognition of when the points are reached, and the resultant determination of a safe plan of action that adjusts for the changing environment.

For all firefighters who have experienced full alignment of fire environment variables to produce extreme fire behavior and for those who have yet to experience that dramatic event, we must be prepared for the worst-case outcome. If all personnel use the ideas embedded in the 3rd Fire Order, “Base all actions on current and EXPECTED fire behavior,” then as an organization we have begun the elusive process of proactive risk management. The foundation of the risk management process is to use tactical decision points of all described types, set after fully processing the conditions present, and individual situational awareness. Identifying appropriate decision points and responding accordingly translate into the most important incident objective: firefighter safety!

TODD McNEAL is chief of Twain Harte Fire and Rescue in Tuolumne County, California. Previously, he was a captain for the Sonora Fire Department and served as the wildland training officer. He has a diverse background in wildland and structural fire management and suppression and has been serving as a Division/Group supervisor on a Federal Type II incident management team for the past six years. He began his career with the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, working between California and Montana. He has been an instructor for the past decade and has numerous incident command system qualifications in wildland operations. He is a registered instructor with California State Fire Training and a California fire officer. He has a bachelor’s degree in natural resource management.

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