Numerous wildland firefighter investigations involving fatalities have identified communications as a significant contributing factor. While a need for better equipment is often cited, Safety Matters feels that there is an additional factor that must be addressed.
The wildland firefighting community does not have a formally established procedure for critical emergency communications. Other fields, such as law enforcement, structure fire and aviation have developed protocols designed to help them effectively, efficiently and safely manage critical emergency communications. A single word, such as “mayday” will trigger the implementation of a set of protocols that allows for an immediate assessment of the emergency. A determination is then made of which procedures will be implemented to respond appropriately to the emergency.
The wildland firefighting environment is one where continual reassessment and adjustment to a changing environment is necessary. As a result, experienced individuals tend to approach changing conditions in a calm and confident manner. This works well until an emergency occurs. The lack of an established protocol has led to situations where individuals remain calm or appear calm until it is too late. In the case of the Cramer Fire, the helitack crewmembers calmly and repeatedly inquired as to when the helicopter would return to pick them up. The crewmembers remained calm until they were over run by the fire. Communications on the Esperanza Fire did not allow for the proper and timely reporting of the distress of the engine crew.
Currently, if information of an emergency situation or potential emergency needs to be transmitted, the protocol is to communicate directly with the affected firefighters either by radio or voice. In many cases, there appears to be no follow-up to ensure that the message has been received. This is a high-risk approach. For example, if notification of an imminent radical weather change is transmitted, there is presently no requirement that all firefighters in the affected area acknowledge receipt of the message. Firefighters not receiving the message are likely to continue implementing their assigned task without benefit of knowing about the approaching weather change.
Safety Matters feels that it is time to develop an emergency communication protocol for the wildland fire community. There needs to be a formalized “Mayday” protocol. This protocol should ensure that the channels are cleared of all radio traffic until emergency information is broadcast and receipt is acknowledged, or in the event of an emergency on the fireline radio traffic should cease until the extent of the emergency can be assessed. Everyone on the incident should clearly understand that there is an emergency, and that is the top priority. Until the situation is resolved, radio traffic should either be moved to other channels or cease all together. It’s time to join the ranks of aviation and other emergency services.