Refusing Risk on Fire Assignments

By Jason Todhunter

Over the years Montana loggers have spent a significant amount of time on wildland fires and this trend seems to continue. Wildfire contracting is another way to diversify your business model and with the reductions in sawmilling infrastructure in Montana, it has allowed some contractors to remain in the logging industry. I recently got a call from a member who was fighting fire in New Mexico. He had been asked by his immediate supervisor to do a task where the ground was very steep. After questioning his immediate supervisor about the logistics of this, he did what he was directed to do. Several days later, with the old supervisor gone to a new fire or new assignment, the new supervisor saw what had been done and was mad at the contractor for doing this task. With the old supervisor being gone, this made it difficult for the contractor to explain why this task was done that was potentially unsafe. Documentation is the key in a situation like this, however there are additional steps we can take depending on the situation.

This brings up something we briefly discuss during our annual fire training and that is the “right of refusal” you can use when asked to do a task on a fire where you question the safety of the task. The way it should work is; if you refuse a specific task, they (the Agency in charge of the fire) have to disclose this fact to another contractor if they are asked to do the same task. This not only may save someone else from getting in an accident, but it creates a paper trail that can be followed if personnel change on the fire. The other thing that needs to be done is to report these incidents to the fire’s safety officer. This will also create a paper trail that can protect you and make it easier to deal with situations like this.

Sometimes your ground supervisors are experienced and understand logging equipment and what it can and can’t do….other times they are very green or from a different state and don’t have a clue. This fact can create situations like this that are difficult to navigate. There is another resource that is a very good tool for reporting incidents and that is National Wildfire Coordinating Group SAFENET (NWCG SAFENET) if you type this in your search engine it will come up and this is a confidential reporting site for firefighters to report unsafe or unhealthy situations and near misses. Although you are encouraged to enter your name you can report anonymously as well. This site was developed as a safety resource and can help make the workplace safer in the future.

Be safe out there this fire season!

The following is from the Incident Response Pocket Guide pages 19-20


Operational Engagement Category

Every firefighter has the right and obligation to report safety problems and contribute ideas regarding their safety. Supervisors are expected to give these concerns and ideas serious consideration. When an individual feels an assignment is unsafe, they also have the obligation to identify, to the degree possible, safe alternatives for completing that assignment. Turning down an assignment is one possible outcome of managing risk.

A turn down is a situation where an individual has determined an assignment cannot be undertaken as given, and they are unable to negotiate an alternative solution.

A turn down must be based on an assessment of risks and the ability of an individual or organization to control those risks.

A situation may be a candidate for a turndown if:

· There is a violation of safe work practices.

· Environmental conditions make the work unsafe.

· The forces lack the necessary qualifications or experience.

· Defective equipment is being used.

The following steps will be used when turning down an assignment:

· The individual will directly inform their supervisor that they are turning down the assignment as given. (Document using criteria outlined in the risk management process.)

· Supervisor will notify the Safety Officer immediately upon being informed. In the absence of a Safety Officer, the appropriate Section Chief or Incident Commander will be notified. This step provides accountability for decisions and initiates communication of safety concerns.

· If the supervisor requests another resource to perform the assignment, he/she is responsible for informing that resource that the assignment has previously been refused and the reason(s) why.

· The safety hazard should be documented by the submission of a SAFENET or SAFECOM.

These actions do not stop an operation from being carried out. This protocol is integral to the effective management of risk as it provides timely identification of hazards to the chain of command, raises risk awareness for both leaders and subordinates, and promotes accountability.

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