Wildland firefighters across the United States were pausing Wednesday to remember fallen comrades and to reflect on the safety issues and risks underlying an intense fire season.
The moves come three days after 19 members of the Granite Mountain hotshots, a crew of elite wildland firefighters based in Prescott, Ariz., were killed in the Yarnell Hill fire.
In memos sent Tuesday, U.S. Forest Service and other officials called for a special “safety stand-down” on Wednesday. The break is seen as an “operational pause" that allows fire officials and their crews to step back from daily operations and look at the broad picture of firefighting activity.
“It is a time to take a time-out from daily operations -- even while committed to an incident,” John Segar, the chairman of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Committee, wrote in the memo.
Crews are to take a moment to refresh on the basics -- from placing hose lines to looking at how to attack a blaze, officials said. Fire managers and firefighters are also expected to discuss risk and the implications of risk, as well as operational hazards.
Stand-downs are rooted in military tradition. For many years, the U.S. military has called for stand-downs when safety issues arise, said Victor Stagnero, a retired firefighter and the director of fire programs for the nonprofit National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
Firefighting officials adapted the military model their efforts. A national stand-down, promoted by the National Assn. of Fire Chiefs, takes place annually, usually in the month of June.
Other stand-downs, like Wednesday’s, may arise in between.
Special safety stand-downs don’t often come immediately after a tragedy, Stagnero said. The pauses more commonly come after a near-miss or a series of near-misses.
A series of minor vehicle accidents, for example, might prompt “that particular department or the industry to say, ‘We need to take that step back,’” Stagnero said.
It is also a way to identify shortcuts that have become the norm but may be less than safe, Stagnero said.
The call to assess risks and focus on basics comes during what has been a rough period for urban and wildland firefighters.
Last year, 73 firefighters died in the line of duty in the U.S. So far, approximately halfway through 2013, there have been 67 reported fatalities, Stagnero said.