Assessing Risk in Chaos
Prior to working here at Baldwin I was a frontline supervisor who worked at the tip of the safety spear in the chaotic and hectic environment of arial firefighting.
From 2008 to 2021, I was a Helitack (“helicopter initial attack”) crew member, Helicopter Manager, Squad Leader, Captain, and Superintendent. I began my career in my home state of California as an EMT/Fire short- hauler (aerial emergency extraction) with the National Park Service. To broaden my horizons, I took a position on a Helitack module in Florida, where I was immersed in the world of aerial ignition, treating hundreds of thousands of acres with prescribed fire from a helicopter. After a couple years in the swamp, I returned to the alpine mountains of northern California as a Squad Leader, and finally as a Helitack Captain a few years later.
Before fire season began, I was responsible for coordinating critical training of subordinates on the etiquette of working around moving helicopters, understanding specific job hazard analyses, helicopter limitations and capabilities, how to safely combine ground operations with aviation on wildland fires, and a vicious physical fitness program. This starts at 0700 on Day 1 for crew members, but culminates in endless hours of course work, ground drills, and sand table exercises for everyone on the crew, including our contracted pilots and support crew.
Once all of the training is satisfactory and upper management has signed off, it’s time to be fully independent and operational as a module. It doesn’t take long for the first call to come in, “Report of a vegetation fire south of Interstate 5. Large black column with high potential for spread, multiple structures threatened, and vehicles are reported being blocked by the fire.” This was a typical dispatch in northern California, especially during the peak of fire season, which creates a sense of urgency amongst the crew to get to the incident before it establishes itself in volatile fuels and to keep the acreage as small as possible. As a Captain in the co-pilot’s seat, I was balancing that urgency with the need to control the operational tempo to ensure it was not a sloppy response. I also had to consider how congested the airspace over the incident was bound to be as dozens of multi-agency aircraft from all over the state responded.
Risk in chaotic environments isn’t always at face value, and often it’s the small details that will disrupt an operation. Being an expert at multitasking is a must in this atmosphere, but this cannot be accomplished by one person. You must work as a team since incident information sharing is critical throughout the event.
Safe and effective wildland fire incident response is both “in-the-moment” and “forward- thinking”—flight crews are constantly forecasting the “What Ifs” so they don’t become “What Went Wrong?” However, any time we “mix metal” above a wildland fire, margins for error become slimmer and cockpit communication becomes the vital link to a positive outcome. By employing effective Crew Resource Management, flight crews responding to incidents can easily identify and mitigate hazards quickly.
Some of the most common planning talking points the pilot and captain discuss in the cockpit are:
“How far is our destination?”
“How much fuel will we burn en route?”
“Is the manifest accurate and are we exceeding our weight limitations for the expected elevation and temps?”
“Is Air Attack (aerial supervision) on scene yet?”
“What are the known aerial hazards?”
“Are the radios programmed correctly for this response area?”
“How far is the nearest airport with JET A from our fire? Will the fuel truck make it in time or do I send the ship to the airport?”
“How close is the pilot to reaching the 8-hour threshold flight hours for their day?”
“How much day light do we have left?”
Most questions can be pre-planned for the perfect and ideal setting, but the answers are always situation dependent. Constantly re-evaluating situational awareness and communicating concerns as they arise is key. Operationally speaking, the hazards are entirely different than the ones mentioned above. Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate- basic principles that are taught very early in a pilot’s career do come in handy when responding and engaging in an emerging incident.
Aviate - Generally, the required incident response launch time is 15 minutes, from dispatch to “skids-up.” This involves the mobilization of the flight crew, chase vehicles, contractor support/fuel vehicles, and completing all necessary flight planning. If you feel rushed and unprepared, there is nothing wrong with trusting your intuition to take a tactical pause to re-evaluate and change the operational tempo. As we all know, if it looks or feels wrong on the ground, it will most likely look and feel worse in the air. Now, aviating within the incident is an entirely different beast but comes with the same mentality of understanding the values of taking a time out. We often called out fixed wing tankers nearby that weren’t communicated, bad landing zones, how active the fire is and if it’s a life threat to deploy the ground crew at that location, and other helicopters that are encroaching into our airspace. When it gets out of hand, there was nothing wrong with finding a safe landing zone to set down and exclude ourselves from the initial disorder.
Navigate - Coordinates are provided by dispatch prior to lifting, but can be vague, incorrect, or the mission can be re-routed to another fire after lifting-off. Improvise, adapt, and overcome. One simple solution is to use the geographical location and bearing to direct yourself to the location, knowing that there will be a smoke signal to guide you in. Upon arrival at the incident, we would often get an assignment or create one ourselves if we are first on scene. At that point it becomes more of a possibility to put blinders on and become mission focused. It was imperative to not focus on one mission and to frequently check our surroundings assuming there is an environmental hazard in proximity or a manmade hazard approaching.
Communicate - Radio frequencies are also given by dispatch before lifting, but again, they are occasionally wrong. Fortunately, there are standardized frequencies such as the Interagency National Flight Following and Air Guard frequencies that can be used in NOCOM situations to establish contact with incident resources or aerial supervision. On scene communications can be complex and a hazard even in a non-chaotic setting. When operating in the backcountry, more often than not, radio repeaters can’t pick up transmissions which leaves you in a “black hole”. With a heavily populated incident it’s almost impossible to get a transmission out or received. In those cases, I would often communicate through dispatch on the National Flight Following channel and ask them to relay any pertinent information or have the aircraft idle on the ground until communications could be acknowledged. When I couldn’t control what was happening, I would challenge myself to control the way I was responding.
It’s not uncommon for all three of those to break down while dealing with crowded airspace, being task saturated, possibly fatigued, and battling the elements. Resort back to the basics. Fast is slow, slow is fast. Assessing risk amongst the chaos takes Crew Resource Management, humility within ourselves to control the cadence, and a deliberate disconnection from mission-driven tunnel vision.
A coworker, Todd Thomas, recently wrote a blog titled “The Safety Family”. He mentions how “we share a bond, and that bond is our passion to help others perform their jobs as safely as possible so they can go home to their families”. He was referencing SMS functionality but operationally it speaks to the heart.
Flying in helicopters in response to emergency incidents, naturally those same words were always at the forefront of my mind. Assessing and mitigating risk in chaos doesn’t mean a favorable outcome will happen 100% of the time, but it does significantly increase our chances of coming home to our families. While I have lost friends to this inherently dangerous job, we want to respect their passion for the job by training, retaining the fundamentals, and improving our margins for error by building trust that enables clear communication to assess the risks together in a controlled manner.