No More Surprises

Strategies for managing the unexpected during suppression efforts


Todd McNeal | FireRescue Magazine Volume 12, Issue 6

One of the most imperative responsibilities of the company officer at a wildland incident is to quickly and constantly evaluate the potential of the fire. This critical function is the foundation on which crew safety and strategic/tactical success are built. Officers and incident commanders need to remember that at any given time and location there is a complex interaction of wildland fire behavior variables that combine to produce fire behavior – either limited or extreme. This complex interaction is constant and demands constant monitoring by all personnel present at a wildland fire. Although there are numerous benefits for personnel at all levels of the incident to track the changing fire environment, one of the most vital is increasing the chances of being pleasantly surprised vs. tragically surprised. Please take a moment to consider the contrast between the two types of surprises that personnel can face during suppression and how the human mind responds to each.

Two Sides

On one side of the spectrum you have pleasantly surprised or the mental position of enjoying that things went better than planned. Personnel might be thinking or saying statements like, “That job wasn’t quite as difficult as anticipated,” and “Glad we had all of those additional resources,” and even “That fire didn’t produce the intensity we forecasted and planned for.”

On the other side of the spectrum, you have the tragically surprised situation where people are overwhelmed and are exposed to significant hazards and stress, and far too often this leads to injury or fatalities. Thoughts and statements made during this form of surprise include “I didn’t see that coming,” and “We were totally overwhelmed.” These types of statements and the imbedded emotions are some of the most stressful situations fire suppression personnel face. The human mind has an automatic response to stress, and in general that is a reduction in the ability to track multiple inputs. There are many phrases for this phenomenon like “mission focus” and “tunnel vision” and “the fog of war.”

These phrases illustrate the reaction humans have to a surprise that threatens our safety, which is the basis of the fight or flight reaction and then the reduction in the mind’s ability to track any other item other than the immediate threat at hand. There is no way to stop this reaction; it is automatic and a part of what it means to be a human evolved from a position not at the top of the food chain. The only way to mitigate this is recognition, mental discipline, and loading the mind with possible responses to potential threats before exposure. By taking time to fully process the potential of the dangerous situation we will face, we are beginning the steps of gathering information and applying the filters of relevance and context, thereby converting it to intelligence. This mission or task-specific intelligence is now the foundation of one’s planning, strategies, tactics, resource allocation, and assessment of potential – all of which can allow us to be better prepared for potential disaster. When we have a better understanding of the situation, we make better decisions and therefore tend to be pleasantly surprised. Another powerful way to mitigate the cognitive reduction is to use the planning and response acronym P.A.C.E.


P.A.C.E. stands for Primary plan, Alternate plan, Contingency plan, Emergency plan. This tool is essential in having a coordinated response to changing conditions, and that coordination means reduced stress and fewer surprises. In analysis of the potential, the moments we take as leaders with the charge of reducing the destruction of a wildland incident while keeping firefighters safe and effective pay huge dividends. We must use these facts and probabilities to better position our resources, recognize and capitalize on windows of opportunity, and conversely see when the windows are closing and have a response already planned for the deteriorating conditions. When firefighters use the P.A.C.E tool, the coordinated responses are developed based on anticipation of conditions changing. When an individual identifies that the incident can and will change over time and can initiate a safe and effective response to that change, stress is reduced, delay is reduced, and surprises are eliminated.

A wildland firefighter must remember to start with the basic analysis of fuels, weather, and topography.

A wildland firefighter must remember to start with the basic analysis of fuels, weather, and topography. These “ingredients” that influence each other and are directly linked can interact in a multitude of combinations, yielding both favorable and unfavorable fire behavior. It is the resultant fire behavior, produced by the ingredients, that determines our actions, our effectiveness, and ultimately our safety. The goal of this frequent analysis is to keep an accurate awareness of the fire potential at hand to produce behavior that could negatively impact personnel safety. Simply put: The ingredients on any given day, in any given location, combine in a recipe to produce a product. The product of this unique site and time-specific recipe is the observed fire behavior. Change any one of the ingredient’s parameters, and the fire behavior will change. Instinctively, all firefighters know this interrelationship of ingredients, but applying these instincts in a timely manner is the key to safe operations. A firefighter’s ability to process all the variables and analyze potential improves with experience and training, but it is unfortunately subject to distraction, fatigue, complacency, stress reaction, and a multitude of other factors that erode our effectiveness in this important task. There is no doubt that fire behavior is a dynamic force that moves; breathes; accelerates; slows; propagates; and, in some cases, defies logical thought. Even the most seasoned veteran personnel underestimate potential. However, this fact should just strengthen the resolve of all personnel to consistently, frequently, and accurately evaluate the fire’s potential.

Where Do You Want To Be?

I would propose a simple question to be asked by all personnel engaged in fire suppression at any location on the incident: “Where do I want to be, and where do I not want to be, when this fire makes its move?” This simple question is the most direct application of the complex analysis of fire behavior, related to the most important strategic goal at any incident – personnel safety. If we are disciplined in our asking of that question and evaluating the potential of the fire, then inherently personnel safety is improved. This is a proactive thought process that, when completed accurately, should assist personnel with the critical decision of locating a safe area to operate. Furthermore, the answer to the question of where to be or not to be could quite possibly place personnel in the desirable position of pleasantly surprised as opposed to tragically surprised during fire behavior changes. Call it proactive, risk-benefit analysis, worst-case scenario planning, cognitive reduction management, or all the above. The bottom line: By evaluating the potential presented by the fire environment on every shift, day and night, you are better situated to answer the question of where you want to be and where you don’t want to be when conditions change and have a planned response to that change. The goal: No more surprises!


Todd McNeal is a 23-year veteran of the fire service and chief of Twain Harte Fire in Tuolumne County, California. 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 10 years. McNeal has been an instructor in the fire service for 15 years, holds numerous ICS qualifications in wildland operations, is a registered instructor with California State Fire Training and a California fire officer, and has a bachelor’s degree in natural resource management.


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