The Norman Transcript

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September 30, 2013

Experts: Firefighter probe shows teams need GPS technology

(Continued)

PHOENIX —

Brewer, in a statement issued Saturday, said she hopes the findings can further the healing process and give guidance for firefighters in Arizona and the nation.

Other than reviewing communication plans and tracking firefighting crews, experts say the lessons from the Yarnell Hill Fire will come only as firefighters and their commanders put themselves in the shoes of the Granite Mountain crew to understand what they were facing that day and how it played into their decision-making.

The investigation revealed more than a half-hour of radio silence that occurred just before the Hotshots were overwhelmed by flames.

It’s not certain why the crew left what was believed to be a safe spot on a ridge that had previously burned and unknowingly walked to their deaths in a basin thick with dry brush. At the time they died, an airtanker was circling overhead, confused about their location. The command center thought the crew had decided to stay put in the blackened area.

Despite identifying numerous problems, the report found that proper procedure was followed in the worst firefighting tragedy since Sept. 11, 2001.

Rather than assigning blame, wildfire investigations in the last decade since the Thirtymile Fire have evolved into studies of what has worked on the fire lines and what hasn’t. Experts say the review of the Yarnell Hill Fire should prompt firefighters to ask themselves questions about how they would handle changes in weather or fire behavior and logistical challenges like radio traffic and miscommunication.

One of the questions posed by the report gets to the heart of firefighting culture, said Dick Mangan, a retired U.S. Forest Service safety official and consultant.

“’What would you do if you were told to do nothing?’ That’s really key,” he said. “All wildland firefighters — for that matter all firefighters, all police officers, EMTs, ambulance drivers — we’re all driven to do good and sometimes your ambition to do good, or what you think is good, overrides your training and experience and puts you in a very dangerous situation.”

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