In 2007, the National Park Service formed the Safety Leadership Council (SLC), partly in an effort to learn from past safety tragedies and prevent new ones. Realizing that many safety incidents are a result of improper training and unclear leadership directives, the SLC sought "to transform safety from a discreet program to a leadership practice." In other words, in the world of NPS safety, everyone needs to be a leader.
Recently, I attended a SLC conference in downtown Boise at the Grove Hotel. In attendance from all around the country were NPS regional directors, park superintendents, field employees, and NIFC NPS employees. At the conference, we discussed SLC goals, progress, and challenges. I won't go into too much detail, but the SLC is focused on training everyone within the NPS to be ambassadors of safety, to take a stand against improper procedures that put people at risk, and to look deeply within themselves to constantly be on guard.
Discussed were previous safety disasters. The incident that sticks in my mind the most is the 2008 death of Andy Palmer, an 18 year old first-year wildland firefighter who was six weeks out of high school. Andy was on an engine crew based in Olympic National Park when his crew received a resource order to the Iron Complex in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California. From the beginning, things did not go right. They got a late start finding their entire crew; mechanical problems caused a separation of the crew and the engine captain; and while the crew was qualified to begin felling operations, they chose to make a very complex cut. All this mixed together perfectly for a disaster when Andy was struck in the leg by a shard of wood from a nearby tree impacted by a heavy tree felled by the crew. Severely injured, Andy could not receive the help he desperately needed from his crew partly because the heavy smoke conditions limited a helicopter evacuation, but also because of unclear leadership, inaccurate phone relay of the injury, and even poor litter-carrying techniques. Andy died three hours and 26 minutes after the initial incident.
It was a tragic story of a preventable disaster, but one that the SLC imparts on us all to learn from. That is why they always stress vigilance when it comes to safety. The more NPS employees plan for possible contingencies and take leadership in stressing safety, the better prepared they will be to deal with incidents or to not have them altogether.