Welcome to my Blog - Introduction

By Aaron Small posted 11-30-2013 02:52

First and foremost, welcome to my blog. I'll use this opportunity to tell you about myself and to try and give the reader the opportunity to understand where I am coming from in later posts. I'll be talking about things that I don't normally discuss with anyone in order to help make myself and my point of view understood.

My name is Aaron Small and I am a 38 father of 3 (well  step-father of 2 but anyway). I grew up on a small property in North Queensland where my father was a fire warden and brigade captain of our local, ad hoc brigade and both my mother and myself were members of the brigade. I grew up in the bush and as such, despite coming from a different Country all together, I am a product of the type of "Country Masculinity" described by Desmond (2007). I grew up with bushfires, the knowledge of the work involved, the dangers involved and with a healthy respect for fire, I knew when to light them to reduce fuel loads and I grew to feel for when the conditions meant trouble, and I'd learned this long before I was 18. I learned that some people react badly, or they fail to act at all, when in danger and I'd learned to expect this, I'd also begun to notice the difficulty of explaining what I was seeing to people sitting in an air-conditioned office and vice versa, what they said I should be seeing rarely "fit" with what was actually happening. 

Then I joined the Army Reserve (31st Battalion, Royal Queensland Regiment - effectively equivalent to the State National Guard units) on the day I turned 17. I did quite well and ended up in Support Company, using the 81mm mortar. I was introduced to fully structured communication for the first time, yet something was still missing, it was still almost impossible to explain what was happening on the line to those in the Command Post. When their reality differed from the line reality, what we transmitted made very little sense to them and what they transmitted to us regularly differed so far from reality as to be gibberish. The only times when the reality was radically altered to fit what was being communicated was when something went seriously wrong and a "checkfire" was called - everything stopped, everybody went to a safer place until the problem, generally based on miscommunication, was sorted out to the satisfaction of all parties. In that way and that way only were serious safety violations, in addition to the Clausewitzian friction, identified and addressed in real time. 

I've also had the distinct good luck to have survived several serious incidents that have further demonstrated the problems of communicating a picture that is different to what others are seeing or which they are capable of comprehending.

For instance, when I was 25 I was working (and living) in a Hotel in Western Queensland. I was awoken accidentally to discover that the Hotel was on fire and one person was badly injured. I went for help, then I went again for a fire extinguisher. When I returned (no shoes, jeans and a t-shirt) I directed the extinguisher at the base of the flames, however at that moment the roof above the room of origin collapsed (right in front of me), the roof on the verandah I was standing on sagged noticeably and the fire basically came at me like a freight train, running along the rafters just above my head quicker than I could walk backwards. Not a pleasant experience, but a very easy decision for me and the other person beside me, this position is no longer tenable, he said "she's gone, get out!", which was the only sensible decision at that moment. This assessment was based upon our perception of reality, structural integrity was gone, the fire we saw was unstoppable with the assets at hand, and all of a sudden our chances of survival had been reduced to no better than fair and even then only if we left the building immediately. The difficulty that was raised came when trying to advise the other two people fighting the fire, that hadn't seen the rapid increase in fire activity and the loss of structural integrity, to leave. They resisted us telling them to leave, despite having no real alternative plan available or options other than escape.

A related issue arose several years later, I was cooking chips at home and the pot caught on fire. The flames were licking the cupboards above the fire, scorching them, so I grabbed the pot with my right hand to move it off the burner and clear of the overhead cupboards. I intended to shift it, then grab the fire blanket beside the stove, unfortunately the handle of the pot burned onto my hand and it is rather difficult to open a fire blanket left-handed with a burning pot attached, rather painfully, to your right palm. I considered my options and decided that I couldn't place the pot on the floor (wooden floorboards) or in the stainless steel sink (wooden shelf above it), so I decided to walk around the corner and place the pot on the floor in the laundry (ceramic tiles). I proceeded to put this plan into action, but I'd forgotten that the back door was open, a sudden gust of wind blew the flames into my face, instinct saw me throw both arms up in front of my face, at which point the pot came unstuck from my hand and I wore the contents of the pot, flaming cooking oil. I remember thinking, "Oh shit, I'm on fire!" at which point I considered dropping and rolling, but there was burning oil on the floor, so that option was out. I proceeded to hold my breath and kept my eyes shut (my shirt, my chest and my face were covered with burning oil) while patting the flames out with my hands. Once the fire was out I did two things, I grabbed the phone and stepped fully clothed into the shower in order to commence first aid.

At this point I contacted Emergency 000 (Australian version of 911) and asked for Ambulance, Tasmania, Hobart at which point I was connected to the emergency call center. To set the scene in full, I'm badly burned - effectively degloved on my right forearm and hand, and partially degloved on the left forearm and hand. I had serious 2nd and 3rd degree burns to my face, ears, nose, chest, neck and both feet. I was suffering from inhalation burns, smoke inhalation and shock, I was also standing in a bathtub, under a shower right on the verge of passing out from shock, pain or the effects of smoke inhalation (the inversion layer was about waist high). I told the operator "I need an Ambulance, my address, and added that I have just been on fire." At this point I was advised to "calm down and call back." I proceeded to hang up, spend some time in the shower working out my next plan, then I went out, found the pot (which had scorched about 1/2" into the floorboards) and filled it repeatedly with water, which I threw over the walls, floor and cupboards that had been scorched in order to prevent reignition. When I'd calmed down sufficiently and made bloody sure the fire was out, I went outside with the portable telephone, rang 000 again, explained the situation and then stood fully clothed under the garden hose until the Ambulance finally arrived. 

All of this makes me wonder, what is it about communication that is so hard. Why is it so difficult to get a true word picture across to people who aren't in a life threatening situation, in a manner that makes them understand that what you are saying is not actually driven by fear, pain, panic or whatever. Such emotions might be present, but they aren't causing you to see a distorted picture. I'd like people to understand why I'd like to introduce the concept of "checkfire" to the Wildland Fire community and explain why I think it may be the missing piece of the puzzle.

Desmond, M., 1997 'On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters' University of Chicago Press, Chicago.