Entrapment Investigation & Lessons Learned

Structural firefighting agencies can draw some valuable lessons from the wildland firefighting community. Fire behavior training in many structural agencies often begins and ends in recruit academy. For wildland firefighters, fire behavior training involves an extensive, multi-level curriculum (S-190, S290, S-390, S-490 and so on). The wildland community is also more substantively engaged in analysis of fatalities, accidents, and near miss events with the intention of impacting policy, procedure, and performance. This is not to say that they have a perfect safety record, far from it. However, this ongoing effort to identify and implement best practice based on lessons learned is worthy of emulation.

The US Forest Service Technology & Development Program produced a document titled Investigating Wildland Fire Entrapments which outlines the process that should be used and documentation required for entrapment related incidents. Entrapments are:

A situation where personnel are unexpectedly caught in a fire behavior related, life-threatening position where planned escape routes and safety zones are absent, inadequate, or have been compromisedā€¦These situations may or may not result in injury. They include”near misses”¯.

The concept of entrapment applies equally in the structural firefighting environment. I read news accounts of extreme fire behavior related events (e.g., flashover, backdraft) from around the United States on a weekly basis. Flashover, backdraft, or other extreme fire behavior often results in a near miss or minor injury and less frequently in serious injury or fatality. Some (actually very few) of these incidents are documented in the National Firefighter Near Miss Program. As discussed in my last post, the near miss program uses self-reported data. This is extremely useful in determining the individual’s perception of the event and what lessons they took away from the experience. However, the individual reporting the event may or may not have the training or education to recognize what actually happened, determine multiple causal factors, and provide a reasonably objective analysis.

Formal Investigation

If a significant injury occurs, some level of investigation is likely to take place (even if it is limited to a cursory examination of circumstances and conditions by the individual’s supervisor). Traumatic fatalities result in more significant and in many cases multiple investigations by the agency involved, law enforcement agencies, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (state or federal), and potentially the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The purpose of these various investigations is different and not all focus on identifying lessons learned and opportunities for improving organizational performance. However, some reports by the agencies involved, state fire service agencies, and NIOSH take positive steps in this direction. For example:


Near miss events and events involving extreme fire behavior resulting in minor injuries or damage to equipment frequently are not or are inadequately investigated to identify causal factors and lessons learned. Investigation of serious injuries and fatalities in many cases do not adequately address fire behavior and interrelated human factors that may be directly or indirectly related to the cause of the incident. This results in lost opportunities for individual and organizational learning.

Two interrelated challenges make investigating extreme fire behavior events or structural fire entrapments difficult. First is the lack of a formal process or framework for this specific type of investigation and second is potential for investigators lack of specific technical expertise in the area of fire behavior.

A Solution

The US Forest Service uses a team approach to investigating entrapment incidents. The team may include (but is not limited to):

  • Fire Operations Specialist (Operations Section Chief level)
  • Fire Safety Officer
  • Fire Behavior Analyst, with experience in the incident fuel type
  • Fire Weather Meteorologist
  • Fire Equipment Specialists who develop the personal protective equipment (including fire shelters) used on wildland fires
  • Technical Photographer
  • Fire Information Officer

This team is established and begins the investigation as soon as possible after the occurrence of the event to ensure that critical information and evidence is not lost. The investigative process and documentation focuses on accurately describing what happened, when it happened, causal and contributing factors, and recommendations to reduce the risk of future occurrence.

What might this look like in the structural firefighting environment?

Communicating Lessons Learned

Lessons learned must be integrated into appropriate training curriculum to ensure that the lessons are built into organizational culture.

Some agencies have taken steps in this direction. Following the line-of-duty death of Technician Kyle Wilson, Prince William County Department of Fire & Rescue conducted an in-depth investigation which integrated use of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modeling to describe likely fire conditions and the influence of wind on fire behavior. Following the conclusion of this investigation, the report and related presentations have been distributed widely.

Investigating Wildland Fire Entrapments identifies timeliness as being essential in dissemination of the lessons learned. This presents a significant challenge when faced with a complex event involving a major injury or fatality. However, it is likely that timeliness in communicating lessons learned can be improved without compromising the thoroughness and quality of the investigation.

My next post will examine the US Forest Service’s less formal Peer Review Process which may be used following near miss events or significant events regardless of outcome (possibly concurrently with a formal investigation). Like the entrapment investigation procedure, there are likely some lessons here for the structural firefighting community!

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

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