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Part 3: Firefighter Safety

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Recipe for Survival: L+C+E+S

LCES is a safety planning concept that should be part of any fire action plan. It focuses attention on the following four considerations for safer operations:

L = Lookout

C = Communications

E = Escape Route

S = Safety Zone

The LCES system enhances and focuses the Ten Standard Fire Orders, the 18 Situations That Shout Watch Out, and other safety aids for wildland firefighters. Structural firefighters operating at wildland/urban interface fires must be aware of the same concepts.

LCES originated with Paul Gleason while he was superintendent of the ZigZag Hotshot Crew. LCES course materials state that "On June 26, 1990, during transition to a Type 1 Incident Management Team, the Dude Fire, on the Tonto National Forest made a spectacular and tragic run. The Perryville Type II Crew was burned over, and six people lost their lives." The LCES approach evolved from the lessons learned in that fire. LCES training is distributed as a workshop in three parts delivered in from five to eight hours. The workshop material and computer presentation can be downloaded for free. See For More Information at the end of this section.

In order for LCES to be useful enough to be efficient and flexible enough to be effective, the concept is built on two basic guidelines:"

1. Before safety is threatened, each firefighters must know the LCES system will be used.

2. LCES must be continuously reevaluated as fire conditions change.

The Four Parts of LCES

LCES should be established before fighting the fire: Select lookouts, set up a communication system; choose escape routes; and select safety zones.

LCES functions sequentially; it is a self-triggering mechanism. Lookouts assess...and reassess...the fire environment. They Communicate threats to safety. Firefighters use preplanned Escape Routes to reach preplanned Safety Zones. All firefighters should be alert to changes in the fire environment and have the authority to initiate communication.

LCES: Lookout

Effective use of a lookout in the LCES system requires that the lookout be properly trained. For example, train lookouts on how to observe the wildland fire environment and to anticipate and recognize fire behavior changes.

Lookouts should have the following responsibilities:

  • Individuals chosen for this assignment are to be alert, thinking clearly, and knowledgeable. They must be god communicators and have good command of the radio system (frequency management).
  • Lookout knows where Escape Routes/Safety Zones are in relation to crew safety.
  • Achieves a view of the fire scene.
  • Monitors the fire and fire behavior.
  • Maintains communications with everyone in his/her area. This needs to be an active process.
  • Receives briefing on strategy and tactics.
  • Accounts for everyone's location, including small groups and individuals. the use of signal mirrors (headlamps at night) is encouraged.
  • Monitors weather and tracks weather trends.
  • Anticipates and thinks ahead. Provides an overview on progress and the completeness of monitored communications.
  • Provides communications link to the outside world.
  • May be asked to handle logistics for remote operations.
  • Uses a lookout checklist compiled from this LCES course.
  • Maintains a supply of extra batteries.
  • Keeps in mind the limits of their view, and informs firefighters when they are moving out of that area.
  • Stays in position until replaced, or the hazard is otherwise mitigated, or ordered out by supervisor. It is important that everyone counting on you as a lookout knows of any break in your service.
  • Establishes their own LCES plan, and knows how they fit into the chain of command, i.e., where their communications link is.
  • The lookout is not always an individual perched on an adjacent ridge, nor will the person looking out be able to see the entire scene. A Crew Boss or IC may serve as a lookout by being heads up (as opposed to digging), and by staying mobile.

LCES: Communications

The communications considerations below are from the LCES Workshop:

  • Pass on all pertinent information. Free flow of information is good management practice, gets things done, and saves lives. If people fail to pass along information, fail to listen attentively, and fail to elicit information actively, that's bad management and unsafe management.
  • Any glitch in communications, whether a radio problem, or an individual's unwillingness to communicate, should have us questioning our safety.
  • Listening is the biggest part of effective communications.
  • Non-verbal clues are critical for accurate communications.

Items That Must Be Communicated

  • Known safety concerns
  • Fire behavior
  • LCES
  • Weather
  • Topography
  • Strategy and tactics
  • Job assignments (duties)
  • Duration of assignment
  • Political considerations
  • Radio frequencies
  • Gut feelings about the situations, the assignment, or individuals
  • Contingency planning such as medivac, etc.

Communications are accomplished but not limited to:

  1. 1. Briefings. Dispatch briefings, morning briefings, and initial line briefings at assignment location.
  2. 2. Ongoing radio messages to supervisors, subordinates, adjacent forces and air resources.
  3. 3. Lookouts.


Briefings need to be given and received so that everyone gets all the information they need to accomplish their job safely. They should be direct, concise, and informative.

If you don't receive a good briefing, ask for one, insist that you get one, and ask questions about any item that's not clear. As the situation develops, additional briefings may be necessary.

A quality briefing will include the following: Here's what I think we face. Here's what I think we should do. Here's why. Here's what we should keep our eye on (this should include the LCES plan). Now talk to me.

Final Thoughts

Radio transmissions should be thought out and concise. Don't allow overwhelming duties and communications distract you from accurately monitoring the big picture, when incremental changes add up to an unsafe situation.

LCES: Escape Routes

The escape route considerations below are from the LCES Workshop:

  • Escape routes are the travel paths used to reach safety zones.
  • Escape routes are to be identified and announced as any crew moves into and through an area.
  • Establish at least two escape routes and make them known. (In the 1976 Battlement Creek Fire, three firefighters lost their lives after their only escape route was cut off by the advancing fire.)
  • Alternative escape routes are encouraged.
  • Barriers to clean escape routes are to be cleared or otherwise mitigated. Barriers encountered in the past include bluffs, brush, downfall, steep slopes, etc.
  • An individual will be assigned to walk out the escape route, identify barriers and get a realistic idea of the time needed to reach a safety area.
  • Timing. Some people think it should be LCEST.
  • New escape routes need to be identified as people move through new areas. If the black at the anchor point of the fire is the original safety area, the time required to reach that safety area will increase as the line is extended.
  • In wildland firefighting, LCES is designed to provide a wide safety margin. A 'wide margin' is an alternative to the image of the desperate dash to the safety zone. A trained eye will recognize the critical factors such as changes in air mass, increased fire behavior, and inherently hazardous situations and recognize the fire 'posturing' to make a run. Properly used, LCES should allow us to walk, not run, to a safety zone.
  • Set trigger points and thresholds to avoid the trap of incremental changes.
  • 90% of the time, the fireline is the escape route.

LCES: Safety Zone

The safety zone considerations below are from the LCES Workshop:

If changing fire behavior produces extreme fire behavior and increased danger to firefighters, it is time to move to the safety zone. A safety zone is defined as a preplanned area of sufficient size and suitable location that is expected to prevent injury to fire personnel from known hazards without using fire shelters.

  • Survival zones are not safety zones. The use of a fire shelter should not be necessary in a safety zone.
  • Safety zones will be identified and discussed before work begins.
  • 'Keep One Foot in the Black' or 'Bring the Black with You' is our first and most common safety practice.
  • Take advantage of the aerial overview whenever possible. Make sketches or mark maps in the aircraft. Consider the use of Polaroid or digital photography.
  • Safety zones can be created by burning out light fuels, or irrigation; however, the time these actions require must be factored into the LCES formula.
  • Firelines located to include open meadows will eliminate the need of some last minute firing. When a blackened area is used as a safety zone, the crown must also be absent. Be heads-up for falling trees that have burned, rolling rocks, and re-burnable brush.
  • New safety zones must be scouted and announced as people move into new areas.
  • Help less experienced people scrutinize safety zones. Help build the slide library with examples of good and poor safety zones.
  • 90% of the time the black is the safety zone. It must be cool enough to stand in, big enough to eliminate radiant and convective heat, and have no re-burn potential.
  • Each individual must be constantly engaged in the LCES process, evaluating and reevaluating as locations and situations change.

The selection of a safety zone is influenced by the nature of the approaching fire that is threatening safety. The safety zone needs to be big enough to provide enough separation from flames and heat. Considerations include judging or anticipating flame height from the approaching fire and available fuels. The safety zone separation should be four times the flame height, on all sides if the fire may surround the zone.