Government of Victoria proposes shakeup of fire services

The Country Fire Authority would become totally volunteer.

Daniel Andrews, the Premier of the Australian state of Victoria, is proposing a major overhaul of the fire services organizations. If legislation to enact the changes is passed, the Country Fire Authority (CFA) will become a volunteer-only agency when its paid employees merge with what has been the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) to morph into the newly-created Fire Rescue Victoria.

The Premier said, “These challenges have been made clear through a number of reviews in recent years, including the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.”

The MFB provides firefighting, rescue, medical, and hazardous material incident response services to the metropolitan area of Melbourne. The CFA, which provides firefighting and emergency services to rural areas of Victoria, has been mostly volunteer, with about 35,000 volunteers and over 1,000 paid professionals.

The Premier intends to sweeten the deal by promising more than $100 million
to support volunteer brigades with additional
training, equipment and facilities.

In addition (and this is big) the government intends to recognize presumptive cancers that are diagnosed among volunteers.

Below is an excerpt from a summary of the proposed fire services reorganization:

This recognises the challenges that firefighters have faced in accessing compensation for cancer arising from their service. The scheme will deliver equal access to compensation for career and volunteer firefighters.

It will apply to firefighters who have developed cancer because of their service and have been diagnosed since 1 June 2016. Rules that require volunteer firefighters to have attended a specific number of fires are problematic, so the scheme will instead mirror the approach taken in Queensland, which has no specific incident requirements.

Skeptics think one of the reasons for the major revamping of the agencies is the hope that it “will end a controversial dispute with the United Firefighters Union, which has fought bitterly with the government, the CFA, the MFB and volunteers over new pay deals”, according to an article at 9news.com.au.

Study shows firefighting puts a strain on the heart

A new study conducted in Scotland found that fighting fires could increase the risk of a heart attack.

Wildland firefighter fatality data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center from 1990 to 2014 shows that most of the deaths in that period were caused by medical issues (primarily heart related). The top four categories which account for a total of 88 percent are, in decreasing order, medical issues, aircraft accidents, vehicle accidents, and entrapments. The numbers for those four are remarkably similar, ranging from 23 to 21 percent of the total.

The new UK study suggests that exposure to heat and the physical exertion required to control a fire can cause firefighter’s blood to clot and is putting firefighters at risk of heart attack.

Physical analysis of 19 firefighters in Scotland also found that tackling blazes put a strain on their hearts and worsened the functioning of their blood vessels.

Previous work has shown that firefighters have the highest risk of heart attack of all the emergency services.

The new study reported that a heart attack is the leading cause of death for on-duty firefighters and they tend to suffer cardiac arrests at a younger age than the general population.

Nationwide in the US, around 45% of on-duty deaths each year among firefighters are due heart issues, and researchers at the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and Edinburgh University believe the situation in the UK is comparable, although they did not know the cause.

On two occasions, at least one week apart, they either performed a mock rescue from a two-storey building for 20 minutes or undertook light duties, in the case of the control group, for 20 minutes.

The firefighters wore heart monitors that continuously assessed their heart rate and its electrical activity.

Blood samples were also taken before and after, including measurement of a protein called troponin that is released from the heart muscle when it is damaged.

Those taking part in the rescue had core body temperatures that rose by 1C and stayed that way for three or four hours.

There was also some weight loss among this group, while their blood vessels also failed to relax in response to medication.

Their blood became “stickier” and was more than 66% more likely to form potentially harmful clots than the blood of people in the control group.

Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the BHF, said: “Firefighters routinely risk their lives to save members of the public. The least we can do is make sure we are protecting their hearts during the course of their duties.”

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Below is a representation of the wildland firefighter data from NIFC, compiled by Wildfire Today. 

Wildland firefighter fatalities 1990-2014

Colorado bill could improve health coverage for firefighters

EMTThe state of Colorado already has a law that establishes a list of presumptive illnesses for firefighters, covering cancer of the brain, skin, digestive system, hematological system, and genitourinary system.

New legislation introduced on March 10, SB 17-214 would allow an employer to participate in a voluntary firefighter cancer benefits program as a multiple employer health trust to provide benefits to firefighters by paying contributions into the established trust. It would establish a schedule of minimum payments, or award levels, ranging from Level Zero ($100 to $2,000) up to Level Ten ($225,000). The diseases covered would be the same five as in the existing law (above).

Full time firefighters with 5 years of service would be covered as well as volunteers with 10 years.

It is sponsored by three Democrats and one Republican. No action has been taken on the bill since it was introduced nine days ago, and it is possible that the provisions could change if and when it passes.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Editorial: Montana legislature fails to pass firefighter health bill

The following editorial was written by Dick Mangan.

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As someone who has been involved in wildland fire since the mid-1960s, and who is currently on the Missoula Rural Fire Board of Trustees, I’m really disgusted with the Republicans on the House Business and Labor Committee who voted to “table” the vote on SB 72 which would give Workers Comp coverage to firefighters who develop job-related cancer. For those of you unfamiliar with legislative terms, to “table” a Bill can be translated into “I don’t have the intestinal fortitude (Guts) to actually vote up or down on this issue, so I’ll vote to do nothing”.

Several of these Legislators offered meaningless “feel good” comments about firefighters, like Rep. Steve Gunderson of Libby who said “I take my hat off to firefighters” and Bigfork Rep Mark Noland who called firefighters “courageous….. so grateful for your service.” But then Noland went on to say “but they do know. They do enter this with their eyes open. This is what they chose.”

So, soldiers and police officers die in the line of duty, and that’s OK too? They know the risks, and make the choice, just like firefighters. Maybe we should extend that logic to State Legislators: JFK, RFK, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan and Gabby Giffords were politicians killed and/or wounded doing their jobs. So, if a Montana legislator should suffer a similar fate, should we just tell them and their families that “they entered with their eyes open”?

I must pause this blast to give credit to Republican Senator Pat Connell of Hamilton who introduced the Bill in the Senate (where it passed) and to Rep Sue Vinton of Billings, the only Republican House member to vote in its favor.

Firefighters, structural and wildland, volunteer and paid, frequently put their lives on the line to protect lives and property. Too bad some of our State Legislators can’t walk a mile in their fire boots.

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Dick Mangan retired from the U.S. Forest Service Technology & Development Center in Missoula, Montana in 2000 with more than 30 years wildfire experience. He is a past President of the International Association of Wildland Fire.

Montana legislature rejects firefighter health bill

One Senator who opposed it said “it is something they’re going into with their eyes wide open”.

Above: A firefighter works in smoke on the Water Tower Fire in South Dakota, March 16, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

On Wednesday a Montana legislative committee voted down a bill that would have provided benefits for firefighters who developed a lung disease on the job. Republican Mark Noland of Bigfork said firefighters “know what they’re doing”, and:

That is their profession, that is what they chose, and we do not want to, you know, slight them in any way, shape or form, but it is something they’re going into with their eyes wide open.

That is asinine, ridiculous, reprehensible, and irresponsible.

Rep. Mark Noland
Rep. Mark Noland of Bigfork, MT.

He is assuming that when firefighters began their careers they knew there was a good chance they would damage their lungs. If that is common knowledge now, or was 20 years ago when the firefighter signed up, why haven’t the employers already established coverage for presumptive diseases? There is a great deal we do not know about the effects of breathing contaminated air on structure, vehicle, and wildland fires.

Many agencies and government bodies have already established a list of presumptive diseases that will enable health coverage for firefighters. For example the British Columbia government recognizes at least nine “presumptive cancers” among firefighters, including leukemia, testicular cancer, lung cancer, brain cancer, bladder cancer, ureter cancer, colorectal cancer, and non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma.

The Montana legislation would have only covered one of these nine illnesses.

According to the Associated Press, Gov. Steve Bullock noted that 46 other states already have presumptive illness protections for firefighters.

When a person enlists in the military and they come home injured or permanently disabled, should we ignore them, saying they knew what they were getting into? Their “eyes were wide open”? How is treating firefighters injured on the job different? One could argue that they are both defending and protecting our homeland; one of them actually IN our homeland while the other may have been on the other side of the world.

Only one Republican on the House committee voted for the measure. Apparently in Montana treating firefighters injured on the job is a partisan issue.

The bill was previously passed by the Senate on a 33-14 vote. It is still possible that the bill could be brought up again by the House. If you want to follow the legislation, the text is HERE and you can track the progress HERE.

Cancer and the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department

Above: Screenshot from Jason Curtis’ film about San Diego firefighters and the occurrence of cancer.

The San Diego Fireman’s Relief Association has produced a short 8-minute documentary about the occurrence of cancer within the membership of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, interviewing 15 firefighters who talked about their job and the disease. Many of them looked back knowing what they know now, and wished they had done some things differently.

(UPDATE March 2, 2017: the film was available at the website of the company hired to make the film, but it has been removed until the cancer awareness program associated with it has been rolled out. It may be available again on YouTube or another site in two to three months, according to Robert Bunsold, a board member of the Relief Association.)

The San Diego FD primarily deals with structure fires. The mix of by-products of combustion they are exposed to is different from what a wildland firefighter works in, but unfortunately we don’t know what the significance of that difference is, if any. There are carcinogens in wood smoke but much work still needs to be done to determine the short and long-term effects on wildland firefighters.

Structural firefighters generally wear breathing apparatus (BA) when they are making an interior attack on a structure, and often when they are on the exterior. But wildland firefighters never wear BAs on a vegetation fire because it is not practical. They can be working on a fire miles from their truck for up to 16 hours, but the air bottles only last for minutes.

Some wildland firefighters wear a bandana or dust mask over their nose and mouth, thinking, incorrectly, that they provide some level of protection from particulates. And they have no effect on carbon monoxide and other dangerous gasses.

The smallest and most dangerous particulates in vegetation fire smoke are so small that if one was near an 8-foot high ceiling in a room with perfectly still air, it would take 8 hours for it to fall to the floor. These particles can easily go through a bandana or a cheap mask and make their way to the lungs. Much more expensive respirators with certain types of replaceable filters could provide better air, but they are hot to wear and create too much resistance as the air is forced through the apparatus.

wildfire firefighter smoke
A firefighter works in the smoke on the Water Tower Fire in Hot Springs, SD March 1, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

There is no registry that tracks their exposure or health during and after their careers. Another bill was introduced in Washington this month to create a registry, but the one introduced a year ago died a quick death, and this newest one has far fewer co-sponsors and so far looks unlikely to pass.