Prevention of heat related injuries among wildland firefighters

When we were writing the July 13 article about Frank Anaya, the latest California inmate firefighter that died on a fire, we discovered details about a previous inmate fatality that were shocking. It involved the death of Jimmy Randolph in August of 2012 whose passing was associated with heat stroke. The shocking part was that Mr. Randolph was found unresponsive one morning in the sleeping area on a fire and died in a hospital seven hours later. He had complained of a headache the previous evening and was checked out by the medical unit, but apparently no one was aware of the seriousness of his condition.

Here is an excerpt from a summary of the fatality from wlfalswaysremember.org:

Firefighter Jimmy Randolph was assigned to the Buck Fire as a part of a strike team. At approximately 1800 hours on August 18, 2012, Firefighter Randolph advised a correctional officer that he had a headache. He was escorted to a medical team, evaluated, and given a three-day no-work note. At approximately 0530 hours the next morning, Fire fighter Randolph could not be awakened. He was treated and transported to the Desert Regional Hospital in Palm Springs. With his family by his side., he was pronounced dead at 1230 hours on August 19, 2012. The cause of death was listed as anoxic encephalopathy combined with complications of heat stroke.

Anoxic encephalopathy is a condition where brain tissue is deprived of oxygen and there is global loss of brain function. The longer brain cells lack oxygen, the more damage occurs.

I checked the weather for August 18, 2012 for San Jacinto, California which is in the general vicinity of the Buck Fire, and the high temperature that day was 92 degrees — a temperature commonly found on a large wildfire in the summer.

Today the National Multi-Agency Coordination Group: issued a memo titled, “Wildland Firefighter Heat Related Injury Prevention, Awareness, and Rhabdomyolysis”.

Here’s how it begins:

The wildland firefighter community has experienced an alarming increase in heat related and other physiological injuries in the last few days. Heat related injuries and Rhabdomyolysis are not the same, but can occur at the same time. Extreme weather conditions are predicted to continue across western states for the next week. The National Weather Service is issuing Heat Warnings for the SWCC, GBCC, RMCC, OSCC, and ONCC.

It is a very well-written document about how to prevent, mitigate, and recognize heat related injuries.

Read it, dammit.

You don’t want to wake up dead.

Full Stop.

Safely training the tactical athlete

Above: Firefighters on the Apple Fire, March 28, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Today we are reprising a second article from our archives about heat related injuries and extreme physical exertion among wildland firefighters.

As we reported in the first Throwback Thursday article, Dr. Brent Ruby, who has studied firefighters as they worked on fires, said regarding the 2011 hyperthermia fatality on the CR 337 fire in Texas:

The lessons learned from this research clearly indicate that the best protection against a heat injury is reducing work rate.

Aggressive hydration strategies are over-preached and may provide a false sense of protection. It should be emphasized that the autopsy report as described in the fatality report indicated no signs of dehydration or electrolyte imbalance.

With that in mind, below is the article we wrote in 2016 after reports were released on two very serious injuries that occurred during the first two days of training for new firefighters.

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Safely training the tactical athlete

EMTAfter reading the Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) about the Rhabdomyolysis (Rhabdo) injury that occurred May 2, 2016 in South Dakota on the first day of the fire season after running for more than nine miles before doing uphill sprints, I started thinking about, not so much WHAT happened, but how to prevent similar serious injuries.

A couple of weeks before the Rhabdo case, on April 19 a wildland firefighter in the Northwest suffered a heat stroke while running on day 2 of their season. The employee was unconscious for several hours and spent four days in the hospital.

Both of these exercise-induced conditions can be life-threatening; 33 percent percent of patients diagnosed with Rhabdo develop a quick onset of kidney failure, and 8% of all cases are fatal.

Heat stroke can also kill, according to Medscape:

When therapy is delayed, the mortality rate may be as high as 80%; however, with early diagnosis and immediate cooling, the mortality rate can be reduced to 10%.

These two very serious incidents in a two week period that occurred at the beginning of the fire season should be a wakeup call for agencies employing wildland firefighters.

I am not a medical or exercise specialist, but neither were any of the four members of the South Dakota Rhabdo FLA team. It was comprised of a District Fire Management Officer, a Natural Resources Specialist, an Assistant Superintendent on a Hotshot crew, and an Assistant Fire Engine Operator.

A person might expect that for an exercise-induced injury that is fatal in eight percent of the cases, a medical expert and an exercise physiologist would be members of the team. The FLA concentrated on recognizing symptoms of Rhabdo, which is good. Firefighters need to be be informed, again, about what to look for. But the necessity of treating the symptoms could be avoided if the condition was prevented in the first place.

Prevention was not addressed in the document, except to mention availability of water. Dehydration isn’t the leading cause of Rhabdo, which is caused by exertion, but it can be a contributing factor.

With two life-threatening medical conditions on firefighting crews in a two-week period that occurred during mandatory exercise on day one and two of training, medical and exercise professionals perhaps could have evaluated what caused the injuries, and suggested how to design and implement a physical fitness program that would lessen the chances of killing firefighters on their first or second day on the job. But the LEARNING opportunity of the FLA was squandered.

The wildland fire agencies are not alone in hiring people off the streets and throwing them into a very physically demanding job. The military does this every day, as do high school athletic programs. There is probably a large body of research that has determined how to turn a person into an athlete without putting their lives in danger.

While the three firefighters and the natural resources specialist I’m sure meant well and did the best they could to write the FLA within the limits of their training and experience, the firefighting agencies need to get serious about a professional level exercise training program. After all, they are employing TACTICAL ATHLETES.

This issue is serious enough that the NWCG (since there is no National Wildland Firefighting Agency) should hire an exercise physiologist who can design, implement, and monitor a program for turning people off the street into tactical firefighting athletes.

Safely training the tactical athlete

EMTAfter reading the Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) about the Rhabdomyolysis (Rhabdo) injury that occurred May 2 in South Dakota on the first day of the fire season after running for more than nine miles before doing uphill sprints, I started thinking about, not so much WHAT happened, but how to prevent similar serious injuries.

A couple of weeks before the Rhabdo case, on April 19 a wildland firefighter in the Northwest suffered a heat stroke while running on day 2 of their season. The employee was unconscious for several hours and spent four days in the hospital.

Both of these exercise-induced conditions can be life-threatening; 33 percent percent of patients diagnosed with Rhabdo develop a quick onset of kidney failure, and 8% of all cases are fatal.

Heat stroke can also kill, according to Medscape:

When therapy is delayed, the mortality rate may be as high as 80%; however, with early diagnosis and immediate cooling, the mortality rate can be reduced to 10%.

These two very serious incidents in a two week period that occurred at the beginning of the fire season should be a wakeup call for agencies employing wildland firefighters.

I am not a medical or exercise specialist, but neither were any of the four members of the South Dakota Rhabdo FLA team. It was comprised of a District Fire Management Officer, a Natural Resources Specialist, an Assistant Superintendent on a Hotshot crew, and an Assistant Fire Engine Operator.

A person might expect that for an exercise-induced injury that is fatal in eight percent of the cases, a medical expert and an exercise physiologist would be members of the team. The FLA concentrated on recognizing symptoms of Rhabdo, which is good. Firefighters need to be be informed, again, about what to look for. But the necessity of treating the symptoms could be avoided if the condition was prevented in the first place.

Prevention was not addressed in the document, except to mention availability of water. Dehydration isn’t the leading cause of Rhabdo, which is caused by exertion, but it can be a contributing factor.

With two life-threatening medical conditions on firefighting crews in a two-week period that occurred during mandatory exercise on day one and two of training, medical and exercise professionals perhaps could have evaluated what caused the injuries, and suggested how to design and implement a physical fitness program that would lessen the chances of killing firefighters on their first or second day on the job. But the LEARNING opportunity of the FLA was squandered.

The wildland fire agencies are not alone in hiring people off the streets and throwing them into a very physically demanding job. The military does this every day, as do high school athletic programs. There is probably a large body of research that has determined how to turn a person into an athlete without putting their lives in danger.

While the three firefighters and the natural resources specialist I’m sure meant well and did the best they could to write the FLA within the limits of their training and experience, the firefighting agencies need to get serious about a professional level exercise training program. After all, they are employing TACTICAL ATHLETES.

This issue is serious enough that the NWCG (since there is no National Wildland Firefighting Agency) should hire an exercise physiologist who can design, implement, and monitor a program for turning people off the street into tactical firefighting athletes.

Facilitated Learning Analysis for May 2 Rhabdo injury

33% of patients diagnosed with Rhabdomyolysis develop a quick onset of kidney failure, and 8% of all cases are fatal.

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has released a Facilitated Learning Analysis for the Rhabdomyolysis injury that occurred May 2, 2016. It does not specify that it was the case that occurred on the Black Hills National Forest, but many of the facts in the document point to it being the same incident.

The short version of what preceded the injury is that on the morning of the first day of the seasonal firefighters reporting for duty this fire season, the crew was directed to complete an 8.8 mile run which they did in 96 minutes. Approximately 1/2 mile into the run one crewmember dropped out and was evaluated by a squad boss and an EMT. The crewmember and the EMT returned to the base. This was not the person later diagnosed with Rhabdo.

After the 8.8 mile run the crew jogged another 3/4 mile to a location where they ran uphill sprints and a “loop run”. From the report, after the 8.8 mile run:

Upon return to station, the remainder of the crew reconfigured and lined-out in “tool-order” to continue PT. It was noted that during this brief lull in activity, the employee who would eventually be diagnosed with Rhabdomyolysis made the comment “It’d be nice to have some water…”, to which another within ear-shot replied “yeah… I know”. The “long, slow run” was followed by three rounds of relatively short uphill sprints interrupted by a “loop-run” within sight of the hot-shot base. This event lasted roughly forty-five minutes.

Although dehydration isn’t the leading cause of Rhabdomyolysis, which is a condition caused by exertion, it can be a contributing factor.

The crewmember did not inform the supervisors that he was having discomfort and cramping, but about an hour after the work day ended he drove himself 41 miles to seek treatment at a medical facility.

At 0745 on the [next] morning of May 3rd, the hotshot superintendent was notified by the injured employee’s family that he was in the hospital with dehydration and were awaiting additional test results. He was subsequently diagnosed with Rhabdomyolysis.

The FLA points out, and this should not be news to wildland firefighters, that Rhabdo and compartment syndrome are extremely rare and difficult for a physician to diagnose.  Therefore it is imperative that wildland firefighters familiarize themselves with what can cause the condition and how to recognize the symptoms.

Not all past cases of rhabdo in wildland firefighters were correctly diagnosed during initial care. Heat illness and dehydration share common signs/symptoms and can lead to a missed diagnosis for rhabdo. In addition, rhabdomyolysis is a very rare occurrence in the general population. Many physicians will go their entire careers without seeing a single case of rhabdomyolysis. Since early detection and treatment can greatly reduce the severity and recovery time, it is important that medical providers understand and test for rhabdo.

If you are a wildland firefighter, and especially if you are a supervisor, read the entire report, make copies of the Handout for Medical Providers, and if someone exhibits the symptoms and needs treatment, accompany them to the medical facility and diplomatically talk to the physician about the possibility of Rhabdo while giving them a copy of the Handout.

In another injury involving early fire season physical training, on April 19 a wildland firefighter suffered a heat stroke on day 2 of their season. The employee was unconscious for several hours and spent four days in the hospital.

 

Firefighter diagnosed with Rhabdo hours after PT on first day of training

A firefighter on the Tatanka Hotshots in South Dakota was admitted to a hospital hours after completing a long run on the crew’s first day of the 2016 fire season. The run began at 10 a.m. on May 2 and later in the day he complained of severe cramping. The diagnosis was Rhabdomyolysis, sometimes shortened to Rhabdo, and he remains hospitalized as of May 6 according to the “72-hour notification”. A Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) team will in-brief on May 9.

Employee's left leg after 5 surgeries
Complications from Rhabdo. Another firefighter’s left leg after 5 surgeries in 2011. Photo from the FLA.

Rhabdo is the breakdown of muscle fibers resulting in the release of muscle contents (myoglobin) into the bloodstream which are harmful to the kidneys and may lead to kidney failure.

Left untreated, or if not treated early enough, rhabdo can lead to irreversible muscle damage, permanent disability, kidney failure possibly requiring lifelong dialysis, and even death. Up to 8% of cases of rhabdomyolysis are fatal according to a NIOSH report. And all of this can be the result of exercising hard or engaging in a strenuous fire assignment if other risk factors are also present.

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged rhabdomyolysis.

The Missoula Technology Development Center recently released this publication about Rhabdo, and the NWCG issued this poster.

Lesson learned: heat-related illness

Lesson learned, heat related illness

A crewperson on an Angeles National Forest hotshot crew had a close call in June with a heat-related illness. While engaged in strenuous physical activity, the firefighter developed severe cramps and had a temperature two degrees lower than normal. During a five-hour period he or she drank all the water from their 100-ounce Camelback once, and again later after refilling it, plus two Gatorades.

The EMTs on the crew who recognized the serious potential of the person’s condition arranged for transportation to a hospital. It turned out to be a mild case of rhabdomyolysis which, if not caught in time and treated can be fatal. The EMT that accompanied the firefighter to the hospital insisted that tests for rhabdo be done, even though the staff at the hospital had not planned on doing the tests.

The hotshot also had hyponatremia, which is a severe imbalance of water to salt. Drinking large quantities of water without enough fluids with electrolytes can cause hyponatremia.

Congratulations to the hotshot crew and the EMTs for making good decisions during this serious incident.

You can read the entire report here, but below are the Lessons Learned:

  • Know yourself and know each other. Each person must monitor their water and sports drink intake. Supervisors must ensure all crewmembers are getting adequate electrolyte replacement.
  • Recognize fatigue and take action early, before it can lead to a heat-­related illness. This may require taking breaks due to environmental conditions.
  • Do not count on observing classic heat-­‐illness symptoms; patient may not present the symptoms you have been trained to look for.
  • The patient is not the one who decides if he or she goes to the hospital. It is the decision of the first responder, EMT, or higher-­‐ranking individual, due to the nature and/or severity of the injury/illness and/or agency protocol.
  • If employees are treated for heat-­‐related illness, the treating facility should be asked to check for rhabdomyolysis. The patient’s representative must insist that CPK, potassium phosphate, and myoglobin tests are done initially and on the follow up appointment.

In 2007 a California radio station held a contest to see who could win a Wii game console by drinking the most water without going to the bathroom. Jennifer Strange, a 28-year-old mother of three, died of hyponatremia after drinking about two gallons of water. A jury found the radio station liable, and awarded her husband $16.5 million.

We have written previously about the “Myth of drinking water”. Some may assume that drinking lots of liquids will prevent heat related illnesses, but that is not always the case. In the article, we quoted Dr. Brent Ruby, who has conducted research in this area. In the quote below he was referring to the 2011 Caleb Hamm fatality on the CR337 Fire in Texas. Mr. Hamm was a member of the Bureau of Land Management’s Bonneville Interagency Hotshot crew.

Dr. Ruby:

I was bothered by the findings of the CR337 fatality report from the investigation team. There are issues within this case that are very similar to a published heat exhaustion case study we published recently (Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 22, 122-125, 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21664560). In this report, we document drinking behavior, activity patterns, skin and core temperatures in a subject that suffered heat exhaustion and required evacuation. The lessons learned from this research clearly indicate that the best protection against a heat injury is reducing work rate…