FEMA to fund a study of health effects on wildland firefighters

The research will be supported by a $1.5 million award.

University of Maryland (UMD) Associate Professor Michael Gollner will co-lead a first-of-its-kind research effort to quantify the pulmonary and cardiovascular health consequences to firefighters exposed to wildland fire smoke. The research is supported  by a $1.5 million award from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a Department of Homeland Security agency.

The smoke of wildland fires—such as California’s Mendocino Complex of Fires, which burned 459,123 acres, destroyed 280 structures (including 157 residences), and killed a firefighter during the 2018 wildfire season—contains particulate matter, carbon monoxide, volatile organic carbon compounds, and other toxic hazards that could put firefighters at risk for chronic illnesses such as ischemic heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis).

firefighters smoke cancer cold brook prescribed fire
Members of a hotshot crew work in smoke on the Cold Brook Prescribed Fire, October 23, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

But unlike structural firefighters who have relatively well-defined respiratory personal protective equipment standards for fighting fires in and near buildings, wildland firefighters have no standards or requirements for prescriptive respiratory protection. And because wildland firefighters are often deployed to a fire for weeks at a time with sometimes repeated deployments for several months over a summer, they experience an exposure pattern with unknown health risks.

“We put wildland firefighters in harm’s way to protect the natural environment, homes and property, and lives. The focus on firefighter safety has largely been about physical injuries such as burns—but as you can imagine, these firefighters are also exposed to a great deal of smoke,” explains Gollner, a fire protection engineer in UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering. “We know there can be health consequences to this, but we have no data on the long-term effect of wildland fire emissions on the heart, blood vessels, and lungs of front-line wildfire responders, because it’s incredibly difficult to study.”

The FEMA-funded research will look at different smoke exposures that mimic both smaller prescribed fires (i.e., planned fires that are used to meet management objectives and that consider the safety of the public, weather, and probability of meeting burn objectives) and larger wildfires—as well as the benefit provided by different types of simple respiratory personal protective equipment.

The research team, led by principal investigators and bioengineers Jessica Oakes and Chiara Bellini of Northeastern University, hopes the three-year project will inform which fire scenarios are the most dangerous with greatest risk to firefighters’ pulmonary and cardiovascular health. Perhaps most importantly, it could lead to recommendations for respiratory personal protective equipment that is easily implemented in the field and/or possible changes in tactics to mitigate exposure, with the goal of preserving firefighters’ long-term health.

“Unlike structural firefighters, who will put on an air-purifying respirator or a self-contained breathing apparatus when they enter a building, wildland firefighters typically cover their face with only a simple bandana,” says Gollner. “Bandanas are a common tactic because they don’t add an additional burden of weight to firefighters’ already strenuous activity. However, it is unknown if, or to what extent, this provides health benefits.”

The research team will combine their expertise to solve this challenging problem: Gollner will contribute novel expertise in firefighting practices and fire generation, while Oakes and Bellini will offer interdisciplinary bioengineering expertise that’s critical to understanding this complex health problem. They will also work with the International Association of Fire Fighters and National Fire Protection Association to facilitate input from stakeholder partners including firefighters from several departments across the country, fire organization representatives, health researchers, governmental agencies, and members of technical committees overseeing personal protective equipment standards.

To learn more about Gollner’s research:

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

5 thoughts on “FEMA to fund a study of health effects on wildland firefighters”

  1. I have long been concerned that not only fire fighters but the general public is being increasingly exposed to fire smoke from wildfire and from “prescribed” fire. I have seen the smoke season extended to 3 seasons because the forest service and private logging companies take advantage of the spring and late fall to burn up the environment. Smoke circles and pollutes all areas in the vicinity. Smoke doesn’t know to just rise up and disappear. We have constant particulate hanging over the western states. Little research has been done into the health consequences of all this burning. Healthcares costs to the general population is never taken into account when evaluating the costs of fire.
    Prescribed lung disease is another way of describing smoke. Lets’ get serious about the effects of smoke on all of us.

    1. I’m unfamiliar with wildfires and/or the health effects of those fires in the United States, other than what I read in the news, as I am Canadian. However, I’ll go way out on a limb here and guess they are not so different than any we have in my country.
      Your concern with smoke and particulate matter is probably well founded, however, your knowledge regarding the reasons for prescribed burns, air currents and timing of these events, not so much.

  2. Hot shots, smokejumpers, and engine crews generally never wear bandanas , they’re the most at risk it would be presumed, especially if one has worked for 35-40 seasons.

  3. I retired after 37 years in fire and aviation management with the Forest Service. I spent my first 11 years on the fireline. Before the 21-day work/rest guidelines that came about after the massive international fires of 1988, and then the 14-day work/rest guidelines that came about after later fireline fatality investigations, we would spend 20, 30, 45, even up to 62 consecutive days on the fireline on off-forest assignments. This did not include the other time spent on local fires. We spent 62 days in California during the “Siege of ’87” when the entire state was on fire. After this, most of us filed exposure claims because we all came down with bacterial pneumonia.
    At one point, management finally approved the medical unit to set up oxygen tents because so many firefighters were sick. Regardless, after that year, any time I get a cold, it immediately goes into pneumonia. The smoke from the Pier fire last year caused me to evacuate with my dog rescue, and the smoke inversion this year into the San Joaquin Valley and adjacent foothills from the fires to the north and the fires in Malibu affected me extremely hard. I’m sharing this with you to make sure that you connect with those folks that filed those exposure reports from previous extreme fire seasons, not just the ones from recent years. They should be available through the FOIA process. Thank you for taking up this study.

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