Fire agencies say they have adequate plans to deal with coronavirus outbreaks among firefighters

How could the disease affect wildland firefighting?

Medical Unit
An example of a Medical Unit at a wildfire. Community members toured the Incident Command Post at the Springs Fire in Idaho in 2012. Inciweb photo.

When I learned that thousands of passengers were quarantined on a cruise ship due to an outbreak of the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, I thought about what would happen if a wildland firefighter tested positive for the virus. If it occurs at a fire station, judging from the procedures being implemented around the world now it seems likely that the person and others that worked around them would be quarantined, possibly for two weeks. That would make the engine or hand crew unavailable.

If the firefighter who tested positive was at a fire, or had been in recent days, then you’re possibly looking at a much larger group to quarantine. We could be talking about dozens of firefighters. Or, perhaps much greater numbers. Some of the largest fires have 1,000 to 5,000 people assigned. That would take us to a place we have not been before.

I contacted individuals in the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management, asking what they would do if a firefighter tested positive, and what steps would be taken if a significant percentage of the firefighter workforce becomes unavailable due to the disease. I will not disclose their names because today the White House directed that any statements from federal government officials about this virus situation must first be cleared by Vice President Pence, who was appointed yesterday to manage all federal activities related to the Coronavirus.

The responses that came back from individuals in the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Forest Service were nearly word-for-word identical. Basically they said the plans and standard operating procedures that have been on the shelf for years will be fine.

Both organizations referenced the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s document prepared in 2010, “Infectious Diseases Guidelines For Wildland Fire Incident Management Teams.” The DOI provided a link to the Department’s “Pandemic Influenza Plan“. The latter was written in 2007 and the .pdf version was updated February 19, 2020 “to be 508 compliant”, which may refer to a Health and Human Services requirement that all website content be accessible to people with disabilities.

The NWCG guidelines address the steps to take at an incident when an outbreak of an illness, for example Norovirus, is detected, such as who to notify and how to reduce the chances of it spreading. The document recommended, in 2010, that incidents have access to two types of contagious disease barrier kits for individuals and multiple persons, NFES numbers 1660 and 1675.

The DOI pandemic plan written 13 years ago, probably in response to the H5N1 “bird flu” or “avian influenza” outbreak, has excellent generic information about the characteristics of an influenza pandemic — how it is spread, attack rate, employee absenteeism, length of epidemics, and how to manage a workforce in order to minimize exposure to the virus. However, there is a great deal of variability in strains of influenza, so the assumptions listed may not apply to coronavirus. For example, it assumes that children will play a major role in the transmission of infection because their illness rates are likely to be higher. But so far the reverse seems to be the case with this latest outbreak, with older people especially those with preexisting conditions being more frequently affected.

Both of these documents have valuable information, but most of it is available from the Centers f0r Disease Control (CDC).

To get more information about how the agencies would react to a significant reduction in the number firefighters available, I asked for more specifics. They said if there is a shortage of resources, Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups at the National and Geographic Area level would consider guidance in Chapter 10 of the 132-page National Interagency Mobilization Guide, a publication that was mentioned by both sources. They pointed out pages 1 & 2,  as well as the preparedness levels on pages 15-17.

Page 1 of Chapter 10 in the “Mob Guide” covers the ability of the Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups to move and position resources to meet needs “regardless of geographic location or agency affiliation.” If there is competition for resources they will establish national priorities and confirm drawdown levels.

Page 2 in Chapter 10 is about a concept that I had not noticed previously in the Mob Guide —  the National Ready Reserve (NRR). This concept involves identifying suppression resources “[I]n order to maintain overall national readiness during periods of actual or predicted national suppression resource scarcity.” If established by the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC), the individual Geographic Area Coordinating Centers would place specific categories, types, and quantities of resources on NRR that would meet the following requirements:

  • May be currently assigned to ongoing incidents;
  • Must be able to demobilize and be en route to the new assignment in less than 2 hours;
  • Resources must have a minimum of 7 days left in 14 day rotation (extensions will not be factored in this calculation);
  • May be assigned to incidents after being designated ready reserve, in coordination with NICC; and
  • Designated ready reserve resources may be adjusted on a daily basis.

There is a lot that we don’t know about the Coronavirus, but what officials have said this week indicates that some infected persons have very mild symptoms, or even none. But they may still pass the disease to others. Wildland firefighters are tactical athletes with a  can-do attitude. After breathing smoke during a long fire season they may battle through respiratory issues with a chronic hacking cough — which is also one of the symptoms of the Coronavirus. As they cough this year they may be thinking about the reported two percent fatality rate of the Coronavirus. “Is this camp crud, or am I going to die?”

It was revealed yesterday that a person from the Bay Area of California is in a hospital outside of Sacramento suffering from the virus. Days ago doctors who thought it could be THE VIRUS wanted to test the patient but the characteristics presented did not meet the threshold established by the Centers for Disease Control that would allow the test. Eventually it was administered, but days were wasted in not only treating the person correctly, but in investigating who they earlier came in contact with. The patient had not been overseas and it is now thought to be the first case of ‘community transmission’ in the country.

Hopefully  wildland fire incidents will not have to order strike teams of these vehicles–

Medical ambulance bus
Medical ambulance bus

UPDATE Feb. 29, 2020: I just listened to the first episode of a new podcast that is solely about the coronavirus. The name is “Epidemic” with Dr. Celine Gounder and Ronald Klain. Five minutes in I realized that the epidemic could be managed in ways that are similar to the Incident Command System. On a large fire you don’t select the local Fire Management Officer or Forest Supervisor to run it, because their suddenly expanded duties will on their own be overwhelming. So you bring in an incident management team that can concentrate full time, 100 percent on the emergency. Vice President Mike Pence has been chosen to be the Coronavirus “czar”.

Mr. Klain explains in the podcast that he was the U.S. Ebola czar from 2014 to 2015. He makes the case that managing a large and growing program is the primary skill needed to oversee the response to the Coronavirus.

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+

4 thoughts on “Fire agencies say they have adequate plans to deal with coronavirus outbreaks among firefighters”

    1. You’re welcome, Tom. I used to simply link to important documents on the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned site, but after they reorganized their file structure a couple of times the links no longer worked, so I started storing copies on this site.

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