Forest Service Northwest region issues COVID-19 protocols for firefighting

“Initial attack should be the highest priority for commitment of resources”

National Park Service fire wildfire firefighters
National Park Service photo.

On April 9 the U.S. Forest Service issued protocols for firefighters in their Pacific Northwest Region, Washington and Oregon, during the COVID-19 pandemic. It only applies to FS personnel in those two states and is intended to be complementary to the Northwest Geographic Response Plan being developed by an Area Command Team.

You can download the entire nine-page document, but we captured some of the highlights:

Before the fire

  • Survey first responders to develop lists of those pre-disposed to respiratory illness and factor this into their assigned roles and tasks on large incidents.
  • Build extra capacity in all of our workforce, but especially supervisors, for managing line of duty deaths (Casualty Assistance Program).
  • Technology:
    • Remote operations, briefings, sensing and surveillance, fuel modeling/sensing; fire behavior modeling/projections.
    • Preparation for those modules that have or potential to have reduced personnel, by identifying collateral duty/overhead personnel and militia prepared to help with staffing engines, IHC’s and hand crews.
    • Operations will prepare with the expectation that resource limitations will occur at all Preparedness Levels.
  • Contracting: MRE’s, medical equipment, PPE, remote sensing, UAS, contract personnel and equipment.

During the Fire

  • Priority: Initial attack should be the highest priority for commitment of resources with the purpose of containing fires during initial attack and preventing long duration fires.
  • Initial attack response should align with direction to limit the risk of exposure and spread of COVID-19. This should involve strategies and tactics that minimize the number of people needed to respond and that reduce the incident duration while not compromising firefighter safety and probability of success. The efforts to reduce overall exposure may require consideration to increased staffing, albeit for less duration.
  • Emphasize containment in order to minimize assignment time, mop-up standards should be evaluated for all incidents and limited to minimize additional fire spread.
    • Make decisions that will minimize the number of responders needed to meet objectives.
    • Consider zone and point protection suppression strategies associated with protection of human life, communities and critical infrastructure when sufficient resources for perimeter control are not available.
    • Weigh the risk of responding in multiple vehicles; driving is still the one of our highest-risk activities.
    • Stock vehicles with disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, soap and physical barrier protection (face shields, masks). Disinfect vehicles and equipment and wash PPE after each response.
    • Do not share PPE, flight helmets, radios or other equipment.
    • Use MREs, freeze dried, single-serve sack or boxed meals instead of food lines. Evaluate drinking water supply options to minimize exposure and handling of water containers.
    • Monitor smoke and Co2 Exposure to firefighters, rotate in and out of smoke if necessary.
    • Consider shorter tours (<14 days), shorter shift lengths. Incorporate additional time into shifts to provide for hygiene, cleaning and additional rest.
  • Remote operations, briefings sensing and surveillance, fuel modeling/sensing; fire behavior modeling/projections.
    • Use technology to communicate using virtual tools.
    • Increase use of UAS and webcams.
    • Plan for increased use of networking capabilities, and areas with limited or not existing network capabilities may need additional services.
  • Camps:
    • When possible, shift operations and logistics from single, large camps to multiple, satellite camps that support the separation of people.
    • Incident Command Teams may utilize hotels where individual rooms allow for separations
    • Briefings should be conducted via radios and/or other virtual tools, to reduce face to face interactions.
    • Expanded medical support (as needed and if possible).
    • Module isolation: (dispersed camping).
    • Two-way isolation: closed camps with security, no leaving camp to travel into community.
    • Define and implement more rigorous cleaning and sanitation protocols.
    • Provide extra hand washing stations if possible.
  • Communication: When possible, shift operations and logistics from single, large camps to multiple, satellite camps that support the separation of people.
    • Incident Command Teams may utilize hotels where individual rooms allow for separations.
    • Briefings should be conducted via radios and/or other virtual tools, to reduce face to face interactions.
    • Expanded medical support (as needed and if possible).
    • Module isolation: (dispersed camping).
    • Two-way isolation: closed camps with security, no leaving camp to travel into community.
    • Define and implement more rigorous cleaning and sanitation protocols.
    • Provide extra handwashing stations if possible.

After the Fire

  • Rest, Recovery and Reassignment: take precautions to limit potential spread of COVID-19. This may include:
    • Continued screening and testing.
    • Module isolation (Fire modules should not report to the office but a designated location that allows for the crew to interact and work without exposing them or other employees. Work should allow for the continued separation of crews as long as they continue to remain available nationally.)
  • Increased employee support (be prepared to provide it virtually)
    • EAP
    • Peer Support
    • Hospital and Family Liaison
  • Tracking: Forward and backward monitoring of all module-to-module, person-to-person and community interactions.
  • Communication: Appraise community of status including quarantines and rehabilitation.
    • Communicating potential exposure.
    • Communicating our limited capacity for response.
    • Community response.
  • AAR Specific to Wildfire Tactics and COVID-19. We need to institutionalize what we learn from the COVID-19 crisis and incorporate that into our enterprise risk management as well as local SOPs.

Typos, let us know HERE. And, please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

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+

12 thoughts on “Forest Service Northwest region issues COVID-19 protocols for firefighting”

  1. 1 in every 22 people that contract COVID-19 dies as of today…….so look at it this way if you are on a crew 1 of you is going to die …….would you fight Fire if you knew that when you go on the line 1 of you is Guaranteed to die…..I am not Fighting Fire this year.

    1. I’m guessing that statistic is based on a population that is not fully utilizing all the preventative measures that are in place to protect firefighters, and includes those who are at risk (people with a compromised immune system or other preexisting health conditions) for the Coronavirus. Although…you bring up a valid concern for discussion; should the FS & DOI be quarantining hand crews on military bases or other locations to separate them from the public, for the summer? Should military units be given fire fighter training now to prepare them for potential call up for fighting fires?

      I’d be more worried about contracting COVID from going to the grocery store, getting gas, encountering someone while hiking, etc., than from those I work with given the workplace mitigations in place to prevent the spread of the virus.

  2. This is irresponsible weak-sauce! Only the briefest, empty mentions of testing, contact tracing, isolating, and quarantine – which are essential for firefighter and community safety. Meaningful, substantive protocols for these responses, and the identification of resources to implement them, should be the core elements of any leadership document or other communication on this subject.

    But firefighters do get: “Build extra capacity in all our workforce, but especially supervisors, for managing line of duty deaths (Casualty Assistance Program).” Pg. 3
    Well, let’s not set our safety expectations too high.

  3. I agree, weak direction at best.
    John, however I disagree with your blanket statement. I guess you have the ability to unilaterally decide what you will do. While I am not a federal employee, I am employed by another large state fire agency and our charge and responsibility is to show up to work, meet our mission statement, and protect the very people who are paying our salaries, the taxpayer. While we need to take further precautions to protect our employees, we cannot abandon our positions. Our profession is dangerous, even though this is not a fire threatening our wellbeing, we still need to face the danger as professionals.
    My 2 cents

  4. Wow!!!! I’m not sure who put this together, but there are a few things that stand out. JimMT already mentioned the first thing that had me scratching my head—“Build extra capacity in all our workforce, but especially supervisors, for managing line of duty deaths (Casualty Assistance Program).” I guess we are just planning on killing off a few folks this year?

    Shorter shifts??? How about LONGER shifts during IA to reach containment? Establish a mindset of catching the fire, rather than heading off the line at 2200 so you don’t break 16 hours. “Double lunch and hook it” should be revisited.

    And then it mentions “closed camps”, with security. Last I had heard if you do that, you are paying everybody 24 hours—unless there has been a change in the last legal ruling I read…

    Good luck to all the fire folks this year—it is going to be a season that will be remembered for a long time.
    And don’t let all this COVID stuff cause you to forget your LCES!!

  5. Anyone know of any guidance being published in reference to radio disinfecting? Of all the tools a firefighter is going to use, the radio is the tool that will be infected the most. Speaking into the mic, handling it for programming, changing channels, etc. As a COMT, I’m concerned with the spread of COVID when we have to clone, fix, sign in and out radios. I know there’s the recommendations from each radio manufacturer, but are there any policies being written for disinfecting on campaign fires?
    Thanks,
    Onelick

  6. Man, this is horsecrap. You’re not going to catch fires quickly working shorter shifts with the same amount of resources, and a decrease in out of GACC resource orders. Common sense stuff. But oh good, I’m glad they’re planning on fatalities by hiring extra. That’s not foreboding at all….

  7. One takeaway here is that IMT’s will be put up in hotels and likely provided with meals in town on tax dollars. Firefighters will be locked down inside numerous campsspread out in various camps increasing demand for security, sink porta toilet units, medical, etc. these resources become spread thin on an active season under as it stands. It is evident that the teams are self serving, not just when it comes to lodging and meals. If we could convey to the IMT’s that firefighters deserve to be treated humanely and fairly, we may gain something from this. This is an already broken system. The camp locations go to the lowest bidder in the area, which means teams will throw firefighters into livestock pens in random rodeo/fairgrounds without second thought. Yes, you are sleeping on top of literal fecal matter. Also, teams try to save money by not providing adequate hand wash stations and toilets and all too often shove firefighters into tight sleeping areas. These hotels for IMT’s are going to be costly and if the current management of firefighter wellbeing remains, financial corners will be cut and people will suffer for it. Firefighters are treated like criminals and animals in these camps and the conditions worsen with each season. Please, if you are part of an IMT and reading, consider subjecting yourself to the conditions you are setting forth for others and try to improve conditions for those who also travel wide and work long shift. We all have basic needs in order to stay healthy and get the job done safely.

  8. The catering kitchens are the most sanitary place in any Fire camp and they still will be even after the new Protocols are implemented. A few changes will have to be made such as eliminating the open salad bar and condiment bar, but those can be replaced with packaged food. A medic could be assigned to the food unit to take temperatures and observe the Caterers employees for signs of illness throughout the day. If you eliminate caterers and substitute MREs I predict that you’ll lose more firefighters to MREs than you will to covid-19.
    I do agree that shortening shift hours will keep firefighters healthier to resist coming down with any Camp crud. Over the years we have lost a lot of the best time to fight fire because of the increasing amount of rules and regulations being required before we actually get to fight fire. I would suggest a split briefing. 1 in the afternoon could be done using continuous loop video covering the portions of the briefing that aren’t as time-sensitive and a short one in the morning just covering the essential time sensitive topics. In the afternoon the resources who are not doing a critical and completable job on that shift could return to camp at staggered times to increase social distancing and not overwhelm Camp resources. Critical tasks could be rotated throughout all the resources so one resource is not overloaded with work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *