By Tim Swedberg
On September 26, Wildfire Today published an article titled, Survey of Wildland Firefighter Spouses Finds the Job Creates Stress for the Family. The Survey tabulated responses from 1,841 persons including 1,599 from the Forest Service. One of the findings was “78.1 percent of respondents feel stress due to wildland firefighters’ absence.” Respondents also identified the need for “less demanding work schedule that provides for more days off.”
The critical issue is fatigue and its effects
Much of the work/rest research was completed over 20 years ago at the Missoula Technical Development Center (MTDC) and the University of Montana. The Spring 2002 MTDC No. 5 Health and Safety Report provided recommendations focused on: work/rest, assignment length, shift length, and much more.
From this research the National Wildfire Coordinating Group provided a guidance letter dated February 6, 2004, which states, “for fatigue management purposes and in line with credible research recommendations, a 2-day-off-after-14-day assignment standard (exclusive of travel) has been adopted”.
The 2002 research recommendations were a step forward, but (to the best of my knowledge) there has been little or no new wildland firefighter fatigue research commissioned or developed that could drive revision of the current policy.
Considering the increased deployment tempo, fire intensity, and size of current-day fires, it is both prudent and essential to revisit and validate or update the existing 20-year-old work/rest/fatigue recommendations with new and on-going research information. The Joint Fire Science Program, Forest Service Research Stations, and universities can lead in the development of critical new information to update fire management policy.
Is there a way to address the concerns of 78 percent of families that “feel stress due to wildland firefighters’ absence”? The answer is YES!
Back to the roots of Hot Shot crews
In the late 1940’s El Cariso, Del Rosa, and the Los Prietos Hot Shots were created as 30 person crews. In those early days all 30 firefighters would deploy to an incident.
Today, I suggest a return to the 30-person (3 modules) Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC) strength. Rather than dispatch all 3 modules, only 2 modules would respond. This leaves a 10-person module at home for a week of quality rest exclusive of travel. After 7 days the module left at home would replace one of the modules on the fire and one of the modules on the fire would return home for a week. This weekly rotation would continue throughout the fire season and could be accomplished without exceeding the 14-day assignment standard as no crewmember would work beyond 14 days. The rotation provides certainty for families that once every three weeks the firefighter will be working at their home unit.
Adoption of this suggestion means that Incident Management Teams will always receive a full two-module IHC Type 1 crew as is common practice today. The rotation also provides the IHC crew with 10 fresh replenishments every seven days exclusive of travel.
Clearly existing work/rest policies are detrimental to both firefighters and their families as evidenced by the Wildfire Today reporting of November 4, 2017 Suicide Rate Among Wildland firefighters is “astronomical.” The good news is, a fix could be developed and adopted without legislation. Let’s see if the rotating 30-person crew can diminish stress at home and on the fireline. I look forward to your thoughts.
Tim Swedberg is a retired Palomar Hotshot firefighter and captain, fuels manager on the Mt. Hood National Forest, and during his last 10 years served as Communications Director for the Joint Fire Science Program — for 40 years of total service.