California passes bills boosting mental health support for firefighters

The legislation addresses peer support and treatment for post-traumatic stress

Legion Lake Fire South Dakota
A firefighter at the Legion Lake Fire in Custer State Park, South Dakota, December 13, 2019. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Yesterday the Governor of California signed into law two pieces of legislation that can improve support for the mental health of firefighters.

The California Firefighter Peer Support and Crisis Referral Services Act authorizes state, local, and regional public fire agencies to establish a Peer Support and Crisis Referral Program to provide an agency-wide network of peer representatives available to aid fellow employees with emotional or professional issues. The bill also provides that emergency services personnel have a right to refuse to disclose, and to prevent another from disclosing, a confidential communication between the emergency service personnel and a peer support team member, crisis hotline staff member, or crisis referral service.

A second bill, SB-542 Workers’ Compensation, classifies post-traumatic stress as an “injury”, like conventional physical injuries. This will allow compensation for hospital stays, surgery, medical treatment, disability indemnity, and death benefits.

The bills do not apply to federal employees, with a few exceptions for some NASA and Department of Defense firefighters in the state.

These bills are a step toward recognizing presumptive diseases or injuries that when suffered by a firefighter are presumed to be an on the job injury, and would be treated as such. Montana, British Columbia, Washington, and other jurisdictions have presumptive disease programs for firefighters. Of course the key is the list of diseases that are covered. Listing one or two would leave out the eight or ten others that can be caused by serving the public as a firefighter.

Jon Stewart scolds Congress regarding reauthorizing the 9/11 victims compensation fund

Blasts ’empty chair’ lawmakers

Senate Judiciary Committee Jon Stewart
While testifying during a June 11, 2019 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jon Stewart (at lower left) turns away for a second from the empty Senators’ chairs to look at the first responders in the audience. Screen grab from CNN video. Click to enlarge.

Since at least 2010 Jon Stewart, formerly of the Daily Show, has been striving to get Congress to provide adequate health care for the firefighters and other first responders that fought the fires and assisted victims after the World Trade Center towers were attacked by terrorists in 2001.

This morning he appeared again before the Senate Judiciary Committee to encourage Senators to approve the bill that will be voted on tomorrow, June 12. Every few years the legislation that funds health care for the 9/11 first responders suffering from cancer and other diseases expires, and the fight to do the right thing must be reintroduced and refought. The bill now pending will make health care for the 9/11 first responders permanent.

You will see in the video how strongly Mr. Stewart feels about this issue.

Here are some quotes from Mr. Stewart’s testimony:

This hearing should be flipped. These men and women should be up on that stage and Congress should be down here answering their questions as to why this is so damn hard and takes so damn long.

Setting aside, no American should face financial ruin because of a health issue.

Certainly 9/11 first responders shouldn’t have to decide whether to live or to have a place to live.

They responded in 5 seconds. They did their job with courage, grace, tenacity, humility — 18 years later, DO YOURS.

 

Below is an excerpt from an article at The Sun, published September 11, 2018:

In the following days [after the attacks on 9/11], people from every state – and almost every single district – of America helped at Ground Zero – rescuing casualties, digging up bodies, cleaning up and rebuilding.

Now they are paying a high price for their selflessness – while most of the world remains oblivious to their suffering.

Over 2,000 first responders – anyone who helped out at Ground Zero, including building workers, electricians, doctors and paramedics – have died from illnesses caused by breathing in the toxic fumes that engulfed the site in the weeks after the terror attack.

As thousands more currently battle 9/11-related diseases such as cancer or severe respiratory disease, shockingly, it’s predicted that by the end of this year the number of first responders who have died since the tragic event will overtake the number who died on the day…

All articles on Wildfire Today that mention Jon Stewart and the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund.

TBT: working for Ron Campbell

For Throwback Thursday, we are revisiting an article I wrote October 11, 2013 shortly after finding out about the death of Ron Campbell. It was titled, “Ron Campbell, 1942 – 2013”.


We recently found out that a former U.S. Forest Service district Fire Management Officer and Superintendent of the El Cariso Hotshots passed away in April. Ron Campbell for the last 13 years had been dealing with a variety of medical issues, including cancer as well as heart and liver failures. He had been living in Redding, California and was 72 years old.

Ron Campbell at El Cariso Hotshot Camp, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Ron Campbell at El Cariso Hotshot Camp, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I worked for Ron on El Cariso for three years. He was by far the best supervisor I ever had. He became more than that — a friend.

This news comes a couple of weeks after we found out that the El Cariso Hot Shots have been disbanded, at least until next year — two blows that feel like a punch to the gut for those who knew Ron or worked on the crew.

He started with the U.S. Forest Service in 1961 as a firefighter on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California. In 1963 he was promoted to Driver at Alpine working for Chuck Mills and later worked at Descanso. He was a smokejumper at Redding in 1964 for one summer then he worked in fire prevention and was station foreman at Japatul and Mt. Laguna on the Cleveland NF. He was Superintendent of the El Cariso Hot Shots from 1969 until 1975 when he transferred to the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California as Assistant Fire Management Officer on the Yolla Bolly Ranger District. Two years later he transferred to the Sequoia as district Fire Management Officer at Kernville. In 1979 he left the USFS to work with his brother as a private contractor on slash removal and fuel modification projects.

Before I was on El Cariso I worked for one summer on the Mendocino National Forest in northern California running a chain saw on a timber stand improvement (TSI) crew, thinning young Douglas Fir stands. I went to “fire school”, got a Red Card, and worked on three small fires that summer. I decided that fighting fire was more fun than thinning trees and in 1970 got a job on El Cariso with the help of a USFS college student summer work program through my school, Mississippi State University.

Kenny Tortez and Ron Campbell
Kenny Tortez, Supt. of Del Rosa Hotshots (left) and Ron Campbell on the way to a fire with their two crews in 1971. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Ron was skeptical of me at first, since I got the job through a non-traditional method. He pushed me harder, I thought, than most of the others on the crew, but maybe everyone thought the same thing about themselves. Eventually he came around to the fact that I had chain saw experience and made me a sawyer on the crew. One of my fellow firefighters thought I was stupid for disclosing that I knew how to run a chain saw, saying it was the hardest job. I was shocked the next year when I became one of the crew foremen.

Ron was able to see things in people, tap into their strengths, and help them develop their potential. We did a great deal of training on the crew, more than most wildland firefighters did in the 1970s. He knew how to inspire people and challenged us to become students of fire.

I asked Charlie Phenix what he remembered about Ron:

I was on the El Cariso crew 1969-1970 and Ron was the Superintendent. The crew was 30 men and most were new. I remember him as bigger than life, but I was just 19. From the beginning he was very stern but fair, I never ran so many PT miles in my life. He had a bent broken finger and when he pointed at us it was kind of funny. This was only 3 years after the Loop Fire so safety was a priority. He saw things in me I didn’t know I had, and in 1970 I became a crew leader (we split crew into 2-15 man teams). For a newby it gave me the foundation of Wildland firefighting I carried for my 38 year career. I still occasionally think of him and the positive impact he had on my life.

Hal Mortier also has memories of his time on the crew:

Ron Campbell was my first supervisor in the Forest Service and a memorable one at that. He was a no-nonsense leader with very high standards and expectations on the job…yet a lot of fun and a friend off the job. Ron was a shaker and a mover as evidenced by his rapid assent through the ranks. I am certain I modeled some of my leadership style and qualities after Ron, a true pleasure to work with and for!

And from Rick Bondar:

He was a tough, smart, ballsy, son of a bitch, who scared the hell out of me my first year and whom I respected and was almost friends with my last 2-3 years on the crew. We would have followed him anywhere & DID.

Continue reading “TBT: working for Ron Campbell”

Montana becomes 49th state with some form of presumptive care for firefighters

Montana Governor to sign legislation today

With the passage of Senate Bill 160 Montana becomes the 48th state with some form of presumptive care for firefighters.

The Firefighters Protection Act lists 12 presumptive diseases for which it would be easier for a firefighter to file a workers’ compensation claim if they served a certain number of years:

  • Bladder cancer, 12 years
  • Brain cancer, 10 years
  • Breast cancer, 5 years
  • Myocardial infarction, 10 years
  • colorectal cancer, 10 years
  • Esophageal cancer, 10 years
  • Kidney cancer, 15 years
  • Leukemia, 5 years
  • Mesothelioma or asbestosis, 10 years
  • Multiple myeloma, 15 years
  • Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, 15 years
  • Lung cancer, 4 years

The bill applies to volunteers and local fire departments in Montana, but not to federal firefighters. It is unclear if it affects those employed by the state government.

The federal government has not established a presumptive disease program for their 15,000 wildland firefighters.

At a bill signing ceremony Thursday afternoon Governor Bullock will issue a proclamation ordering flags to be displayed at half-staff in honor of all Montana firefighters who have lost their lives from a job-related illness in the line of duty.

Governor Proclamation Montana firefighters


In a related story from April 12, “British Columbia may expand firefighter occupational disease coverage to wildland firefighters”

British Columbia may expand firefighter occupational disease coverage to wildland firefighters

Minister calls firefighting dangerous, says it can have severe impacts to physical and mental health

Massachusetts firefighters British Columbia
Firefighters from Massachusetts board an aircraft on the way to the Elephant Hill Fire near Kamloops, British Columbia. Photo by Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The United States government does not have a presumptive disease policy for their 15,000 federal wildland firefighters, but British Columbia is seeking to expand their program.

From The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:


Firefighters who have battled British Columbia wildfires, fire investigators, and fire crews working for Indigenous groups will be eligible for greater access to job-related health compensation under legislation introduced Thursday.

Labour Minister Harry Bains tabled amendments to the Workers Compensation Act that extends occupational disease and mental health benefits to more people who work around fires.

The proposed changes will expand cancer, heart disease and mental health disorder presumptions to include the three other job categories, because Bains says those workers are often involved in the traumatic issues related to fires.

Presumptive illnesses faced by firefighters are recognized under the act as conditions caused by the nature of the work, rather than having firefighters prove their issue is job related to receive supports and benefits.

Bains says the government expanded the presumptive job-related conditions last year to include mental-health disorders for police officers, paramedics, sheriffs, correctional officers and most urban firefighters. He says firefighting is dangerous work that can have serious impacts on an individual’s physical and mental health.

“They will enjoy the same coverage as the other firefighters — the first responders — receive as part of giving them certain cancer protections, heart disease and injuries and mental health,” Bains said during a news conference after the legislation was introduced.

“These steps are very necessary to ensure our workplaces are the safest in the country.”

Researchers compare smoke emissions from prescribed and wild fires

DC-10 drop North Park Fire
A DC-10 comes out of the smoke dropping retardant on the North Park Fire in Southern California, October 12, 2018. Screen grab from @ABC7Leticia video.

Four researchers, in a study funded by the U.S. Forest Service, evaluated data collected in 25 previous studies to compare exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) created by prescribed fires and wildfires. The authors were Kathleen Navarro, Don Schweizer, John Balmes, and Ricardo Cisneros. Titled, A Review of Community Smoke Exposure from Wildfire Compared to Prescribed Fire in the United States, it is published under Open Access guidelines.

Below are excerpts from the study — the abstract and conclusions. And, information about a March 21 webinar featuring Ms. Navarro about the health effects of vegetation smoke.


Abstract

Prescribed fire, intentionally ignited low-intensity fires, and managed wildfires-wildfires that are allowed to burn for land management benefit-could be used as a land management tool to create forests that are resilient to wildland fire. This could lead to fewer large catastrophic wildfires in the future. However, we must consider the public health impacts of the smoke that is emitted from wildland and prescribed fire.

The objective of this synthesis is to examine the differences in ambient community-level exposures to particulate matter (PM2.5) from smoke in the United States in relation to two smoke exposure scenarios-wildfire fire and prescribed fire. A systematic search was conducted to identify scientific papers to be included in this review. TheWeb of Science Core Collection and PubMed, for scientific papers, and Google Scholar were used to identify any grey literature or reports to be included in this review. Sixteen studies that examined particulate matter exposure from smoke were identified for this synthesis-nine wildland fire studies and seven prescribed fire studies. PM2.5 concentrations from wildfire smoke were found to be significantly lower than reported PM2.5 concentrations from prescribed fire smoke.

Wildfire studies focused on assessing air quality impacts to communities that were nearby fires and urban centers that were far from wildfires. However, the prescribed fire studies used air monitoring methods that focused on characterizing exposures and emissions directly from, and next to, the burns.

This review highlights a need for a better understanding of wildfire smoke impact over the landscape. It is essential for properly assessing population exposure to smoke from different fire types.

Conclusions

Destructive wildfires have higher rates of biomass consumption and have greater potential to expose more people to smoke than prescribed fires. Naturally ignited fires that are allowed to self-regulate can provide the best scenario for ecosystem health and long-term air quality. Generally, prescribed fire smoke is much more localized, and the smoke plumes tend to stay within the canopy, which absorbs some of the pollutants, reducing smoke exposure. Land managers want to utilize prescribed fire as a land management tool to restore fire-adapted landscapes. Thus, additional work is needed to understand the differences in exposures and public health impacts of smoke of prescribedfire compared to wildfire. One way to do this would be for managers to collaborate with air quality departments (internal to agency or external) to monitor PM2.5concentrations in communities near a prescribed fire.

Consistent monitoring strategies for all wildland fires, whether prescribed or naturally occurring, are needed to allow the most robust comparative analysis. Currently, prescribed fire monitoring is often focused on capturing the area of highest impact or characterizing fire emissions, while wildfire monitoring often relies on urban monitors supplemented by temporary monitoring of communities of concern. A better understanding of smoke impact over the landscape and related impacts is essential for properly assessing population exposure to smoke from different fire types.

(end of excerpt)


In a webinar March 21 at 11 a.m. CDT, Ms. Navarro will describe information from a different smoke study. She will present on a recent Joint Fire Science Program study estimating the lifetime risk of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease from exposure to particulate matter (PM) from smoke. This analysis combined measured PM exposures on wildfires, estimated wildland firefighter breathing rates, and an exposure disease relationship for PM to estimate mortality of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality from lifetime exposure to PM.