When local residents who aren’t firefighters see summertime haze or clouds on the horizon, they often guess it’s smoke. Mid-summer they often think it’s wildfire smoke, and in the fall they suspect it’s a prescribed burn. This is a “common experience” with wildfire smoke, according to attorneys with Oregon OSHA, who successfully argued last week that it’s fairly easy to determine when the air is smoky and affecting air quality.
“Most times, it’s not obvious,” attorney James Anderson declared. “There’s no method to determine that air quality is due to wildfire smoke, or prescribed burn smoke, or other things that make up particulates.”
Magistrate Mark D. Clarke was not persuaded. “Why is it that complicated?” he asked. He said Oregonians are quite familiar with wildfire smoke. “I’m not sure any of us have any trouble knowing when wildfire smoke rolls in. I’m having trouble with that, factually.”
The lawsuit also claimed that OSHA’s rules to protect workers against extreme heat and smoke were too vague to be enforced. The new rules, as KGW-TV reported last July, took effect after recent heat waves in Oregon resulted in medical problems and deaths, prompting new requirements for employers to protect employees from heat-related illnesses. The new OSHA rules require, when the heat index hits or exceeds 80 °F, that employers provide shaded areas for workers to rest, more break time, and access to plenty of water. When temperatures exceed 90 then breaks must be longer, communication must be more frequent, and workers must be monitored more closely.
Dangerous heat exposure is risky especially for farm workers, according to Ira Cuello Martinez, policy director for Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Oregon’s farm worker union. “You’re constantly moving and doing repetitive motions, having to bend down, and there aren’t many shaded structures when it comes to the field or doing work in agriculture,” he said.
On Thursday CPTPA Chief Fire Warden Howard Weeks signed an agreement with OSHA that reduced the fine to $10,500 and revised the citation. Originally OSHA accused CPTPA of not furnishing a place of employment that was free of “recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees”. OSHA said eight of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and 11 of the 18 Watch Out Situations were present and not mitigated in the citation issued to the CPTPA and the Notice issued to the USFS.
Below is an excerpt from an article at Firehouse.com that originally appeared in the Lewiston Tribune:
Idaho Department of Lands spokeswoman Emily Callihan said the original citation would have made it impossible for firefighters to do their jobs.
Callihan said the 10 and 18 are guidelines and not regulations, and the hazards they cover are present on nearly every fire. But, she said, the OSHA citation, as originally written, would have required firefighters to leave any fire where any of the 10 orders could not be followed or any of the 18 situations were present.
“What OSHA eventually recognized, is by removing firefighters from fires where any of those situations are present would result in not being able to respond with initial attack and keep fires small,” she said. “So it would have resulted in having fires get big and present more of a danger to firefighters and the public in the long run.”
The Wildfire Lessons Learned Center has released a video documenting the extraction of an injured firefighter from the 2011 Las Conchas Fire in northern New Mexico. Kenny Lovell of the Craig Interagency Hotshots is interviewed in the video and tells his story of being seriously injured, treated, and transported after being hit by a rolling rock. He suffered a broken pelvis, a broken fibula, and a large hematoma.
The title of the video, ROCK! Firefighter Extraction Success Story, describes the incident as a success. It was, in the sense that the Hotshot crew had access to equipment which was transported to the accident scene to treat and package the victim, there were several EMTs on the crew, the Hotshots had drilled for similar incidents, a helicopter with short haul capability was available, and 5 months later Mr. Lovell returned to work on the Hotshot crew. All that is great and the Hotshots and the helitack crew deserve praise for accomplishing what they did with the resources that were available..
Having said that, it is still troubling that 2 hours and 15 minutes elapsed before Mr. Lovell departed the accident scene in a helicopter, and 30 minutes later he arrived at a hospital. On the Deer Park fire in 2010 a firefighter with a broken femur was on the ground for 4 hours and 23 minutes before he was transported in a helicopter. And firefighter Andrew Palmer, who bled to death from a broken femur suffered on a fire in 2008, spent 2 hours and 51 minutes at the accident scene before he was extracted via hoist on a Coast Guard helicopter.
Agencies who place firefighters in remote areas should realize they have the ethical responsibility to supply the training, equipment, and aviation resources to at least begin transporting by air a seriously injured firefighter within an hour. I am surprised that OSHA has not cited the federal agencies for this. Of course getting injured firefighters to an appropriate hospital within the Golden Hour would be ideal, but depending on the distance involved that could be difficult. A helicopter with short haul capability can be helpful, but it is not the quickest or most efficient method for extracting an injured person. It involves several steps, especially, like in this case, when the helicopter responds to the scene without being fully configured for short haul.
Several agencies have helicopters with hoists which can quickly extract and then transport injured personnel from remote locations, including CAL FIRE, Los Angeles County Fire Department, and the Coast Guard. If the other federal and state agencies decided to take that step, it would not have to be a trial program with one helicopter like the U.S. Forest Service night flying helicopter effort this year, because other agencies have been using hoists (and night vision goggles) for decades,
“The organization is ethically and morally obligated to put an EMS program in place that is supported by the organization, and given the standardized training and equipment to make the program succeed.”
The above is from the 2010 facilitated learning analysis for the Deer Park Fire extraction, quoting a Senior Firefighter/Paramedic on the Sawtooth Helitack Crew.
The U.S. Forest Service has released their Serious Accident Investigation Report on the fatality of Anne Veseth, which occurred on the Steep Corner Fire 56 miles northeast of Orofino, Idaho August 12, 2012. The fire was on private property and was being managed by the Clearwater‐Potlatch Timber Protective Association (CPTPA). Ms. Veseth, in her second season working as a firefighter for the USFS, was killed when she was struck by a falling 150-foot tall fire-weakened green cedar tree. The tree fell on its own and was 13 inches in diameter where it struck her.
Here is an excerpt from the just-released USFS report:
“Analysis and Conclusion
“The cause of this accident was that a green cedar tree, weakened by fire, fell and struck a firefighter in the head. It fell with a force far greater than the design limits of any hardhat could withstand. This tragedy resulted from the chance alignment of certain conditions: an emergency response to control a wildland fire, which required the presence of firefighters in an area where fire‐weakened trees could fall on their own with little or no warning. The SAI team concluded that the convergence of these events – in a very specific way and with very specific timing – resulted in a fatal accident. Slight differences in any number of factors could have led to drastically different results.
“Firefighters faced the same choice on this fire as they do on almost every fire: engage the fire and expose firefighters to a certain set of risks in order to control the fire, or don’t engage the fire and don’t control it, knowing that such a decision often poses a wider range of risks to firefighters and the public. Firefighters made the same basic risk decision on the Steep Corner Fire as they do routinely on most fires: to engage the fire and attempt to control it, knowing that firefighters would be exposed to hazards during suppression efforts.
“On the day of the accident, after the implementation of safety mitigation measures, the firefighting professionals involved in the Steep Corner Fire reasoned the risks of engaging and suppressing the fire to be acceptable. After considerable review of the incident, including the leadership, qualifications, interagency cooperation, fuels, weather, incident management organization, and local policies, the SAI Team concluded that the judgments and decisions of the firefighters involved in the Steep Corner Fire were appropriate. Firefighters all performed within the leaders’ intent and scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The team did not find any reckless actions or violations of policy or protocol.
“On August 11, the day before the fatal accident, two Forest Service resources decided to limit their acceptance of risk on the Steep Corner Fire. Both the IHC and the E‐31 crew identified necessary safety mitigations. The IHC chose not to engage. The E‐31 crew disengaged and indicated they would not return to the fire until mitigation measures were implemented.
“C‐PTPA took these events seriously and subsequently addressed the recommended mitigation measures. Personnel became the “adapters” that allowed C‐PTPA and the Forest Service, two organizations with very different natural resource management mandates, to functiontogether. Mitigation measures included ordering more firefighting resources, adding line overhead and a radio repeater, and using contract fallers to fell hazard trees ahead of those digging fireline. The morning of August 12, the E‐31 crew decided to re‐engage when it became clear C‐PTPA was addressing their safety concerns. The IHC was already reassigned to anotherfire and did not return. In general, firefighters expressed their impressions that Saturday was a bad day but Sunday (before the accident) was much better, in terms of organization of the fire and mitigation of the hazards.”
(end of excerpt)
The 38-page report only has two recommendations. One is to introduce the LCES (Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, Safety Zones) concept into the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s curriculum for use in disciplines other than fire management. The other is: “Occupational Safety and Health Office should develop a methodology for effectively teaching non‐fire workers the concepts related to hazard tree identification, scouting an area, and determining escape routes and safety zones for overhead hazards”.
Several things about the incident and the report are troubling, but one item in the report stood out (emphasis added):
This tragedy resulted from the chance alignment of certain conditions: an emergency response to control a wildland fire, which required the presence of firefighters in an area where fire‐weakened trees could fall on their own with little or no warning.
Perhaps it is just an unfortunate choice of words chosen by the primary author which somehow was missed by the large number of people who probably reviewed the report before it was released. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe they didn’t really mean to imply that firefighters are REQUIRED to perform an action on a fire simply because the fire is uncontrolled, even “where fire‐weakened trees could fall on their own with little or no warning”.
Someone might say that trees could fall during suppression action on most timber fires. Right. However on this fire, the large number of falling trees was identified the previous day, when a Hotshot crew refused to be assigned to the fire because of falling trees and many other unmitigated hazards, saying in a SAFENET report filed three days later that they “had huge concerns about the number of snags burning”. An engine crew left the fire for similar reasons that afternoon, but returned the next day after being assured that the hazards had been mitigated.
Firefighters are not REQUIRED to perform a task on a fire if there are known extraordinary hazards that cannot mitigated. We are talking about trees, grass, brush, or houses…. that will all grow back. Firefighters can’t.
The Citation for the CPTPA and the Notice for the USFS were both dated February 7, 2013.
The CPTPA citation was for the following:
Serious violation: For not providing a safe working environment; 8 of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders were violated, and they did not mitigate 11 of the 18 Watch Out Situations. Proposed penalty: $4,900.
Serious violation: employees engaged in wildland firefighting were exposed to being struck by hazard trees while constructing fire line. Proposed penalty: $4,900.
Serious violation: Firefighters constructing direct fire line did not have fire shelters readily available. Firefighters constructing fire line were wearing denim and work pants not rated as fire resistant. Proposed penalty: $4,200.
The U.S. Forest Service Notice of Unsafe or Unhealthful Working Conditions was for the following:
Serious Violation: 7 of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders were violated, and they did not mitigate 9 of the 18 Watch Out Situations.
Repeat Violation: employees engaged in wildland firefighting were exposed to being struck by hazard trees while constructing fire line.
If the violations are not contested they must be abated by various dates in March, 2013, and the fine must be paid within 15 working days.
Thomas Marovich died on July 21, 2009 when he fell while performing routine helicopter rappelling proficiency training while assigned to the Backbone fire near Willow Creek, California. On October 2, 2009 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued “serious” and “willful” violation notices to the U. S. Forest Service for the incident.
The USFS has just released their Preliminary Aircraft Accident Investigation Report which was completed on October 19, 2009, and a Safety Action Plan dated February 1, 2010. The report is 63 pages long, but I will mention a few of the key points. [UPDATE 9-13-2011; the Lessons Learned Center removed the two reports from their site at the direction of the U. S. Forest Service, who said they were not intended to be released to the public. They replaced the two reports with the National Transportation Safety Board narrative.]
A proficiency rappel is required every 14 days to maintain technical competency. Marovich was in his first season rappelling and was about to make his 11th rappel.
Before the rappelling training, Marovich noticed that the Kong clip on his Tri-link was broken. The Kong Clip is used to center the “J” hook at the forward corner of the Tri-link. It is a nice piece of equipment to have, but is not essential. Kong clips are prone to breaking and are not popular. He sought assistance from a spotter trainee who replaced the Kong clip with an “O” ring, which was an authorized substitution. If I interpreted the report correctly, the “O” ring was installed incorrectly.
Here are some photos from the report showing for illustration purposes examples of a correct and then an incorrect installation of an “O” ring on a Tri-link.
Before the rappelling attempt, four people looked at or inspected Marovich’s rappelling gear: the spotter trainee who installed the “O” ring, Marovich, and in the helicopter a spotter, and another helitack crewperson who did a “buddy check”.
Marovich fell, unarrested, shortly after stepping out onto the helicopter skid. He was pronounced deceased about 30 minutes later.
The Human Factors section of the report, beginning on page 33, is particularly interesting. Written by Jim Saveland and Ivan Pupulidy, it discusses, along with other issues, the concept of not seeing elements in our visual field, or “blindness”.