The Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service in partnership with the Department of Interior Medical Standards Program (DOI MSP) will soon provide medical exams to federal Emergency Firefighters (EFF). The goal of the exams is to increase safety by identifying pre-existing conditions that could be aggravated by the arduous duty of wildland firefighting.
The medical exams will be provided in approximately 28 Alaska villages through mobile medical units and by scheduled appointments at 18 facilities throughout the state.
Starting in November EFFs in Alaska who are hired on an as-needed basis will need medical exams once every three years and self-certify in between years. The medical screening established by the DOI MSP will screen EFFs for any disqualifying medical conditions prior to participating in the Work Capacity Test (WCT), otherwise known as the pack test. Only wildland firefighters performing arduous duties are required to undergo medical exams and pass the WCT.
For the past two years, Alaska EFFs were granted exemptions to these medical screening requirements. The first phase of implementation of the medical exams began in 2015 and only included regularly employed Department of the Interior wildland firefighters. Applying the requirements to Alaska EFFs was originally planned to begin in 2017, but implementation was delayed until measures were in place to provide mobile units in rural Alaska to conduct the medical examinations. The exams do not include drug testing or affect State of Alaska EFFs.
There is no cost to the EFF for the examination, however, if the individual chooses a location other than their local village BLM AFS will not cover the associated travel costs. After the exam is completed, a determination will be made regarding the candidate’s eligibility to participate in the pack test and the arduous duty of wildland firefighting.
The BLM AFS provides wildland fire management for the Department of the Interior and Native Corporation lands in Alaska and provides oversight of the BLM Alaska aviation program. Firefighter safety and the safety of the public are core values and are fundamental in all areas of wildland fire management.
For more information, EFF candidates can email AFS_EFF@blm.gov or call EFF Program at 1-833-532-8810 or (907)356-5897.
Travis Dotson wrote an article posted on the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned website titled “Gloveless Idiots” expressing his strong opinion about those who point out that firefighters seen in photos sometimes are not wearing gloves. Mr. Dotson used terms like “Glove Nazis” and “Gloveless Idiots”. Maybe the provocative terms were chosen in order to stir up debate, or express his belief that it is OK in certain situations to not wear gloves.
By Travis Dotson
Some people don’t like the picture at the top of this page. Here is part of an email we received:
“The current Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website home screen pictures three wildland firefighters working in the black with hand tools. From my perspective they appear to be less than 10 feet apart and two of them aren’t wearing gloves. Have NWCG standards on Line Construction and PPE changed? I always speak up on these type issues since this is a pending Condition Yellow 9 Line IWI.”
Here’s another one:
“Just sharing that the header picture strikes me wrong, unless you are trying to show a lesson to be learned….no gloves and using hand tools seems out of place, given that we teach people to use gloves and keep their sleeves rolled down — am I missing something?”
So let’s talk about the picture, or rather the practice the picture captures — wildland firefighters working without gloves on. First of all, let’s do some acceptance around the topic:
It happens. This picture depicts reality. This is how work gets done, whether we want it to be done that way or not.
This is a divisive topic.
Number 1 is self-explanatory. Number 2 seems silly, but it’s true — we like to “Us and Them” the crap out of this hot potato. There is a bright line between the Glove Nazis and the Gloveless Idiots.
Glove Nazi’s have super clean Nomex, no tolerance for nuance, and certainly wouldn’t know which end of what tool is best used to fry grub worms (or why you would fry grub worms).
Gloveless Idiots are a bunch of babbling backwoods booger eaters who have no sense of cause and effect.
Well, we won’t get far if we believe either of those extremes will we? (But I bet you bought one of them anyway.)
OK kiddos, let’s sooth our hurt feelings and come back to the table for a little slice of compromise pie.
Gloves protect our hands. Gloves make some tasks more difficult.
Individuals make personal decisions about risk all day everyday. (Insert your favorite daily risk decision example here. Most people use driving, so don’t use that one.)
A Senate Bill introduced in January of this year took an important step through the legislative process Tuesday. The Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act, Senate Bill 2290, was approved unanimously by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It still has to be acted upon in the House of Representatives and the full Senate but this unanimous vote in committee is a good sign. It was introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and co-sponsored by Cory Gardner (R-CO).
If the bill passes and is actually implemented by the federal land management agencies it would generate progress toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when one or both of these critical pieces of situational awareness were unknown. Recent examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Experanza Fires.
The technology to monitor in real time a fire and firefighting resources has existed for years. Various systems are being used already by a few state and local agencies. The military does it for their war fighters, monitoring the enemy and their own forces. If implemented on fires, it will save lives. Firefighters lives are as important as soldiers.
The key points, below, in the legislation as currently written, have requirements for the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. The completion dates will be established from the time the legislation is signed.
Establish a research, development, and testing program, or expand an applicable existing program, to assess unmanned aircraft system technologies, including optionally piloted aircraft, across the full range of wildland fire management operations. (within 180 days)
Develop consistent protocols and plans for the use on wildland fires of unmanned aircraft system technologies, including for the development of real-time maps of the location of wildland fires. (within 1 year)
Develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal Type 1 wildland fire incident management teams. (within 1 year)
Establish a system to track and monitor decisions made by state and federal wildland firefighting agencies to flag unusual costs, and those that endanger firefighters or deviate from an applicable fire management plan. (no time requirement)
Assign air resource advisors to Type 1 incidents. (no time requirement)
Establish a system to collect data on firefighter injuries that were treated by a doctor, and all deaths during the Work Capacity Test, vehicle crashes, and aircraft accidents. (no time requirement)
The two Secretaries will work with NASA to establish a “Rapid Response Erosion Database” and maps that would make it possible to evaluate changes in land cover and soil properties caused by wildland fires. (no time requirement)
The two Secretaries, NASA, the Secretary of Energy, and the National Laboratories shall establish and maintain a system to predict the locations of future wildfires for fire-prone areas of the United States. (no time requirement)
Conduct a study to determine the feasibility of operating aircraft at night when managing wildland fires. (within 1 year)
Cantwell Bill to Modernize Firefighting Technology Passes Committee
Legislation would bring state-of-the-art technology, including real-time mapping and GPS locators, to firelines across the country
Washington, D.C. — Today, at a business meeting of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) – the committee’s top Democrat – secured passage of her bipartisan Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act. The bill passed through committee unanimously.
The bill, co-sponsored by Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), increases the use of technology to keep firefighters and communities safe, better reduce the risks from wildfires, and increase the effectiveness of wildfire response.
“We owe it to the brave men and women who risk their lives to fight wildfires to equip them with the best available technology, to keep them safe, and to ensure their efforts are effective,” said Senator Cantwell in her opening statement before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Included in the bill are measures to increase firefighter safety by providing crews on wildfires with GPS locators and using Unmanned Aircraft Systems to scout out and map wildfires in real-time. Wildfire Today refers to the simultaneous use of mapping aircraft and GPS locators as the ‘Holy Grail’ of firefighter safety. The bill also helps protect families and communities by assisting with smoke forecasting and planning for the impacts of smoke from wildfires.
Above: WFF Executive Director Vicki Minor and NFFF Executive Director Ron Siarnicki. Screenshot from the video referenced below.
The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) is announcing a new initiative directed toward wildland firefighters. Today with the support of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation (WFF), they are introducing the Everyone Goes Home in the Wildland program. It is an offshoot of the Everyone Goes Home® (EGH) program established by the NFFF in 2004 featuring the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives. Their goal was to “help the U.S. Fire Administration achieve its objective of reducing the number of preventable firefighter fatalities”.
In 2017 the NFFF began a series of six listening sessions around the United States asking firefighting personnel for their ideas about how to reduce line of duty deaths and injuries on wildland fires. Input was also obtained from natural resource management organizations that have not traditionally identified themselves as part of what we know collectively as “the fire service.”
Drawing from their success in reducing LODDs among structural firefighters through programs under the Everyone Goes Home® umbrella, the NFFF now proposes to leverage their strengths and resources to do the same for wildland firefighters.
This study conducted by researchers at the University of Idaho followed 9 smokejumpers over the course of a fire season. This is not a representative sample of wildland firefighters and the many different jobs they perform, but it is interesting nonetheless. This year they are monitoring 18 additional smokejumpers and hope to expand it to more firefighters in the future.
University of Idaho study looks at firefighter diet, sleep in an effort to curb impaired work
By Sara Zaske, U. of I. College of Natural Resources
Wildland firefighters are working long shifts this summer all across the West. And they are getting really tired.
Randy Brooks knows exactly how tired. The University of Idaho professor is closely tracking 18 smokejumpers with the help of advanced motion monitors that use an algorithmic fatigue model originally developed for the U.S. military.
This is not just an academic exercise — Brooks is aiming to save lives.
“Wildland firefighters need to be alert and vigilant of their surrounding situation because something could happen at any moment,” he said.
Both of Brooks’ sons fight fires. And the need for great situational awareness hit close to home in 2015 when a fire shifted directions on one of his sons.
It started with a late-night text — his son, Bo Brooks, let him know the crew was heading to work the next day on the Twisp fire in north central Washington. He was nervous because high winds were forecast.
The next day, Brooks got a phone call instead of his typical text.
“My son called me at 4 in the afternoon,” Brooks said. “I knew something was wrong because they usually just text me to let me know they were all right.”
This time everything was not all right. The winds kicked up suddenly, and the fire crew had to “bug out” – run out of an area as quickly and efficiently as possible. Not all of them made it. Three firefighters died and another was badly burned.
After the tragedy, some members of the team quit firefighting. Bo Brooks stayed on but wanted things to change: “He said ‘Dad you’re a forestry researcher — is there anything you can do to help us?’” Randy Brooks said.
So Brooks, who works in U of I’s College of Natural Resources, and Callie Collins, a doctoral student in environmental science, conducted a survey of more than 400 wildland firefighters. The majority indicated that the main contributors to accidents in fire operations were inadequate sleep and fatigue, both mental and physical.
The researchers followed the survey with a pilot study of nine firefighters to closely assess sleep, fatigue and body composition.
They outfitted the smokejumpers, firefighters who parachute from planes to battle wildland fires in remote areas, with Readibands — motion monitors made by Fatigue Science that keep detailed data on sleep and activity. The data was then analyzed using the algorithm model developed by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to obtain an “alertness score,” which quantifies the wearers’ reaction times and relative accident risk.
In the pilot study, Brooks and Collins found firefighters spent more than 42 percent of one month working in impaired conditions with reaction times slowed by as much as 34 to 100 percent – equivalent to having a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.05 to 0.11 or higher. That’s on the cusp of the legal limit for driving at 0.08.
Professor Randy Brooks wearing a Fatigue Fitness Readiband holds a tablet that is monitoring the alertness scores of 18 wildland firefighters currently in the field.
The researchers also had the firefighters’ body composition measured, before and after the fire season, and looked at their hydration and diet. Despite their high level of physical activity, the smokejumpers maintained their weight but gained fat over the summer — and lost muscle mass.
Brooks and Collins believe this may be because of the quality of their diet, which is high in carbohydrates and sugar and lower in protein and healthy fats like those found in eggs, nuts and fish. They hope to test that hypothesis in future studies.
Always a challenging profession, wildland firefighting has become even more difficult in recent years as the wildfire season in the West continues to grow in intensity and duration – today the fire season is about 30 days longer than it was three decades ago.
“It’s like they used to be running a 100-yard dash 30 years ago and now they’re running a marathon with the longer fire seasons,” Brooks said.
And if they are running a firefighting marathon, he argues, the crews may need to eat and drink like elite athletes do as well.
This summer, Brooks doubled the sample size of his pilot study to 18 smokejumpers. He wants to expand the project further in the future, and nearly 200 firefighters have volunteered to participate in his studies. His research was only limited by the expense of the motion trackers, which cost close to $1,000 each at the start of the study.
Still, Brooks hopes whatever data he gathers will help make this dangerous profession safer.
“I think we need a paradigm shift in the way we think about fighting wildfires at all cost and place a greater emphasis on personal safety over protecting resources,” Brooks said. “Trees grow back, homes can be rebuilt, but lives can’t be replaced.”
If left untreated, severe rhabdo may be fatal or result in permanent disability.
Too many wildland firefighters have suffered from rhabdomyolysis (often referred to as rhabdo) in recent years. In some cases they could have been treated much earlier if the victims and those around them had recognized the symptoms.
Firefighting, both structural and wildland, involves tasks in environments that place fire fighters at increased risk for this condition. Rhabdo is a breakdown of muscle tissue that releases proteins and electrolytes into the blood stream and can cause heart and kidney damage. If left untreated, severe rhabdo may be fatal or result in permanent disability. Heat exposure and intense physical effort are just two of many known risk factors for rhabdo.
NIOSH has developed two sets of factsheets and wallet cards—one for structural firefighters and their healthcare providers and another for wildland firefighters and their healthcare providers—to increase awareness about the signs and symptoms of rhabdomyolysis and help fire fighters get early treatment to prevent more serious medical problems.
Factsheets for wildland firefighters and their healthcare providers: