NBC News: smokejumper seriously injured on the job, diagnosed with cancer

Ben Elkind and family
Ben Elkind and family

Ben Elkind was seriously injured during a training parachute jump on May 15. During his ninth year as a smokejumper (with six years before that on a hotshot crew) he sustained a dislocated hip and pelvic fracture during a hard landing. During surgery at the hospital they found six fractures and placed three plates and 10 screws to repair the damage.

While Ben is unable to fight fires for an extended length of time, he will not be able to supplement his base income with the usual 1,000 hours of overtime each year which in the past he has depended on to support his wife and two small children.

And then during a full body CT scan a nodule was discovered on his thyroid — meaning, cancer. Ben told Wildfire Today the cancer was caught early and is very treatable.

We have written about Ben previously, but that was before we were aware of the cancer. And the other reason we’re bringing it up now is that yesterday NBC News published a nearly four-minute video story about Ben and other similar examples of injured wildland firefighters.

For more than the last year Ben has been very involved working to improve the working conditions of federal wildland firefighters, being proactive in educating the public and other firefighters about what they can do to improve the pay, classification, health, well-being, and processing of worker’s compensation claims (see photo below). In 2021 he wrote an article that was published in The Oregonian and Wildfire Today. And now he finds himself as one of the examples of what can happen on the job to a wildland firefighter that can seriously affect them and their family.

NFFE meets with Secretary of Labor
NFFE meets with Secretary of Labor in Washington, DC, March 16, 2022. L to R: Max Alonzo  (NFFE), Bob Beckley (NFFE), Hannah Coolidge (USFS Hotshot), Marty Walsh (Sec. Of Labor), Dane Ostler (USFS – Prevention), Ben Elkind (USFS – Smokejumper), Randy Erwin (NFFE – President), and Jeff Friday (NFFE).

There has been some progress during the last year in establishing a list of presumptive diseases for firefighters.

Pending legislation would create the presumption that firefighters who become disabled by certain serious diseases, contracted them on the job, including heart disease, lung disease, certain cancers, and other infectious diseases. The bipartisan Federal Firefighters Fairness Act, H.R. 2499, passed the House in May and is now in the Senate.

In April the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP), in FECA Bulletin No. 22-07, established a list of cancers and medical conditions for which the firefighter does not have to submit proof that their disease was caused by an on the job injury.

Consider telling your Senators and Representative to pass the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, H.R.5631. The name of the bill honors smokejumper Tim Hart who died after being injured on a fire in New Mexico in 2021. (More about the bill.) And ask your Senators to pass the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act, H.R. 2499.

You may want to make a donation to the gofundme account set up by the Redmond Smokejumper Welfare Organization to assist Ben and his family.

Horror stories about how firefighters injured on the job are treated by OWCP

They can become a victim a second time

Tim Hart. USFS photo
Tim Hart. USFS photo.

If you are a federal employee hopefully you don’t know what “OWCP” stands for. If you do, you could have been forced to deal with them, and your experience may or may not have been a positive experience.

Many federal workers have been pleased with the services provided by the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, but too many stories from others are truly sickening.

On BuzzFeed you can find articles titled, for example, “Putting ketchup on more than half of these foods is a federal crime — are you guilty?” (for real). But an offshoot, named BuzzFeed News, actually writes serious articles about news of the day. They even have a reporter assigned to cover the White House. Yesterday they published a long thoroughly researched piece about how some wildland firefighters injured on the job have been profoundly mistreated and ill served by the OWCP.

If a firefighter is injured while working, or becomes ill on the job, OWCP is required to do everything they can to make them whole again, including covering medical and rehab expenses so they can get back to work without wiping out their bank accounts.

Their Mission Statement:

"The Mission of the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs is to protect the interests of workers who are injured or become ill on the job, their families and their employers by making timely, appropriate, and accurate decisions on claims, providing prompt payment of benefits and helping injured workers return to gainful work as early as is feasible."

The BuzzFeed News article describes numerous examples of firefighters who were seriously injured while working, then confronted with huge medical bills. Some were being hounded multiple times a day from bill collectors demanding money that should have been paid by OWCP. Firefighters’ credit cards have been maxed out and credit ratings destroyed. Injured firefighters have routinely been reduced to setting up GoFundMe pages and depending on grants from the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. Rehab has been discontinued too soon. All because OWCP is incompetent or because their funding has been reduced to the point where they can’t hire enough staff to “protect the interests of workers who are injured or become ill on the job.”

One of the more recent, of many examples in the article is what has happened to Michelle Koch Hart, the widow of Tim Hart, a smokejumper who died after being injured on the Eicks Fire in New Mexico in May of this year.

Here is an excerpt from the BuzzFeed News article:

“Today, she’s still battling with federal agencies, trying to prove the facts around her husband’s death to recoup money. It’s been a maze of talking to case managers who send her to different departments, calling 1-800 numbers that lead nowhere, digging up records, and refiling paperwork that apparently never went through. Some of the claims can’t be submitted until the Forest Service investigation into Tim’s death is completed, and she has no idea when that will be. The Forest Service told BuzzFeed News that “reviews of fatalities can be a lengthy process.” This month, she got an unexplained bill from the Department of Agriculture for $1,030, due Dec. 9. She has no idea what it’s for, and when she tried to find out, she said, the agent could not talk to her because she was not Tim.

”  “It’s very traumatizing, lonely,” she said. “There’s no one person in the federal government who is helping me. People don’t know who I should talk to. I have to do everything on my own, but I still have so many unanswered questions. The system is broken.”

“The US Forest Service, which oversees the large majority of the country’s wildland firefighters, has known for more than a decade that its employees have struggled to navigate the workers’ compensation filing system, get claims approved, and have their medical needs paid for, according to the documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News. They give insight into how many top officials, including the Forest Service’s current director, were not only aware of these widespread problems, but had been discussing their frustrations about the process internally for years.

“Leadership in the Forest Service failed to do a damn thing to address our issues with OWCP despite us repeatedly asking and offering solutions,” Buddy Byrd, a former safety and occupational health manager for the Forest Service’s Region 6, which spans Oregon and Washington, told BuzzFeed News. “OWCP is a piece of a bigger systemic failure on behalf of the US Forest Service.”

Our take

The federal agencies that employ firefighters and forestry technicians, need to quadruple their efforts to force OWCP to process the claims of the injured quickly and fairly.

They could consider assigning a human resources person to every injured employee who can troubleshoot problems caused by the OWCP. They should not be left alone and victimized a second time for the injury they suffered while serving their country fighting wildfires.

Upon the death of a firefighter the agencies need to figure out a way to quickly produce enough documentation to satisfy the OWCP that they were killed on the job in the line of duty.

Congress needs to appropriately fund the OWCP so they have staff capable of serving the needs of injured firefighters, and their spouses.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Ben and Tom.

Tim Hart’s journey home

Live stream

On Sunday, June 6, 2021 you can view a two-part live stream on Facebook of Tim Hart’s final journey home. Tim suffered a critical injury while parachuting into the Eicks Fire in New Mexico and passed away June 3.

The stream will be available on the Facebook pages of the Custer Gallatin National Forest and the Shoshone National Forest. The first stream will go live at approximately 8:30 a.m. MDT. The second stream of Tim arriving home in Cody, Wyoming should be available at around 3:00 p.m. MDT (*delayed starts are possible).

Tim Hart