Wildland firefighting is an innately dangerous occupation, and the highest safety precautions must be employed to keep wildland firefighters as safe as possible.
The Great Fire of 1910, in which 84 wildland firefighters lost their lives, is an example of the risks of wildland firefighting, and what was learned helped improve wildland fire prevention and suppression policies. Ideally, fatalities should never happen during wildland firefighting activities, but this worst-case scenario still occurs. In fact, 120 wildland firefighters lost their lives in the fire service line of duty in the United States between 1990 and 2004.
Wildland firefighting safety procedures have been improving since the United States Forest Service (USFS) was established in 1905. This has ensured better equipment and procedures, and the establishment of minimum standards for firefighter fitness and training. But wildland firefighters working at federal and private agencies across the nation are still suffering from the many safety setbacks.
Current Safety Challenges
Three of the most prevalent safety challenges include budgetary restrictions, lapses in training, and asymmetric health challenges. The changing nature of wildland fires also poses extreme difficulties.
The leading cause of limited access to equipment is due to budgetary restrictions. A wildland firefighting entity’s inability to purchase updated equipment can put its firefighters at undue risk while in the field. This lack of funds and grants for personal equipment prevents firefighters from gaining the safety measures and gear necessary to properly protect themselves. And with advancing technology comes higher pricing, pushing the envelope on funds available for updated equipment.
Not only that, but as climate change creates a longer fire season with more intense and frequent fires, currently allocated funds can quickly run dry.
Training wildland firefighters on the correct use of gear and proper practices is essential for individual safety, as well as efficient fire fighting. This means that traditional training practices need constant updates and improvement to keep firefighters as protected as possible in ever-changing wildland fire conditions.
According to Wildfire Magazine, most wildland firefighter deaths are caused by a medical event, such as a heart attack, rather than entrapment and burn-overs. Without the implementation of adequate fitness standards, wildland firefighters lack the ability to adapt to the environment of a fire, putting themselves at greater risk on the fire line. What’s more, wildland firefighter health standards can vary greatly by jurisdiction, creating asymmetry in the health standards implemented by each agency.
Evolving Fire Conditions
Wildland fire suppression is challenging, and each year this challenge continues to grow. Climate change is increasing the frequency of wildland fires across the nation and shedding new light on the dangers associated with firefighting. In addition to these exacerbating weather conditions, wildland and urban areas are increasingly intermingled, rendering many traditional suppression techniques ineffective.
Methods to Maximize Safety
Focus on Proper Equipment
Equipment is only as good as its condition and its availability. Focusing research grants on equipment updates can help indirectly fund the improvement of gear safety standards. A regular review and application of new and better-suited technology and materials can help maximize the opportunities to keep wildland firefighters safe and, in turn, improve the minimum requirements for safety gear.
One wildland firefighting team may not have enough equipment to respond to all the wildfires that occur in its area, which makes management planning and operations vital to coordinating and mobilizing assets from other agencies in times of need.
Create a Culture of Safety
Safety checks must be a part of the wildland firefighting culture and a mandatory aspect of every team’s daily routine. A few minutes to review safety measures and check gear can help instill conscientious attention to routine safety practices. A culture of safety can be established by agencies, departments and firefighting companies through the incorporation of routine practices, such as:
- Ensuring safety is a routine part of meetings
- Imparting a daily safety reminder
- Implementing incident action plans and drills
- Recording and reviewing all incidents with the team
- Promoting the reasons behind each safety practice
- Posting safety tips clearly and visibly in common areas
- Encouraging personal responsibility and ownership, such as the appointment of a safety captain within the team
Instituting nationally-recognized safety standards can help all wildland firefighting agencies adhere to a uniform set of safety standards. For example, all gear should adhere to minimum safety standards. One cohesive approach to safety standards can help a wildland firefighter know what to look for and expect from their employer. This way they can confidently raise their hand if they find a discrepancy. It is both the responsibility of the individual to demand they are equipped with adequate gear for their job, and the responsibility of the dispatching entity to provide that gear.
Requiring minimum levels of health and fitness can also help reduce incidents. Although all federal and most private agencies require wildland firefighters to pass a Work Capacity Test (WCT) to ensure they are physically capable of carrying out their work, ongoing programs are necessary for maintaining fitness levels. As climate change and fuel sources create more dangerous conditions at the fire line, it is of the utmost importance that wildland firefighters are physically able to deal with environmental stressors. The NIFC Firefit Program is one way that wildland firefighters can stay fit and reduce injuries, however the success of the program relies on management support, as well as the individual’s motivation.
Centralized Communication and Standardized Incident Reviews
By centralizing dispatch to one unified system, set standards can be maintained, and every available asset can be accounted for, and transferred from a neighboring area if necessary. By funneling all national agencies into one cohesive source, a full national network could be monitored and the implementation of safety standards can be enforced uniformly. This includes ensuring that a minimum number of all assets, including gear, are available at each fire.
Every incident or near-miss should also be fully reviewed by a centralized entity so that safety standards can be reviewed, adjusted, and improved on a national level if necessary.
In addition to general safety standards, standardized training that is shared among wildland firefighting agencies nationwide can help to avoid confusion. Standardizing training programs can ensure that training is comprehensive, relevant, and focused clearly on the application of safety measures. Such programs must also be properly and reliably funded to prevent any lapses in implementation and updates to training protocols.
Wildland firefighting is a matter of life and death, and there is still a high concern for wildland fire safety to spare the loss of lives. A better fusion of grant distributions, safety standards, training programs, minimum safety requirements, and centralized communication can help maximize safety during wildland fire outbreaks throughout the nation.