By Sam Lobby, Department of Geography; Department of Urban Planning, University of Kansas
In 2008, an 18-year-old National Park Service firefighter named Andy Palmer was on his first fire when he was struck in the left femur from a tree cut by another firefighter. After a series of miscommunications and failure to identify the severity of the injury, he was eventually medevacuated out of the Shasta Trinity National Forest by U.S. Coast Guard helicopter to be treated for his injuries. Tragically, Palmer died of internal bleeding en route.
There are around 13,000 federal wildland firefighters currently working for U.S. land management agencies. With factors such as climate change, increased residential development in wildland-urban interface areas, and a history of wildfire suppression, many experts predict that fire seasons will become more intense in coming years, making the jobs of these men and women all the more vital. As a result of the increased risk, a growing amount of attention has been paid to programs like Firewise and other emergency alert/response systems that encourage public safety. Less, however, has been done to address safety issues related to emergency medical response for federal wildland firefighters.
Though many would expect federal wildland firefighters to have similar access to safety resources as structure firefighters, the reality is thatmany fire crews do not have basic lifesaving equipment such as backboards or immobilizing splints, let alone trained medics as standardized resources on crews. In recent years, several positive changes have been made to address some of the largest issues in federal wildland firefighter safety policy, but shortcomings still exist. Within these updated protocols, firefighters are required to make up the difference during emergency situations by being “resilient,” defined as readily adapting to changing circumstances and unexpected setbacks (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007).
Palmer’s death illustrates this point. The inability of his crew to be resilient, or the failure to adapt to new circumstances while maintaining situational control, led to slower response times that might have saved his life. While many factors contributed to this incident, the presence of a medic may have waived Palmer’s non-medic crewmembers of the responsibility to be resilient and “overcome” the situation in the first place.
The Dutch Creek Serious Accident Investigation, which looked into Palmer’s death, recommended updated medical emergency procedures in order to address the causes of the accident that killed the young firefighter. Two of the most substantive changes included standardized “emergency medical
care guidelines” for supervisors to use with dispatch during medical emergencies, as well as ways to eliminate logistical barriers to cooperation between federal firefighters and local Emergency Medical Services.
By looking at what factors contributed to that specific accident, rather than addressing thesystemic institutional issues that leave firefighters vulnerable in the first place, these new safety recommendations require firefighters to be resilient in order to make up for policy shortcomings. As mentioned, this report requires supervisors to use standardized “emergency medical care guidelines” to expedite notifications to qualified medical professionals. While this has the potential to significantly reduce response times, it requires that supervisors first be able to properly identify the emergency – yet the medical training provided to most firefighters is only a two day first-aid/CPR course.
One of the other major recommendations The Dutch Creek Investigation made was offering strategies on how to overcome logistical barriers between federal firefighting agencies and local Emergency Medical Services. Prior to this, it was more difficult to have EMTs present on fires because of jurisdictional complexities, in addition to the fact that they were not “fireline qualified,” which meant they couldn’t necessarily help a patient until they were removed from the fireline. As a result of that investigation, the cooperation between these agencies has improved significantly.
While these updates were an enhancement on the former state of affairs, they do not go as far as they could. Having a medic crewmember position would eliminate the need to call a non-firefighter EMT to a remote wilderness location where they are not accustomed to working and with people they have never met. By not providing a medic crewmember position, firefighters are expected to either not get injured or to be resilient enough to navigate an unfamiliar medical emergency until medical professionals arrive.
As a Forest Service firefighter of 5 years, I have first-hand experience working within this policy framework. My experience was that supervisors did everything within their power to provide what safety resources they could, but were often constrained by policies or budgets. As safety hazards increase in the wildland fire environment, so should the policies that help to reduce firefighter vulnerability. If policy focused on the factors that leave firefighters vulnerable to begin with, comprehensive solutions, such as providing advanced medical training to supervisors and implementing a medic position on fire crews, would become possible. Until these factors are addressed, those that keep us safe may be in harm’s way.