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Wildland Fire Fighting Safety and Health

Categories: At-risk Populations, Cardiovascular Disease, Emergency Response/Public Sector, Outdoor Work, Personal Protective Equipment, Respiratory Health

Photo courtesy of Todd Wyckoff, New Jersey Forestry Services

Wildland fires continue to increase in the Western United States as hot, dry and windy conditions persist, resulting in an extended fire season and factors conducive to fires. Currently, drought conditions are prevalent in the West due to low snow-pack levels, below average rainfall, record setting temperatures and high winds, resulting in a greater than average number of fires this year. Since January 2012, over 32,000 fires have burned almost 3.3 million acres in the US. [NIFC, 2012a].   (For current data see the Fighting Wildfires Topic Page).  Additionally, in the last 50 years, there has been a general increase in the occurrence and severity of forest wildfires in the US, as over 5 million wildfires have burned over 206 million acres [NIFC, 2012b]. 

When wildland fires occur in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), the area where houses meet undeveloped land, they can easily become catastrophic because a large number of people, homes and structures are at-risk. When a fire ignites in these areas, a quick and aggressive response from wildland fire agencies and wildland fire fighters is required. 

Wildland fire fighting can be a dangerous occupation. Over the past 10 years, over 200 fire fighters have died while participating in wildland fire suppression activities [USFA, 2001-2010]. These fatalities have occurred among federal, state and local fire fighters as well as private and military personnel. Although a variety of agencies track wildland fire fighter fatality data a national system for collecting data on non-fatal injuries and illnesses among wildland fire fighters does not exist. Research studies that evaluated injuries at specific fires show that the types of injuries that occurred while fighting fires and working in fire camps include falls, strains, burns, being struck-by-objects and vehicle-related incidents [Kiefer, 2004; Britton, 2010].

In 2010, there were approximately 34,000 federal workers employed in wildland fire suppression activities [Ryerson, 2011] and an unknown number of volunteer wildland fire fighters. Ensuring fire fighter safety during the challenging conditions encountered when responding to a wildland fire (rapid response, poor visibility, uncharacterized hazards, unfamiliarity with the environment, etc.) requires knowledge of hazards and commitment to safety by Incident Commanders, Fire Management and Safety Officers. Safety programs should be established that include employee training on safe work practices, recognition and reporting of hazards, appropriate personal protective equipment and frequent safety program evaluation. 

Hazards that wildland fire fighters may encounter include:

Heat Stress

Fire fighters working in hot weather may experience heat stress (feeling hot, tired or fatigue, weakness, vertigo, headache, or nausea).  Heat stress can progress into heat strain (physiologic changes such as e.g., increased core body temperature and heart rate) and, without appropriate intervention, can progress into heat-related illnesses (heat rash, cramps, exhaustion or heat stroke). Risk factors for heat-related illness include:

  • Strenuous work performed while fighting fires
  • High environmental heat load (temperature, humidity, air movement and radiant heat)
  • Personal risk factors (age, physical fitness, and existing medical conditions)
  • Dehydration from insufficient fluid intake
  • Insufficient acclimatization to heat
  • Sleep deprivation and  fatigue
  • Burdensome personal protective equipment

How to Prevent and Reduce Heat Stress

Recommendations for Incident Commanders and Fire Managers

  • Provide training to fire fighters on recognizing, understanding and preventing heat stress
  • Reduce the physical demands of workers
  • Use relief fire fighters and/or assign extra fire fighters for physically demanding jobs
  • Schedule hot jobs for the cooler part of the day whenever possible
  • Acclimatize fire fighters by exposing them for progressively longer periods to hot work environments
  • Provide cool water or liquids to fire fighters
  • Provide rest periods in cooler areas with water breaks
  • Monitor fire fighters for signs of heat stress

Recommendations for Wildland Fire Fighters

When possible, fire fighters should avoid exposure to extreme heat, sun exposure and high humidity. When these exposures cannot be avoided, fire fighters should take the following steps to prevent heat stress:

  • Take more breaks in extreme heat and humidity
  • Take breaks in the shade or a cool area when possible
  • Drink water frequently. Drink enough water that you never become thirsty (about 1 cup every 15-20 minutes)
  • Avoid alcohol and drinks with large amounts of caffeine or sugar
  • Be aware that protective clothing or personal protective equipment may increase the risk of heat stress, particularly turnout-gear
  • Monitor your physical condition and that of your fellow fire fighters and notify emergency personnel if heat stress symptoms occur, stop working, notify emergency personnel immediately, move to a cooler area and begin cooling activities to reduce the body’s temperature

Fatigue

Fire fighters can also experience physical and mental fatigue during a wildland fire due to strenuous work activity, high altitudes, long and irregular work shifts, lack of sleep and/or quality sleep, improper nutrition and unpredictable and stressful events. Fatigue and stress can increase the risk of injury, accidents and poor health. Studies show that working 12 hours or more per day is associated with a 37% increased risk of injury [Dembe, 2005].

How to Prevent and Reduce Fatigue:

  • Allow enough time to sleep after shift work and on days off
  • Avoid heavy foods before sleeping
  • Reduce intake of caffeine and other stimulants several hours before sleeping
  • Ensure fluid and nutritional needs are met and that work/rest cycles are implemented to prevent unnecessary fatigue among both fire fighters and fire managers

Injuries

Wildland fire fighters are also exposed to a variety of hazards that may put them at risk of both fatal and non-fatal injuries while on the job. Hazards wildland fire fighters may encounter include:

  • Slips, trips and falls
  • Burns, including sun-burns
  • Scrapes and cuts from tools and equipment, such as chain-saws
  • Struck-by partially burned trees, other objects in the forest or vehicles (e.g. fire equipment, ATVs, etc.)
  • Contact with plant irritants and sensitizers (e.g., poison ivy, thorns)
  • Snake/animal bites
  • Injuries sustained  in crashes of vehicles/airplanes/helicopters
  • Electrocution from downed power lines and lightning storms
  • Unstable building structures

Recommendations to Reduce Injuries:

  • Ensure fire fighters are informed of potential hazards, how to avoid them and the need to report all occupational injuries/illnesses and unsafe conditions
  • Establish and implement LCES (lookouts, communication, escape routes and safety zones) before fire fighting begins
  • Ensure fire fighters receive training on safe response to emergencies and to always be aware of the potential to be caught in a burnover
  • Establish and enforce standard operating procedures for operating motor vehicles and wearing seat belts (restraints)
  • Ensure all wildland fire fighters wear wildland personal protective equipment that is compliant with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)  Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting (1977)

Respiratory Hazards from Smoke, Ash and Debris

Smoke and dust from a wildland fire can be composed of a variety of inhalation health hazards, including gases, such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and formaldehyde, and particulates, including ash and silica [Austin, 2008] [Reinhardt and Ottmar, 2004] [Harrison, et al 1995]. Structural fires that occur during a wildland fire may generate additional hazardous contaminants from the many materials present in homes and buildings. For example, car batteries or mercury light bulbs present in homes and buildings, especially older buildings have a greater potential to contain asbestos and lead. Incident Commanders, Fire Managers and fire fighters should always be aware of the risk for smoke inhalation, the potential hazards associated with ash and the precautions that should be taken to prevent and reduce exposure.

Recommendations to Limit Exposure to Smoke, Ash and Debris:

  • Utilize fire operations procedures that reduce smoke exposure, such as:
    • rotating crews through areas of heavy smoke
    • avoiding downwind fire fighting, whenever possible
    • minimizing mop-up whenever possible
    • using equipment rather than people in holding areas, when possible
  • Locate camps and Incident Command Posts in areas that are upwind of the fire and not prone to inversions
  • Use protective clothing and equipment to avoid skin contact with ash
  • Thoroughly wet areas to reduce ash and dust generation
  • Ensure fire fighters are trained on the risks of smoke inhalation and exposure to ash and how to reduce their risk of exposure

Cardiac-related Events

Fire fighters are also at risk for heart attacks, strokes and other cardiac related events while fighting wildland fires. 

Recommendations to Reduce the Risk of a Cardiac-related Event:

  • Ensure fire fighters maintain good physical fitness and aerobic and muscular endurance training
  • Implement a pre-employment medical screening and medical examination program, including exercise stress tests follow­ing standard medical guidelines  for all fire fighters
  • Implement a comprehensive wellness and fitness program for fire fighters consistent with NFPA 1583, Standard on Health-Relat­ed Fitness Programs For Fire Fighters (see http://www.nfpa.org/aboutthecodes/AboutTheCodes.asp?DocNum=1583)
  • Fire fighters should participate in pre-placement and annual medical examinations and physical per­formance (physical ability) evaluations before engaging in fire response activities

Wildland fire fighting can be a dangerous occupation.  These men and women place themselves in harms way to protect the lives and property of those living in the affected areas. Following the recommendations above and using the additional resources below can help protect fire fighters from the hazards associated with wildland fire fighting.  We would like to hear from those involved in wildland fire fighting.  Have you experienced any of the issues we discuss in this blog?  Are there any unique issues with the current fires?  Let us know if there are areas we have not covered in this blog that might be helpful to you.

Corey Campbell and Liz Dalsey

Ms. Campbell is an Occupational Safety and Health Specialist in the NIOSH Western States Office

Ms. Dalsey is a Health Communication Specialist in the NIOSH Western States Office

UPDATE

The NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL) will begin issuing certificates of approval to respirators for use during wildland fire-fighting operations.  NIOSH and the Safety Equipment Institute will cooperatively coordinate certification programs to evaluate candidate respirators for compliance to  National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1984-2011, Standard on Respirators for Wildland Fire-Fighting Operations. For more information see the announcement

NIOSH/CDC Resources

 

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Public Comments

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

  1. July 16, 2012 at 9:52 am ET  -   Mark

    Thanks for highlighting the hazards faced by these amazing public workers and the ways of making thier jobs safer!

    Link to this comment

  2. July 19, 2012 at 10:25 am ET  -   Lea Bringin

    This is an exhaustive list by the CDC. Thank you for that. Particularly fire fighters finding themselves in a stressful situation might find this helpful – however perhaps a little checklist for that might be even more helpful. (something to remember, maybe with e mnemonic device)

    Link to this comment

    • AUTHOR COMMENT July 23, 2012 at 2:09 pm ET  -   Corey Campbell and Liz Dalsey

      We have discussed additional ways to communicate this information. We welcome suggestions from fire fighters and managers as to what would be useful – fact sheet or poster for posting in break areas, tweets, pocket card, etc.

      Link to this comment

  3. July 20, 2012 at 4:11 pm ET  -   Trent

    Great overview of the hazards that can be avoided. The public workers definiltey offer alot of value to us.

    Link to this comment

  4. July 23, 2012 at 12:36 pm ET  -   Wayne Rowe

    It all starts with the basics for wildland firefighters. The instructor can not stress enough the need to hydrate, especially BEFORE an incident. It continues with the safety officers that preach hydration daily at briefings. However, much like any other safety issue, the firefighter him/herself, much take the personal responsibility to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!!!

    Link to this comment

  5. July 24, 2012 at 4:41 pm ET  -   Ken (Enviro Equipment Blog)

    I’ve often wondered why local fire departments don’t get more involved in heat stress awareness, both to the general public as well as to local businesses. It seems to me that more than anyone else, firefighters are all too aware of the dangers that heat stress imposes upon the human body.

    Link to this comment

  6. August 9, 2012 at 7:14 am ET  -   Stephen Strings

    Really big list! I think you have listed out almost all the points that needs to be taken care of. Appreciable effort!

    Thanks
    Stephen

    Link to this comment

  7. August 13, 2012 at 4:52 am ET  -   laguna niguel dentist

    You have share very big list of recommendation about how to Prevent and Reduce Heat Stress.I really like your recommendations and thanks for it.

    Link to this comment

  8. August 13, 2012 at 6:01 am ET  -   Diana Sabrain

    Being in Singapore where the weather is burning hot year round, heat stress management is no joke!

    Diana Sabrain

    Link to this comment

  9. August 25, 2012 at 2:32 am ET  -   Ron Phelps

    Thanks for sharing this list of recommendation on how to prevent fire accidents and heat injuries. It reminds the general public how much those brave firefighters risk for the public good. They put their lives at risks so that others can live safer. This is one of the jobs that deserves the most respect from the community.

    Link to this comment

  10. August 30, 2012 at 7:31 am ET  -   jason

    Thank you for such a throrough list. Having witnessed the wildfires in the Canary Islands recently, many of the recommendations you suggested would have been very welcome.

    Link to this comment

  11. September 5, 2012 at 11:55 pm ET  -   Leo Voisey

    Firefighters work closely with the local community to increase their level of fire safety awareness in order to help prevent fires and accidents occurring in the first place. They promote fire safety and enforce fire safety standards in public and commercial premises by acting and advising on all matters relating to the protection of life and property from fire and other risks.For more information please visit [http://www.safedesign.com/]

    Link to this comment

  12. September 20, 2012 at 1:29 am ET  -   Daffen Lee

    Your information is very helpful. I think we could print some booklets and deliver them to people who live in forest or near forest. Thus, few people will be hurt by wildland fire.

    Link to this comment

  13. December 27, 2013 at 7:41 pm ET  -   Mark

    Thank you for sharing this.

    Link to this comment

  14. February 23, 2014 at 10:26 pm ET  -   Lucas Paine

    You don’t need superpowers to become a real-life superhero. All it takes is unselfishness, courage, and determination. Kudos to our firefighters and soldiers.

    Link to this comment

  15. March 24, 2014 at 6:50 am ET  -   Bill Carrol

    This information was helpful – thank you!

    Link to this comment

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