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Technology &
Development Center
Wildland Firefighter Health and Safety
Recommendations of the April 1999 Conference

Director’s Perspective

Jose Cruz, Director
Fire & Aviation Management
USDA Forest Service


I want to thank Dr. Brian Sharkey, Dick Mangan from MTDC and the NWCG Safety and Health Working Team for putting this Conference together. They have assembled some of the best technical experts on safety issues affecting the wildland firefighting community. The success of the conference will depend, in part, on us participating and sharing our thoughts on the issues presented. I encourage you to voice your opinion through frank, honest discussion.

We have numerous agencies at the local, State, and federal level attending. This level of participation, with a variety of specialists, promises to be the type of conference we can all learn from. Thanks for being here and for your commitment to the professionalism of our wildland fire program.

I was asked to give a director’s perspective on the wildland fire health and safety issues. It’s important that folks realize that my perspective is based on my experience, most of which is in the Western United States. So let me lay the framework of that perspective. My fire background includes:

So with this background, I believe that safety must be our number one priority as we conduct our business. There is nothing in the wildland we protect that should cause us to risk people’s lives. If we follow our safety guides, the risk to our employees will be minimized. Additionally, I believe the environmental factors that affect our employees must be examined so we can provide safety equipment or ensure firefighters get the proper rest and their other needs are met. We must prepare our employees to deal with first responder responsibilities, ensuring they have training to avoid bloodborne diseases or other more hazardous situations.

I am pleased to be part of the conference and am looking forward to hearing the presentations and seeing the recommendations from the conference. I am looking forward to the proceedings publications. These will allow others who were not able to attend to have access to our discussions and recommendations.

It was not long ago when a conference presented by one of the Technology and Development Centers focused on equipment, tools, and other things related to our work. The interest in the human aspects of our work has been given greater emphasis, bringing us to focus on the safety and health of our fire folks. This conference is critical for the wildland fire community as we work to keep employees out of harm’s way. Providing employees a safe work environment is critical to our success.

Over the last 4 to 5 years, our agency has placed a great deal of emphasis on safety. In Course To The Future, Positioning Fire and Aviation Management, then Chief Jack Ward Thomas sent one of the strongest messages I have received in my career. He wrote, “Safety is both a personal and a Forest Service responsibility. I am, therefore, demanding your personal involvement and commitment in leading our workforce to reestablish the highest regard to our safety program.”

Other planning and strategic documents such as the Federal Wildland Federal Policy and Program Review emphasize safety as top priority. The IMRT (Interagency Management Review Team) report went further, stating: “The direction and tone that senior management sets is critical for making long-term institutional changes. Personnel at all levels must be held accountable for their actions.”

“Current direction to streamline, downsize, reconfigure, and otherwise change organizations to meet budgetary constraints have the potential to severely affect firefighter safety.”

The Wildland Firefighter Safety Awareness study recommended:

.... Changing the organizational culture as it relates
to wildland firefighters’ safety will require commitment
at every organizational level....

.... Changing the way business is conducted requires
people at all levels to lead by personal example in
demonstrating new approaches to achieve safer operations.....

The report recommends that safety become a core value of the fire organization.

These are the values that make us what we are as individuals and as an organization. Having people like me standing up here talking doesn’t make it happen. I can and will do my part, which is to believe in these core values, provide leadership, communicate my expectations, create a management environment that supports and encourages safe behavior, and hold people accountable.

To make this change happen we each must be part of the team that speaks with one voice, takes responsibility, does what is right, and makes doing things safely a natural part of our behavior, whether on the job or off.

We must have zero tolerance for unsafe behavior and must hold ourselves and others accountable for safety. Safety must be totally integrated in our thought processes and actions.

This conference is critical and very timely for the wildland fire community as we work to implement our highest priority—providing for the safety of our employees. Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management has formalized a statement of Core Values. They are Safety, Integrity, and Mutual respect. We’ve had these values for a long time, but the conscious act of formally writing them and communicating them gives us focus and provides a constant reminder so we do not forget or overlook them in the heat of battle.

The very theme of this conference leads to fulfilling the core value of safety for our people. It seems the human element of safety is far more challenging than the aspects dealing with equipment, procedures, and training. Humans are more complex, more variable from one to another. As I studied the program for the conference, I could not help but be impressed by the variety of topics to be presented and discussed this week as by well as their interconnectedness. Integrating them is going to be a challenge for all of us.

It is appropriate that we are participating in a workshop hosted by the Missoula Technology Development Center here today. Since the 1960’s, MTDC has worked to improve the health and safety of wildland firefighters. A few highlights of the Center’s efforts include:

1960’s—MTDC began developing a test for firefighters to address the unacceptable health-related fatality rate experienced on fire assignments. Studies were also conducted on tools, fire clothing, and work practices.

1970’s—MTDC released the Step Test that was adopted by all federal wildland fire agencies and many States as part of the wildland fire qualifications system. Work was begun on studies of heat stress, the effects of firefighter exposure to carbon monoxide, and work/rest cycles.

1980’s—MTDC developed a wellness program model, a new handtool (the combi tool), and conducted tests on firefighter dehydration/hydration and work clothing.

1990’s—MTDC released the family of Job-Related Work Capacity Tests (Pack, Field, and Walk Tests) and concluded the study of the health effects of wildland fire smoke on firefighters.

Clearly, MTDC has a history of studying and publishing information and solutions to real-world problems for the fire community. I am sure all of us here today has publications, videotapes, and other MTDC products in our offices.

I have confidence this will be a landmark conference. I want to challenge you—us as professional fire people—to listen well, get involved with the conference process, and apply the results of the labor of the presenters. It is we who make a difference. Our highest priority is taking care of our people. The goal is right; the time is right. This is the time; this is the place; and we are the people. Let’s make a difference! Have a productive conference.

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