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Wildland Firefighter Health and Safety
Recommendations of the April 1999 Conference

Defining Fire And Aviation Safety And Health Issues

Dave Aldrich
USDA Forest Service
National Interagency Fire Center

The wildland fire management community has spent a lot of time during the last 5 years talking about and describing our culture in terms of safety and health. We’ve looked at how we value and do not value safety, how our safety values change depending on what we are doing at the time, and most importantly, identifying how we can change our culture to consistently ensure the safety and health of wildland fire personnel. The Forest Service has adopted a goal that gives us direction and a measurable performance criterion for safety. The Goal is Zero Accidents. The goal includes occupational illnesses in addition to the traditional accidents. The message is clear. We are to plan and conduct our fire program activities so there are no accidents or occupational illnesses. A goal of any other number says we accept planning and conducting activities with the expectation that someone is going to be injured or suffer occupational illness as a result of the work. I think the goal of zero accidents provides a meaningful context to define fire program safety and health issues and to develop measures to resolve the issues.

We must recognize that fire program activities occur in an environment with inherent risks—environmental risks and risks of our own making. Some of the risks are relatively static and others are dynamic. The work of fire management is arduous. It is hard, dirty work in a hostile environment. It often lasts days, weeks, and even months. The critical human element is highly variable. Now to this, add some cultural realities. Our fire program workload is expanding in terms of the amount of work to be done. The revised fire policy challenges us to take a more professional approach to fires. Accomplishing the expanding fuels job will be a challenge. Our work is becoming more complex with expanding interface and fire-use programs. Fire programs are highly visible, resulting in high expectations with a lot of oversight and Monday morning quarterbacking. Our workforce has changed and will continue to change. We believe the numbers of people in the fire program pipeline and their skills will not be adequate to do the job ahead.

We, the fire program people, have a proud heritage of getting the job done. Nobody expects more of fire people than fire people. In spite of the popularity of this can-do attitude, it has serious safety ramifications that must be recognized and mitigated. We must put all of this in the context of our core value of safety and our goal of zero accidents and occupational illnesses. We must meet the goal! The other pressures and concerns must take their places in the priorities as they are compatible with the goal for safety.

This conference was designed to help us progress from general areas of concern through definition of specific and actionable issues to recommending ways to mitigate those issues. We will hear a lot of information from experts about many subjects during this conference. Later this week, we will break into small groups and define some safety and health issues and make recommendations for resolving them. In many cases the recommendations will resolve the issues. In some cases, the recommendations may be to do further research or to gather information.

Some of the areas I hope we can address this week include:

None of these is new—in fact, each item is a topic in the conference agenda. The task is formidable. There is extensive overlap and interaction between the issue areas and the applicable information. We have to be clear about what we are trying to accomplish and integrate the interrelated information into workable policies, standards, protocols, guides, contract specifications, and other management tools.

Beyond the technical challenge, we have others. Our work force has changed and will continue to change. It is a bit like wing shooting—we have to get out in front of the target or by the time our solutions arrive the target will be out of sight. We have new, nontraditional players involved in development of policies, standards, and other management products. They should be made part of the development process, not relegated to reviewers at the end. Every year there are new laws, regulations, and policies having profound effects on our work. We must hone our ability and inclination to work in an interagency and wildland-fire-wide mode. Finally, we have to remember we can’t have different outcomes if we keep doing what we have been doing. We have to be willing to make our operations fit the standards—not try to adjust the standards to be compatible with the way we have historically done business.

The challenge for us is to listen well to our presenters, call on our collective experience banks and then with a keen eye on our goal of zero accidents, clearly define some crucial safety and health issues and develop some recommended resolutions.

Photo of fire crews.

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