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Seasonal Wildland Firefighter Dies from Hyperthermia During Training Hike – California

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Death in the Line of Duty…A summary of a NIOSH fire fighter fatality investigation

F2020-06 Date Released: July, 2019

Executive Summary

On July 28, 2019, a 29-year-old male seasonal wildland firefighter (FF1) was on a training hike with his engine crew, which included a fire captain (FC) and a second seasonal firefighter (FF2). The crew was wearing full wildland personal protective equipment (PPE) consisting of wildland jacket and shirt, wildland helmet with shroud, and boots. The crew also carried a fire line hand tool and wore their wildland web gear, which is a special backpack that holds their radio, fire shelter, water bottles and other wildfire related equipment.

The hike is in a rural location by the wildland fire station. During the crew’s second time around the 1.45-mile hike, FF1 began stumbling and losing his balance. FF2 assisted FF1 through a steep rocky outcrop to an area where FF1 could rest. Once the FC recognized a possible heat-related emergency, he directed FF1 to remove his web gear and PPE to cool down. Due to his rapidly declining condition from the heat related illness, FF1 was unable to remove his gear as asked, so FF2 initiated cooling measures by removing the PPE and pouring water over the head and chest of FF1, then using a wildland jacket to shade FF1.

As FF1’s status further declined, the FC notified dispatch of a firefighter down and requested fire units, a hoist rescue helicopter and air ambulance helicopter for transport. The hoist helicopter was necessary to remove FF1 from the steep and rugged terrain (Exhibit 1). The hoist helicopter flew FF1 to a landing zone at a nearby school where the air ambulance helicopter was waiting for patient transport. The air ambulance helicopter crew initiated advanced life support and cooling measures on FF1 and flew him to the closest hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The medical examiner listed FF1’s primary cause of death as hyperthermia due to environmental exposure to heat, with obesity as a significant condition.

Key Recommendations

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offers the following recommendations to help reduce the risk of heat stress-related injuries and fatalities among firefighters at this and other fire departments across the country.

Key Recommendation 1: Fire department members should be trained on the early signs, symptoms, and treatment of heat-related illness (HRI), especially heat stroke which is a medical emergency.

Key Recommendation 2: Provide preplacement and annual medical evaluations to all firefighters consistent with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1582, Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments.

Key Recommendation 3: Perform an annual physical ability evaluation (physical ability test) for all firefighters as outlined in NFPA 1500.

Key Recommendation 4: Adopt a standardized comprehensive fitness and wellness program to benefit all firefighters consistent with NFPA 1583-Health Related Fitness Programs for Fire Department Members.

Key Recommendation 5: Firefighters working in remote locations should preplan for the possibility of an employee becoming ill or injured during training or incident response.

Key Recommendation 6: Seasonal firefighters should train and acclimate prior to beginning their assignment in the wildland environment.

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