California Firefighters Keep Getting Injured During Training. Some Have Died

Hey all, first time long time. I’m a science journalist with LAist and KPCC in LA. Been covering wildfires for a bit. Wanted to share our investigation that we published today, as I think it’ll be of interest to this crowd and generate some discussion.

In short: Over the last year and a half, almost four dozen Cal Fire firefighters have suffered from heat illness during training, and since 2003 five have died.

We identify three systemic issues that are driving the problem.

Here’s the link.

If you want to talk about something privately, including if you can relate to anything we share in the article, we speak with people on background all the time. My signal is 323-989-2982.

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Wow. I was skeptical as I started reading but once I got into it I was really impressed.

There is so much wrong with a culture of pushing it just for the sake of pushing it. There isn’t a minimum standard for calfire? When I was applying I thought I remember them wanting my CPAT certificate- but maybe that was just icing not a cake. That being said the cpat isn’t a good indicator of the proper physique for wildland, but it’s something. The NWCG pack test was a bit of a joke - I’ve seen plenty of people pass it that have no business out on the line. Do you have any such data or interest in feds? Might be a worthwhile comparison.

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CPAT is for all positions except Firefighter I (seasonal)

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Thanks for reading and commenting. Absolutely interested in hearing from different folks about a wide variety of experiences across agencies. We don’t have data for USFS. We just focused on Cal Fire for this one.

As 2ndLine mentioned, CPAT is not required for seasonals, but as you pointed out, it’s not a great indicator of wildland performance. About 80 percent of people that take it in CA pass it. But no one test seems to be perfect.

There seems to be a need for something more comprehensive. Brent Ruby at the University of Montana has done interesting research into hotshot fitness. Someone like him or Joseph Sol, with USFS who Ruby works with at times, would have a better idea of what the exact prescription should be.

The big issue we found with Cal Fire is that what’s expected in terms of fitness is quite muddled and fractured. A lot of the whole build up and training for the season is really up to the discretion of individual stations. Heard from some guys who’ve worked at stations where their training is an entire holistic program. Where they’re essentially treated like elite athletes with a very explicit direction.

Others told us it was much less clear what they were expected to do besides the general “work out.”

And as we point out in the piece, this leaves space for some supervisors to go over the line and push people beyond their limit, which can be catastrophic.

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In the CF Unit I work in, direction was given last year, that the State engines would do wildland “training” in the morning after equipment checkout and cleanup, usually from 9 to 12. The training would be considered standard wildland stuff…hike in full gear and then either hose-lays, mobile pumping, handline construction, shelter drills, etc. There have been FF’s that decided to quit because it was deemed, by them, to be too hard. All that is standard wildland firefighting expectations, as long as it isn’t push them til they’re dead, that anyone should be expected to know. I’m in the Schedule “A” side of CF, but I take my guys hiking in full gear twice a week just to be ready.

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True. I think in fed world the individual modules can choose to set a higher standard than the pack test and some do. I worked at one station that had a holistic fitness model and required certain fitness scores by mid season. It was a blast.

Its a pretty regular problem with standards is that not one size fits all. So many different functions that fall under the ‘firefighter’ umbrella. I think it ultimately comes down to osha. They are the ones that stepped in on south canyon and fined the agencies for not doing their jobs - while the administrators were ready to pat eachother on the back. Along that line of reasoning, maybe we don’t need more tests and standards. Maybe we just need more accountability for when things go wrong and the problems might just fix themselves. Have you reached out to fed osha for comments on this? Do they get a say on the incarcerated fire fighters?
EDIT: Just remembered that is exactly what you did and what they said in the article… my bad…specifically CAL/OSHA was a primary source.

A well rounded exercise program is a good thing, but nothing beats putting on the gear and doing arduous hikes. A lot of people don’t do that or the units are too concerned about response times and limit hiking.
Supervisors are afraid to go after physical fitness standards, the department needs to come up with something that’s a standard and support supervisors.

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Most productive crews hike and cut for pt. Functional fitness works.

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In the CALFIRE world of politics, it is nearly impossible to set a physical standard and enforce said standard to terminate or take action to improve the individual. Simply does not exist in most instances.

True, it’s all about response times until one of the FF’s goes down. That’s what I tell them, its our job to be physically ready and a gym can’t provide what a good hike up the side of a hill can.

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I see the lack of standard taking two main directions in CF.

  1. People who are unfit for the job remain unfit for the job. Supervisors cannot enforce a standard that doesn’t exist. This can lead to injuries and deaths.

  2. Some supervisors are super athletes and expect the same out of every employee. They then threaten and berate employees that don’t meet their standard. This also can lead to injuries and death.

I have often thought that adopting something like the Army PT test would make a lot of sense for CF. We often try much to hard to make our own thing when something perfectly adequate already exists.

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This is true for cal fire as well. I see a lot of responses on here about hiking. Well, where I work I don’t need people that can hike. I need people that can lift heavy things, break things, and drag hose fast for a short amount of time. Hiking doesn’t help with staffing 2 1/2 or cutting a hole with an axe. It doesn’t help run the extrication tools or lift a 500lbs patient. So there is no one size fits all for CF either.

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Thanks for sharing this experience. Really value hearing directly from people as it helps paint a complete picture. Always feel free to reach out at the number above.

Accountability with Cal OSHA is a huge issue. We found multiple cases of injuries not documented by the agency. We went quite a bit into their staffing problems in another article back in August.

This Cal Fire piece came out of our reporting for that. Higher Temperatures And Less Oversight Mean Workers Are At A Growing Risk In The Climate Emergency | LAist

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Definitely not making the case that people shouldn’t train hard. There are just several systemic shortcomings we document that enable repeated heat related injuries to occur during training. Thank you for sharing your thoughts though, especially re supervisors.

A few big questions that came up while we were reporting this were:

Without a clear standard, how does one determine if someone is fit enough for the job (not saying it’s not possible, but we wanted clarity)? What does being in shape look like? What sort of direction/assistance are employees given when it comes to improving to meet expectations? If they don’t meet those expectations, what happens?

We had repeated issues with people giving us clear answers for those queries.

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I would say that due to the lack of an actual policy or standard everything you are asking is essentially the opinion of whoever you have spoken to.

That’s the problem. That why I think something similar to the Army PT test would be a good fit. It’s fairly encompassing but not overkill. Cal Fire has so many different missions all over the state that, put simply, how fast and far can you hike works no better than how much can you deadlift.

Enforcement can always fall back to safety but that requires a supervisor that is good with documentation. Most supervisors do not want to put in the work to actually go through the progressive discipline process. They just want to be able to say, “this guy sucks make him go away,” and have the problem employee disappear.

So the process (very simplified). And this applies to all employees and all issues outside of severe breaches of conduct.

  1. Identify the problem and make it known to the employee.

  2. Come up with an improvement plan to fix said problem. The union and the chain of command need to be involved in this. This plan must be realistic and achievable.

  3. Meet the goals of the improvement plan from the supervisor point of view. IE if the issue is hose pulls you have to take the employee out and do hose pulls with them and document the training.

  4. If the employee is not successful and all documentation has been completed then the employee can be terminated.

This does become more difficult with PT though because no standard exists. That’s where the supervisor needs to document how and why it’s a safety issue. And the documentation has to be specific regarding actual events either in training or on incidents. It can’t just be, “he’s always last when we hike.”

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Every spring, every unit has some form of FPE. The hike portion is 2.8-3 miles with 600’ of elevation gain. The time given is 60-80 min wearing the required PPE(nomex, web gear, shelter, 3.1L of water and a tool. When we get FF, we do hikes that are similar to that(+/- 1/2 mile). We start with a short 1 mile hike and work up to the FPE Hike and then we go beyond. To me, Hiking is 2nd only to safety for those in the 02350 PCA code. We do hose lays, hose Drags, hike, hell we even do the old TUU drill for competition, camaraderie, and PT. While that drill is outdated…it teaches the basics, as an individual that when put together in a progressive hose lay is a thing of beauty when the GO TIME. But WE Supervisor are taught to NEVER USE PT AS A FORM OF CORPORAL PUNISHMENT. We also have access to and are given the OSHA HEAT/WORK/WATER CHARTS. But what it left out in All these Injuries/deaths are the intangibles. The intangibles only come from experience, time on the job and time as a supervisor. Here is where the problem GETS HUGE. The retirement rate is only getting bigger. The inexpensive rate is only getting bigger. Where these two things cross, we pray isn’t the accident scene. But just like a baby isn’t born “Walking, talking, Chewing Bubble Gum” Fire Firefighing, leading, promoting takes time as well. We’ve all heard about “Slides in the slide tray” but how many of us have been told “I just need meat in the seat” I will end with a saying that has become more and more true the older I get. “To learn, grow, and promote takes time. The short cut goes Iime this: you sacrifice your personal life for your professional life. But no matter how fast, you can’t short circuit EXPERIENCE.”
Remember, babies are born, then learn to roll over, they learn to push up/sit up, they learn to crawl, they learn to pull themselves up, they take those 1st steps, they learn finally walk. All of this happens before they learn to RUN.

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