A massive wildfire is raging in and around Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, displacing nearly 90,000 residents who have been ordered to evacuate their homes. More than 1,110 brave firefighters are currently battling the blaze, which shows no sign of ending soon.
UL was founded in 1894 with a specific focus on fire safety, so the health and safety of those firefighters is near and dear to our hearts. Wildland firefighting is a dangerous occupation, with a variety of potential hazards that can cause injury or even death. Response conditions are usually challenging, with low visibility, rapid response, and unfamiliarity with the terrain. Research has shown that some of the main causes of injuries include falls, burns, struck-by events and vehicle-related incidents.
Incident Commanders, Fire Management, and Safety Officers must keep a commitment to safety as they and their teams battle these wildfires. Here are a few things they should look for:
Hot weather and hot fires can quickly add up to heat stress and develop into more serious conditions like syncope (fainting), cramps, heat exhaustion or potentially deadly heat stroke. Firefighters are at particular risk because of their heavy personal protective equipment (PPE), strenuous work and exhaustion.
- Train firefighters on recognizing and preventing heat stress
- Use relief fighters, assign extra personnel and provide rest periods
- Monitor firefighters for signs of heat stress and fatigue
Individual firefighters can:
- Take more breaks in extreme heat and humidity, and take them in the shade or a cooler area.
- Drink water frequently (about 1 cup every 15-20 minutes), and avoid alcohol and high-caffeine/high-sugar beverages.
- Understand that PPE may increase the risk of heat stress, and stay aware.
- Monitor individual physical condition and that of your fellow firefighters.
- Notify emergency personnel if heat stress symptoms occur, stop working, move to a cooler area, and begin cooling activities to reduce the body’s temperature (spraying, sponging, or showering with water, and by fanning the body).
Exhaustion and unfamiliarity can increase the risk of injury through slips, trips, falls, and vehicle accidents. Wild animals, insects and plants can also pose hazards in these extreme environments.
- Ensure firefighters are informed of potential hazards, trained how to avoid them and encouraged to report injuries and unsafe conditions.
- Plan ahead to implement lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones before entering the fire zone.
- Train all firefighters on safe response to emergencies, awareness of burnovers and standard operating procedures for equipment.
- Ensure all firefighters have appropriate PPE that is compliant with local, state and federal regulations.
Smoke and dust, combined with harmful gases from burned structures, vehicles and other materials, can be a serious hazard for wildland firefighters.
- Train firefighters on smoke inhalation and ash exposure and how to reduce their risks.
- Reduce smoke exposure by rotating crews, avoiding downwind fire fighting and using equipment instead of people when possible.
- Provide appropriate PPE, and insist on usage.
We at UL send our thoughts and best wishes to the people of Alberta and the brave men and women fighting to put out the fire.