A firefighter works on a prescribed fire at sunset in southern Florida. Photo by NPS.
BY MICHAEL CAMPBELL AND ERIN MCDUFF
Mental and physical wellbeing is critical to the success of the exceptional wildland firefighters who protect our public lands. While federal agencies take steps to mitigate hazards and provide resources to address physical and mental health needs, more work is needed to support the wellbeing of this essential workforce.
Wildland firefighters encounter a wide range of risks and hazards that can affect both their short- and long-term health. Past studies have found effects ranging from short-term changes in lung function and systemic inflammation after working on wildfire incidents and prescribed fire, possible increases in the risk of developing lung cancer and cardiovascular disease from smoke exposure, and effects on mental health.
This summer, federal wildland firefighters with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service are invited to participate in a rigorous scientific study of firefighter wellbeing, perceptions around health and risk, and occupational hazards.
“This is an incredible opportunity for our firefighters to share their day-to-day experiences on wildland fire incidents and how it impacts their physical and mental wellbeing,” said Kaili McCray, PhD, with Interior’s Wildland Firefighter Medical Standards, Safety, and Health. “By participating, firefighters will help shape the future of our health and wellbeing programs.”
The Interior and Agriculture departments have teamed up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the University of California, Berkley’s School of Public Health to assess a wide range of health and wellbeing impacts within this vital profession.
The study will evaluate current wildland firefighter health and wellbeing, occupational and medical history, perceptions of risk, and long-term health. It will assess daily stress and fatigue, work tasks performed, and exposure to smoke. It will also assess the correlation between daily reports of smoke exposure and job tasks performed with the concentration of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 in ambient air at fire sites. This fine particle pollution can get into deep parts of the lung due to its small size, impacting health.
Federal wildland firefighters who choose to participate will complete an initial survey, followed by a short survey each day while on a fire assignment. Safety managers began distributing the surveys in June 2022.
“Federal wildland firefighters still have time to join the study,” said McCray. “Participation is voluntary, but I encourage everyone to take a close look at this opportunity and consider volunteering.”
Results from this first-of-its-kind study of federal wildland firefighters will be shared with land management agencies at the Interior and Agriculture departments. No personally identifiable information will be published to protect the confidentiality of participants. It will give agencies daily assessments of work practices, stress and fatigue, exposure to smoke, and impacts to respiratory health.
The study will provide valuable insights and help inform priorities as the Interior and Agriculture departments develop new mitigation strategies for line-of-duty hazards, additional prevention and training programs, and firefighter mental health resources, as directed by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Already, the Interior and Agriculture departments have started work to develop a fully-funded program to support wildland firefighter mental health, including increased critical incident stress management capacity and additional early intervention trauma support services, in the 2023 fire year and beyond.
This CDC-NIOSH and UC Berkley study will enable wildland fire agencies to hear directly from the firefighters impacted by the growing demands of the more frequent, severe wildfires of the past decade.
Michael Campbell, currently serving on a detail as a public affairs specialist with Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire, works in communications for the Bureau of Land Management’s Oregon/Washington state office.
Erin McDuff is a public affairs specialist with Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire.