USA — A survey of 3,362 firefighters conducted by the InternationalAssociation of Wildland Fire showed that 36% of the full-time wildlandfirefighters surveyed will make themselves less available to be assigned towildland fires as a direct result of recently filed manslaughter charges againsta firefighter in Washington state.
The Thirtymile Fire, started by an escaped campfire near Winthrop, Was.,claimed the lives of four U.S. Forest Service firefighters on July 10, 2001.This year on Jan. 30, the U.S. attorney in Spokane, Wash., charged EllreeseDaniels, the incident commander of the fire, with four counts of involuntarymanslaughter and seven counts of making false statements.
This is the first time a wildland firefighter has faced criminal chargesafter firefighters have been entrapped and killed on a wildland fire. As one ofthe survey respondents stated, these charges “will have a chilling effecton the ability of agencies to recruit and retain qualified supervisors.”
The IAWF initiated the survey after hearing speculation that somefirefighters were no longer going to serve in certain key management positionson wildland fires due to the new threat of going to prison for making mistakeson fires. The objective was to collect data to determine the scope of the issueand to provide objective information to the wildland fire agencies.
“We conducted this survey to collect objective information about theimpacts to wildland fire personnel and their organizations that are caused bythe Thirtymile Fire legal proceedings,” said IAWF President Chuck Bushey ina press release. “We are providing this data to the land managementagencies and other fire organizations so that they can determine if they need tomitigate any adverse impacts that may be identified.”
The IAWF conducted the online survey between Jan. 28 and Feb. 15. Wildlandfirefighters were invited via e-mail and postings on wildland fire online forumsto take the survey, which could be taken only once from each computer.
Of the full-time survey respondents surveyed, 6% said that because of thepossibility of criminal charges they will no longer accept any fire assignments,and 23% said they will not serve as an incident commander.
Other survey results among employees whose primary duty is wildlandfirefighting include:
93% said that firefighters being charged with involuntary manslaughter due to incidents on a wildland fire was either bad or very bad for wildland fire.
8% said that because of this situation they would retire or find another job within a year.
23% said they would remove some positions for which they were qualified from their Incident Qualifications Card, or “Red Card,” which would prevent them from serving in those positions.
85% said they do not presently have personal liability insurance, but 21% plan to purchase it this year.
The survey results were similar for agency employees and part-time employeeswhose primary duty is not firefighting but who regularly work on fires.
Historically, many lessons have been learned from fire fatalityinvestigations. However, in light of the manslaughter charges, one firefightersaid, “I will not participate in any investigation without legalrepresentation regardless of my involvement in any potential incident. If we areto be treated as criminals, I will demand my rights.”
The IAWF recommends:
Clarifying the intent of PL 107-203 to allow firefighters to benefit from lessons learned after a wildland fire tragedy. That law, requiring the Office of the Inspector General to investigate all wildland fire fatalities, disproportionately focuses those reviews on criminal fault-finding.
Providing professional liability insurance through the federal government at no cost for all wildland fire supervisory personnel.
Changing the internal fire investigation protocols to be more like those of NASA and the military, implementing the concept of “privilege.” This would provide a barrier between efforts to learn from serious accidents and efforts to ascertain responsibility for those accidents.