OSHA issues final report on Esperanza

OSHA issues final report on Esperanza

31 January 2008

published by www.towncrier.com

USA — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the U.S.Department of Labor announced a settlement last Friday with the U.S. ForestService regarding the agency’s actions during the October 2006 Esperanza Firein the Twin Pines area and the deaths of five firefighters.

The new settlement withdraws two of six serious violations contained in theinitial notice of unsafe conditions issued July 19. The remaining fourviolations all were modified. Both parties agreed that the Forest Service’sEsperanza Accident Review Board Action Plan, issued April 3-4, 2007, resolvedthese four items.

In all instances, the OSHA observation that a Watch Out advisory had not beencomplied with was deleted, because the Forest Service wanted to maintain thepolicy that these Watch Outs are guidelines rather than mandatory rules ofbehavior.

“We were able to assist OSHA in understanding that the 10 StandardFirefighting Orders and 18 Watch Out Situations are not intended to beunbreakable rules governing firefighter actions,” Forest Service Region 5Chief Randy Moore wrote to all employees in the region. “We established thatthe ‘10 and 18’ are tools that help firefighters recognize dangeroussituations and take appropriate action.”

Watch Outs are guidelines firefighters use in wildland/urban areas that helpthem determine unsafe situations, such as poor access and narrow, one-waycanyons.

The Accident Review Board Plan’s fourth recommendation served as a touchstonefor OSHA and Forest Service negotiators. This stated, “Initiate a policyreview of wildfire suppression risk management principles to enhance agency-wideperformance and determine key factors to make educated risk decisions whenoperational assets are committed, or proposed to be committed in the wildland/urbaninterface.”

This action satisfies OSHA’s need for further safety actions. Therecommendation resolved three serious OSHA items, of which their language alsowas modified during the settlement negotiations.

Significant modifications began with item 2. The language, “Engine 57 did notfollow orders that were communicated by the branch director,” was amended toread, “Branch director’s instruction was either poorly communicated, ormisunderstood by USFS firefighters … The crew of Engine 57 was exposed to aburnover.”

Item 4 was modified to add, “to protect a residential home,” afterindicating the firefighters were positioned in front of the fire. The reportalso adds the following sentence: “This unknowingly left Engine 57 in anindefensible position.”

“We agreed that the events of the that day could not have reasonably beenforeseen, and that conditions changed so rapidly the Engine 57 crew had littletime to react,” Moore stressed in his memorandum.

The last item switched the order of “structure protection” and “evacuateresidents,” so that people wouldn’t think the former was a higher prioritythan human lives. The following sentence was added: “The residential home wassurrounded by vegetation which helped fuel the fire.”

Items 1 and 6 were withdrawn after several meetings between OSHA and the ForestService. The first alleged the crews failed to comply with several Watch Outsand one fire order. The latter was an observation about turn-out gear for crewsof engines 52 and 57.

The Oct. 26, 2006, blaze burned over the five-man crew of Engine 57: Capt. MarkLoutzenhiser, 44 of Idyllwild; and firefighters Pablo Cerda, 23, of FountainValley; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; and DanielHoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto.

“We’re pleased that it was a fair agreement,” said Joe Walsh, ForestService public information program manager in Washington, D.C. The ForestService will post the settlement agreement.

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