Legacy of a Utah firefighter's death: Heat stroke fatality spurs call for reforms

Published: Thursday, May 17 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

"That was a brutal day," said Dr. Thomas Hales, the CDC's co-author of the report in a telephone interview. "It was a 16-hour day, eight hours of which they were doing actual firefighting."

But the men were back at it the next day at 6 a.m., leaving their motel to attend a briefing at a local high school, where they were told to expect hot conditions — a temperature of 105 degrees with humidity as high as 26 percent.

"Swamper duty"

Hamm was constructing a fire line, working "swamper" duty, clearing brush and trees. In addition to wearing the typical wildfire turnout gear and carrying a pack that weighed between 35 and 40 pounds, he was wearing leather chaps for protection and had six quarts of water, a canteen with a gallon of water and two bottles of Gatorade. He worked swamper duty from 9 a.m., to 11:30 a.m., when he requested a different work assignment because of fatigue.

Hales said the complaint of fatigue is one symptom of possible trouble.

In his report for the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, one of Hales' recommendations urges wildland firefighting agencies to strengthen their heat stress programs by addressing the number of hours worked. As part of those programs, the agencies also need to stress to firefighters that hydration alone won't fend off heat-related illnesses and a strict schedule of "re-acclimation" to hot and humid conditions needs to be followed.

Hales, the institute's senior medical epidemiologist, said that in Hamm's case, taking the three-day road trip from Georgia to Texas and spending another two days "resting up" in a motel room before going back out to fight fires didn't help — it hurt.

"He's already in great shape and he's already been in this hot and humid environment. If you take someone out of that for four days, you start to see a decline in their acclimation to those conditions," Hales said.

"He's right on the edge. He's not doing any work, he's not getting back in the field. Some people would mistake that as good — that he is resting up, but he's starting to lose some of that acclimation."

By later in the day, Hamm stumbled and was complaining of being hot and tired. Again, Hale said those are all signals that should have raised alarm, given the extreme environmental conditions.

When Hamm tells a lead crew member he's hot and has a headache, the man responds that he could take a break if needed.

Wrong, emphasized Hales. In his report — co-authored by Tommy Baldwin, a former firefighter — the findings say when environmental conditions reach a certain point because of exertion coupled with heat and humidity, there should be strict adherence to a work and rest schedule.

"The agencies don't give them an option of wearing hard hats or tennis shoes in the field, so you don't give them options of bypassing breaks when you are in a dangerous or extreme heat environment," Hales said.

After Hamm complained to his fellow firefighter, the other man left him to help out others in the field. The report says Hamm was left alone three minutes — an amount of time the man's parents dispute, but regardless it led to Hales' second recommendation:  "Always work in pairs and be in direct communication with crew members."

Use a buddy system

Hale's report says it is unclear if being left alone played any role in the young man's death, but firefighters should always have a buddy system in place to minimize risks.

Hamm's parents remain frustrated with the BLM because they don't believe their questions over their son's death have been answered, and the BLM won't say if anyone was disciplined as a result, citing privacy reasons.

They are hopeful, however, that the report with its range of seven detailed recommendations will help prevent another death.

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