Guidance for Prevention and Management of Infectious Disease During Wildland Fire Operations
Source: Wildland Fire Medical and Public health Advisory Team (MPHAT)
The wildland fire community’s greatest resource is our personnel. Ensuring our fire personnel are healthy and safe while performing their important work is a priority and the first step in meeting the wildland fire mission. Infectious disease impacts wildland fire camps every year, and there have been fire camp outbreaks of cold and flu viruses, strep throat, norovirus, and COVID-19, among others.
The best way to minimize the impact of infectious diseases on fire operations is to continue to prioritize and implement strategies to ensure fire personnel can take steps to stay healthier and engage safer. It is important to note that the best way to prevent infectious diseases is to implement all the strategies outlined below. However, due to the nature of the wildland fire work environment, not every strategy listed below will be feasible or practical, and some may need to be modified depending on the uniqueness of one’s workplace or the fire environment. Despite the challenges with implementing health and safety protocols, fire managers must remain consistent on emphasizing the importance of health and safety of resources as their key priority during wildland fire operations.
This document includes guidance and recommendations for wildland fire personnel to mitigate infectious disease and maintain a healthy workforce and includes required agency-specific policies for the mitigation and prevention of COVID-19.
Safety Strategies and Recommendations and Requirements for Wildland Fire Personnel
The following guidance was developed for wildland fire personnel and is based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Safer Federal Workforce Taskforce (SFWTF), and agency COVID-19 Workplace Safety Plans. This guidance has been and will continue to be modified as additional research is conducted and information is learned about identifying, preventing, and treating infectious diseases.
Layered prevention strategies (or implementing more than one strategy) can help limit spread of infectious disease. For fire, the Medical Unit Leader, Firefighter Health Coordinator, and/or Medical Director on the fire are responsible for determining appropriate practical infectious disease mitigations, adhering to agency policy, and other federal/state/local/tribal/territorial direction.
Maintaining a Healthy Workforce
The following strategies may limit the transmission of infectious disease in the wildland fire environment. The wildland fire environment is often considered a higher risk congregate setting with a limited number of fire personnel available throughout the fire season. It is strongly recommended that the following infectious disease prevention and mitigation measures be practiced to keep as many fire personnel healthy as possible.
- Continue to encourage all fire personnel to remain up to date on their vaccines to best protect their health and to better maintain a critical fire operations workforce. Vaccines are one of the most effective tools available to protect health and reduce severity of disease symptoms, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Encourage fire personnel to monitor for signs and symptoms of infectious illness. These can include:
- Diarrhea/abdominal pain
- Runny nose
- Red, itchy or painful, draining eye
Limit face-to-face contact with others by implementing dispersed fire operations. This includes practices that have shown to be effective in the wildland fire environment such as:
- Minimizing the number of fire personnel in one area using smaller spike camps to disperse and insulate crews, modules, and other fire personnel from each other.
- Using remote positions and radio or video briefings to avoid face-to-face interactions.
- Consider providing no contact options by the food unit to reduce contact with communal items that may spread infectious disease.
- Deploying the Module as One approach to insulate as one unit and reduce exposure to the public and other crews when in an area or county of an infectious disease outbreak. By insulating as a unit, crews and modules can limit outside exposure to infectious diseases and become a closed family unit.
- Encourage routine sanitary and personal hygiene practices to reduce the likelihood of transmission of infectious diseases.
- Regularly clean surfaces to prevent the spread of germs.
- Mitigate smoke exposure for firefighters when tactics can be adjusted, and operational objectives can be met. Evaluate smoke impacts for spike camps and Incident Command Posts (ICPs). Smoke exposure may exacerbate the effects of acute and chronic illnesses.
- Prioritize health and wellness throughout the fire season. This includes ensuring fire personnel are well rested, have access to healthy foods, have access to resources and are encouraged to participate in activities/practices that provide for positive mental health and well-being, and are practicing appropriate sleep hygiene when possible.
- A Firefighter Health Coordinator can be an essential Incident Management Team (IMT) resource to lead COVID-19/infectious disease related mitigation requirements for the Medical Unit/IMT. The Firefighter Health Coordinator can integrate with the IMT, Agency Administrators, and local health
COVID-19 Safety Protocols
Federal fire personnel should consult and be familiar with their agency’s COVID-19 Workplace Safety Plans and support documentation. Agency policy documents are linked here: Department of the Interior and USDA.
Federal fire personnel, federal administratively determined hires (ADs), personnel contracting or volunteering with federal agencies, and those fighting fire on federally managed lands are required to abide by their employer’s COVID-19 policy documents. Any deviation (more or less protective) may only be implemented if the federal agency has received a waiver from their agency’s COVID-19 management team who may need to consult with the SFWTF.