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California's Firefighters Keep Getting Injured While Training. And Some Have Died

Speaker 1: 00:00 Wild land firefighters accept risk when they head out to battle a blaze, but Cal fire firefighters are getting sick and some have even died during training. The story is a collaboration between the investigative unit at Columbia journalism school, the California newsroom, and KPCC Jacob Margolis and Brian Edwards have the report Speaker 2: 00:23 On a hot July day. A few years ago, Cal fire firefighter Yaroslav cat cop was hiking on a trail near Temecula. When he collapsed by the time he got help, it was too late. He died at the age of 28, not on the fire line, but while training, Speaker 3: 00:39 They told me that everything that could have been done was Ashley Speaker 2: 00:44 Valerio was Kat Cobb's longtime partner. Speaker 3: 00:47 And like, I believe them. And I like trusted that Speaker 2: 00:54 My reporting partner, Brian and I reviewed hundreds of pages of documents from Cal fire and Cal OSHA. We found a pattern of seasonal firefighters and inmates getting sick and some even dying during what should have been one of the least dangerous things they do Speaker 4: 01:08 Exactly Jacob over the last year and a half, almost four dozen Cal fire firefighters have suffered from heat illness during training. And since 2003, five firefighters have died during training exercises where experts a heat appears to have played a role in their deaths and all these cases, point to bigger issues within the agency. Speaker 2: 01:25 For one, there's a culture that values pushing on at all costs Speaker 4: 01:29 To Cal fire has major issues with helping people improve their fitness levels safely Speaker 2: 01:33 And three, even before they get started training insider say Cal fire's process for catching pre-existing medical conditions is lacking. Speaker 4: 01:42 Okay, let's start with the punitive culture issue. Cause it's a big part of this story. Speaker 2: 01:46 Yeah, it seems to be a big part of Yaroslav cat cop story. In particular, he collapsed and died after being pushed by his captain to do a training hike a second time after he'd already been showing signs of heat illness, Cal fire demoted the captain. After the investigation, we were told by multiple current and former Cal fire employees that pushing firefighters beyond their breaking points is common Speaker 4: 02:09 In a written response, Cal fire state. It vigorously rejects the notion that a punitive culture exists, but there've been similar issues since cat down Speaker 5: 02:16 And I'll admit it. We had problems in San Diego in the last four months. Speaker 4: 02:20 That's California union president, Tim Edwards, who spoke with us after we shared what we found. He says that a supervisor had be admonished for the way he was treating seasonal firefighters. Speaker 5: 02:28 I'm making them hike when, when they weren't feeling good and making them like thinking. If you push them a little bit further, you know, it would help them. Speaker 2: 02:35 Another reason Cal fire firefighters are getting injured during training uneven, physical fitness standards, any lack of consistent training standards. That's a problem for seasonal firefighters who might take six months off between deployments and not show up in firefighting shape. Here's that? Speaker 5: 02:52 Is there a physical fitness standard coming onto the job? No, there's not. Absolutely not. And we've been pushing for years for one in a statement, Speaker 2: 02:59 Cal fire said, quote, each must do his or her part year round to ensure that they're preparing for the upcoming fire season. Our investigation found many firefighters. Don't always get clear guidelines for improvements. After taking the winter off. According to the injury reports, we reviewed a majority of the seasonal firefighters that got sick with heat in the last year and a half did not have documented conditioning plans. Speaker 4: 03:22 And the final, big issue, seasonal firefighters usually only get basic physicals before they start working Speaker 2: 03:27 In the kickoff investigation documents. Cal fire captain Caesar Neri is quoted as saying, you could get a better physical playing high school football than the one required by Cal fire. Speaker 4: 03:37 Other departments often require firefighters to go through more extensive testing before they start in the field. Meaning for Cal fire firefighters. There's a chance that bigger unknown preexisting conditions could be missed. Speaker 2: 03:48 When we spoke with Ashley [inaudible] longtime partner, she was angry. Speaker 3: 03:53 You're supposed to like have faith that those people would like keep up safe. Definitely it shows what kind of leadership that they're willing to allow, Speaker 2: 04:03 How to keep firefighters safe. During training is a question that will only become more pressing as California's wildfire outlook continues to worsen. I'm Jacob Margolis Speaker 4: 04:13 And I'm Brian Edwards. Speaker 1: 04:15 Joining me is Jacob Margolis science reporter with KPCC N L a S and co author of this report. Checkup. Welcome to the program. Speaker 6: 04:25 Thank you for having me Speaker 1: 04:26 Give us a little background on Cal fire seasonal firefighters. How much of their year is spent fighting fires? Speaker 6: 04:34 Yeah. You know, it, it varies depending on how, just how, uh, long our fire season is, but as you and the listeners probably know fire seasons pretty much year round now, I mean, especially during drought years. And so, uh, these firefighters could be working anywhere from, you know, let's say April or may all the way through November, possibly December. Um, but then they do take some time off. Uh, and then before there, before they're brought back on in the, Speaker 1: 05:03 And since they aren't full-time firefighters, are they relegated to certain types of jobs? Speaker 6: 05:09 Know what we've seen is that they oftentimes like the firefighter ones, which are seasonal are often doing probably some of the most difficult grunt work, uh, especially as incarcerated firefighters have been, uh, released over the past few years at higher rates. Uh, more seasonal firefighters have been brought in to replace them. And those incarcerated firefighters were doing a lot of that grunt work as well. It's often some of the most dangerous work. And so, um, you know, they're down in an, in it and in a crucial part to our firefighting response, Speaker 1: 05:39 Maybe like mopping up a fire or something, something like that. Speaker 6: 05:42 Yeah. I mean, it could be digging lines. It could be helping mop up a fire afterwards. Uh, you know, I think many of the ranks get down and dirty and, and really work very hard, but especially the seasonals, uh, are, are, are in the dirt. And how Speaker 1: 05:57 Much does Cal fire depend on seasonal firefighters and incarcerated inmates? Speaker 6: 06:03 Yeah. You know, they're a crucial part of our firefighting force. There are more than, or around 3000 of them, uh, currently this year and there are about 5,000 or so full-time firefighters. And so it, you know, a significant portion, Speaker 1: 06:17 It seems that when things go wrong in these training exercises, as you mentioned, one big problem is the culture that pushes these firefighters past their limits. Can you tell us about that? Speaker 6: 06:29 Yeah. Uh, you know, what we found was that, and we tell this through the story as, as we mentioned of Jaroslav [inaudible]. Um, what we found is that there is absolutely an underlying culture of push push, push, uh, kind of in that can at times be punitive if, if certain captains or supervisors, maybe don't think you're pushing hard enough. And in the piece we did detail, uh, the cat cover story and what happened with him. Um, and we also mentioned, you know, we ask first off, we ask how fire actually, if they feel like there is a punitive culture where, you know, people might be pushed beyond their breaking point. And then they said, no. Um, you know, we'd spoke with an expert, Brent Ruby out of the university of Montana. And he studied specifically wildland firefighter fitness for some time. And it's clear that firefighters need to have clear training plans that ramp up over time, like any kind of, you can consider them essentially endurance athletes, and they slowly build up that fitness so that they're able to handle these hot and extreme situations. When they're finally out in the field, Speaker 1: 07:32 As you mentioned, a Cal fire union president says in your report, we've had some problems in San Diego. Can you expand on what he was talking about? Speaker 6: 07:42 Yeah. So there was an instance in the past few months of a supervisor pushing new seasonal firefighters, um, to, to the limit, uh, during really hard conditions, uh, particularly during training. And so the union told us they had to step in and, and say something to the supervisor and, uh, kind of get them back in line. Speaker 1: 08:04 We did a story last week about a report from the union of concerned scientists that increasingly high temperatures would soon make it more dangerous for everyone who works outdoors. How does that factor into the injuries and deaths of firefighters? Speaker 6: 08:20 Yeah, I mean, our report obviously focuses on heat illness in particular, and, uh, you can see heat illness in temperatures as low as 70 degrees. I mean, it's, it happens at the temperatures that you might not expect, especially if you're hauling a ton of gear like these firefighters are. And as you know, we profiled just what was happening during training the heat almost during training in particular, because we felt that that was the, uh, probably safest environment for firefighters, you know, uh, they can't really control what's going on in emergency situations. But if you look at, uh, if you kind of pull out and look at the heat illness across the board, over the past 18 months, there were something like 150 different cases. If you included people going out in the field and actually executing on what they're like on knocking down fires Speaker 1: 09:09 On one positive note, you found that a responsive supervisor could make a huge difference in firefighting training. Tell us more about that. Speaker 6: 09:19 Yeah. I mean, it's up to supervisors to really monitor whether their people are suffering from heat illness. And, you know, we, we do feel that Cal fire makes concerted efforts and has made concerted efforts. And there are plans there's, they've had a heat illness prevention plan since I believe 2001. Um, when all things are in place and people, supervisors are protecting their people and people know what signs of heat illness to look out for, you know, there you end up in a much better place than if you're say pushing people past their breaking point in really extreme conditions during training, um, and not really helping them ramp up their fitness over a longer period of time. And so, you know, it is very possible to get to a place where, uh, and we've spoken to multiple experts who say that heat illness is completely preventable and especially during training, it is completely preventable. Speaker 1: 10:09 I've been speaking with reporter Jacob Margolis science reporter with us KPCC and Las and Jacob. Thank you. Speaker 6: 10:17 Thank you.

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Over the last year and a half, almost four dozen Cal Fire firefighters have suffered from heat illness during training, and since 2003, five have died.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments