Senate Passes Cantwell Wildland Firefighter Safety Bill

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the U.S Senate passed U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA)’s legislation to improve accountability in wildland firefighter safety training programs and require a comprehensive review of firefighter training Cantwell first introduced this legislation in 2003, following the Thirtymile Fire and the death of four wildland firefighters.
Stronger safeguards and more effective training will save lives,” said Cantwell, a member of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee“Almost eight years after the Thirtymile Fire and six months after the deaths of our firefighters helping in California, wildland firefighters still aren’t getting the training they need. Too many firefighters are without comprehensive training, and incomplete Forest Service records keep us from seeing who’s been trained and who hasn’t.  Even one more death is unacceptable, and we have a responsibility to make these common-sense changes and make sure all wildland firefighters get the training they need.”
To improve the accountability of the federal agencies that administer safety and training programs, Cantwell’s legislation would require the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to jointly submit a report on the implementation and efficacy of these programs.  The report must describe steps federal firefighting agencies are taking to make sure contract firefighters receive the same training as federal firefighters.  The legislation would also require a system to track the money spent on wildland firefighter safety and training. 
Timothy Ingalsbee, Executive Director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology said, “A commitment to the best safety practices can reduce some of the risks that wildland firefighters face out on the fireline.  Requiring federal fire management agencies to report to Congress on their safety training programs and field activities is an excellent means of improving accountability of the agencies towards giving firefighters the tools and training they need to be safe.”
Casey Judd of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association said, “We support [Cantwell’s] position that the land management agencies must provide clear information to Congress as to their efforts to improve safety and costs associated with those efforts.”
A 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General found that the Forest Service did not have a procedure to verify the qualifications of many contract firefighters.  The report found that roughly one in three firefighters sampled either did not meet national qualifications or that training records were inadequate.
Since 1910, more than 900 wildland firefighters have lost their lives in the line of duty.  In July of 2008, two Washington state firefighters were killed fighting blazes in northern California.  In 2001, four forest firefighters lost their lives fighting the Thirtymile Fire north of Winthrop. An investigation into that fire revealed that Forest Service safety rules were violated and the deaths could have been prevented.  In hearing after hearing since that report was released, Cantwell has pushed the Forest Service, the Bush Administration to focus on what went wrong and preventing these mistakes from being repeated. Cantwell has worked to help create a cultural shift within the Forest Service to increase accountability and improve training.  Cantwell also worked with Representative Doc Hastings (R-WA) to pass legislation injecting independence into investigations of future wildland firefighter fatalities.  The law, signed in July 2002, requires the USDA Inspector General, not just the Forest Service, to investigate any deaths.
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