Safety and Transportation of Crews

** This post was originally published on September 1, 2016 **

Within the last few days, we lost two young men in Minnesota. One was 25 years of age and the other 23 years of age. Several of the crew has been hurt in the accident. Families have been affected, their pain imminence, not only their personal families but their wildland family. Across this nation, the wildland community is mourning once again. Sadly, we are not sure what could have caused this tragedy, since there are accidents when driving, but when the WFGI posted the news something was stirred.

These two young men lost their lives on a highway. According to the news, their truck left the highway, hit the medium and rolled. At first, I prayed, I contacted Juliann Ashcraft, someone who understands this pain of loss with me, then the Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute. I posted the story (on our facebook page) for those of you out there that care, will pray and think of these young men hurt and in the hospital and the families that are now making plans to bury their young men.

This started a conversation, a conversation about the safety of these buggies, the safety of the drivers, the safety of transportation for our crews. I was appalled at the information I found and the information that was exchanged amongst people working out in the field. I would say there were three major discussion points

One – Should we have an engineer on every roll? An engineer is highly qualified in the vehicle and hopefully prepared for any crises. But a lot of engines have had these engineers taken out of the driver’s seat based on which state the crew is located, many do not even have their CDL license requirements. It is different from one agency to the other, from one state to the other, from one type team to the other type team. What could be a solution-possible regulation?!?

Two – What I think really hit me is the multi-commented “bolt” discussion. I actually had to ask for clarification I did not know what this discussion truly was about. I found out that the boxes, the cabs that carry our crews, our young men, our husbands, fathers, and sons, are laughingly just barely bolted to the frame. That it is a common joke to carry bolts in your pockets for when these bolts break. If you look closely at the photos of this crash, that took the lives of this crew from Michigan, you will plainly see that the box came off the chassis frame. This looks like a retired USFS buggy painted white. (We will discuss the fact of retired vehicles being regularly used by other crews at another time. It is very common for buggies past their age to be sold to another government agency for them to use.)

One of our board members, Doug Harwood, was an eyewitness to the bolt situation. He explains, “During one of Crew Sevens’ (Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshots) early seasons we drove our vans by a BIA crew buggy that was only held together with one bolt. The crew box was hanging off the side of the chassis with about a 70-foot cliff below. This was not a high sped crash just wear and tear caused by the rough off-road travel that this buggy was working in. Thank goodness everyone had gotten out safe climbing out windows to safety.”

Yet, as I have been told the key here is “weight”. Between the shot crew and all of their equipment, these buggies are overloaded, putting strain on these bolts. That based on my quick research for today it seems that a lot, if not most, crashes that happen with crew buggies it is the crew box falling off. I believe this needs to be looked into and really examined. I do not believe that carrying a few extra bolts in your pocket is the answer. It does lead to great jokes at fire camp but that’s about all.

I did ask for a solution because I believe that if you see a problem you also must strive for a solution. A wonderful idea was thrown into our conversation – “mini buggies”. A crew would need three mini buggies plus a sup truck. The mini buggies would hold four crew members in the back plus driver and another crew member upfront. These mini buggies are not top-heavy as are the current USFS buggies and would hold all of the equipment safely. Eliminating the weight problem and eliminating bolt problems. Another solution could be crew cab pickup trucks with boxes on the back only for gear, thus eliminating crew buggies – yes it would add several vehicles to the cost of a crew. Yet, we are talking about men and women’s lives here.

Deborah Pfingston M.Ed.
Vice Chairman