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Firefighters on the front line of the climate emergency

By Denise Christie - Morning Star, November 19, 2021

From flooding to forest blazes, firefighters all over Britain are already engaged with the practical battle against the climate crisis – but our services are not yet fully prepared for the enormous implications of the emergency, writes DENISE CHRISTIE of the Fire Brigades Union.

COP26 is an opportunity for our movement to demonstrate our solidarity with working people and their communities around the world and to organise together to create the just and green world we want and need, to allow us to live safely and fairly.

We must also be fully active in the campaign that Cop26 must be a focus to organise against the climate emergency in solidarity with all working people.

The climate crisis is a crisis of social justice, with those who have done least to cause the crisis and who are least able to address it facing the worst effects.

What’s it got to do with firefighters and the FBU?

Firefighters are on the front line of tackling the climate emergency. Climate change is increasing the risk of wildfires, such as grassland and forest fires and floods, including from surface water, rivers and the sea.

It will also affect the supply and availability of water and may give rise to more extreme weather events.

These hazards will have implications for the working conditions of firefighters. The climate emergency will require significant changes to appliances, to the equipment available to firefighters, and to training.

We will also need greater awareness of firefighters’ health implications, greater pumping capability and water use and increased capacity within our operational fire control rooms.

The fire and rescue service needs the staff, resources and equipment to tackle the impact of this climate emergency. There is no logic to job cuts and shutting fire stations and control rooms when these risks are likely to increase in the years ahead.

The essential, and dangerous, work prisoners do

By Jessica Kutz - High Country News, April 23, 2021

Incarcerated people respond to pandemics, wildfires, avian flu outbreaks, mudslides and more.

Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic swept through nursing homes, exhausted medical supplies and sent the country into lockdown, prison officials gave incarcerated people their marching orders: Manufacture hand sanitizer, sew face masks, transport dead bodies, dig graves. 

The workers toiled in crowded factories, overflowing morgues and inside their own prisons, where they often lacked access to essentials like soap and adequate medical care. In the process, they became one of the most vulnerable — and yet essential — parts of the nation’s emergency response.

Seven Western states — Montana, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, California and Arizona — specify incarcerated labor as a resource in their state emergency operation plans. Others, like Colorado, passed legislation in 1998 like the Inmate Disaster Relief Program, which allowed the state to use the workforce for wildfires and other emergencies. (Recently, Colorado passed a new law by the same name that requires the state’s fire division to encourage formerly incarcerated firefighters to apply for paid work in the field.) The reason is simple: “(Incarcerated workers) are extremely low-cost,” said Carlee Purdum, an assistant research professor with the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, such workers received anywhere from 14 cents to $1.41 an hour on average in 2017. And because they are technically considered a state resource, said Purdum, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, further subsidizes the cost of their labor when states are overwhelmed by natural disasters.

“I’ve seen and documented the use of incarcerated workers for a lot of different types of hazardous work.”

The workers can be tapped for nearly anything. “I’ve seen and documented the use of incarcerated workers for a lot of different types of hazardous work, from cleaning up oil spills to going through and eliminating infected birds with the avian flu,” said Purdum. “Really, anything that happens in a disaster, if it overwhelms the community, and (state or local officials) feel like they have a need, they will turn to incarcerated workers.”

But incarcerated people aren’t just vulnerable owing to the hazardous nature of the work they do; they lack the power to keep themselves safe and are forced to rely on prison officials for their well-being in dangerous situations.

“These Are Climate Fires”: Oregon Firefighter Ecologist Says Devastating Blazes Are a Wake-Up Call

Timothy Ingalsbee interviewed by Amy Goodman - Democracy Now!, September 14, 2020

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As California, Oregon and Washington face unprecedented fires, President Trump is refusing to link the devastation to the climate crisis. After ignoring the fires for a week, Trump is traveling to California today. Over the weekend, he blamed the fires on poor forest management.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But, you know, it is about forest management. Please remember the words, very simple: forest management. Please remember. It’s about forest management.

AMY GOODMAN: California Governor Newsom rejected Trump’s focus on forest management practices.

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM: I’m a little bit exhausted that we have to continue to debate this issue. This is a climate damn emergency. … And I’m not going to suggest for a second that the forest management practices in the state of California over a century-plus have been ideal, but that’s one point, but it’s not the point.

AMY GOODMAN: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also pushed back on Trump’s characterization of the wildfires as a forest management issue. Speaking on CNN, Garcetti said the president was reluctant to help California, Oregon and Washington because they have Democratic governors.

MAYOR ERIC GARCETTI: This is climate change. And this is an administration that’s put its head in the sand. While we have Democratic and Republican mayors across the country stepping up to do their part, this is an administration, a president, who wants to withdraw from the Paris climate accords later this year — the only country in the world to do so. Talk to a firefighter if you think that climate change isn’t real. And it seems like this administration are the last vestiges of the Flat Earth Society of this generation. We need real action.

AMY GOODMAN: In Washington state, where firefighters are tackling 15 large fires, Governor Jay Inslee also emphasized the climate crisis is most responsible for the wildfires.

GOV. JAY INSLEE: These are not just wildfires. They are climate fires. And we cannot and we will not surrender our state and expose people to have their homes burned down and their lives lost because of climate fires.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in Oregon, six of the military helicopters operated by the state’s National Guard, that could have been used to help fight the wildfires, are not available because they were sent to Afghanistan earlier this year. This is Oregon Governor Kate Brown speaking Friday.

GOV. KATE BROWN: Well over a million acres of land has burned, which is over 1,500 square miles. Right now our air quality ranks the worst in the world due to these fires. … There is no question that the changing climate is exacerbating what we see on the ground. We had, as we mentioned earlier, unprecedented, a weather event with winds and temperatures. In addition, we added a ground that has had a 30-year drought. So, it made for extremely challenging circumstances and has certainly exacerbated the situation.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Eugene, Oregon, where we’re joined by Timothy Ingalsbee. He is a wildland fire ecologist, former wildland firefighter, n ow director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, known as FUSEE.

What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, December 8, 2017

Sadly, we are becoming  used to seeing headlines about the costs of fighting climate change-related wildfires, hurricanes, and floods – most recently, the record wildfire season of 2017.   These news reports usually discuss loss  in terms of the value of  insurance  claims – for example, “Northern Alberta Wildfire Costliest Insured Natural Disaster in Canadian History – Estimate of insured losses: $3.58 billion”   from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, or in terms of the budgets of emergency service agencies – for example, “Cost of fighting U.S. wildfires topped $2 billion in 2017” from Reuters (Sept. 14), or in terms of health and mental health effects – for example, “Economic analysis of health effects from forest fires”  in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research (2006).  “The Science behind B.C.’s Forest Fires” (December 5) post by West Coast Environmental Law discusses the links to climate change, and concludes that the record wildfires of 2017 foreshadow growing economic and  human costs in the future.

When employment effects of disasters are reported, it is usually by statistical agencies interested in working days lost or unemployment effects,  for example,  “Wildfires in northern Alberta: Impact on hours worked, May and June, 2016”  from Statistics Canada, or “Hurricane Katrina’s effects on industry employment and wages ” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( 2006) . While all these are important, Hurricane Katrina taught that there are also other aspects, including those of environmental and economic justice.

Climate Change Meets Mass Incarceration: California's Incarcerated Firefighters

By Ryan Harvey and Sammy Didonato - Truthout, December 27, 2017

The intersection of climate change and mass incarceration is not unique to California, but as the state experiences its deadliest and most destructive year on record for wildfires -- including the second-largest in the its history -- the state's incarcerated firefighter Conservation Camp program has come firmly under the microscope.

With fresh air, no walls and better treatment than prison, these "fire camps" have been commended as a model for rehabilitation. However, with wages at a fraction of minimum wage, they have been condemned as an exploitative labor practice.

Often missing from this debate are the voices of the firefighters themselves, whose perspectives offer an important nuance of criticism and possible solutions.

"What worries me when I hear too much discussion about fire camp as a form of slavery, is that they're focusing on perhaps the best part of the whole prison system," formerly incarcerated firefighter Matthew Hahn told Truthout. "The firefighters are in the public, that's why they are getting the focus. At the same time, they are living in perhaps the best conditions in the California prison system."

Selena Sanchez, an incarcerated firefighter until last year, describes an experience far better than prison but full of hard work, false promises and extremely low pay. "I'm not going to paint a pretty picture of it," she says. "They ran us like dogs."

Still, Sanchez says she would return to fire camp if she found herself back in prison.

The Conservation Camp program, joined at times by other local county prison so-called "Honor Camps," began in 1946 as a partnership between the California State Detentions Bureau -- now the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) -- and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal Fire). It quickly grew to become a staple of fighting California's wildfires, and has long been destination number one for prisoners serving time in the state prison system.

A nuanced look at the dynamics of this program, and the small percentage of prisoners eligible for participation, reveals that even though fire camps offer alternatives to prisoners being behind bars for all of their incarceration, the model has its shortcomings and should not be seen as a panacea to mass incarceration.

Climate Change: Key issues for the Fire and Rescue Service

By staff - Fire Brigades Union, March 25, 2010

Climate change is a critical issue for the fire and rescue service in the UK. It is the greatest environmental challenge facing humanity at present. But government policy in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is also reshaping the political and industrial terrain around tackling climate change.

The FBU is committed to political and industrial campaigning on climate change. The union will campaign within the fire and rescue service and work with labour movement bodies and in the wider community to tackle one of the most fundamental questions of our age.

Scientists predict that the UK climate will become warmer, with high summer temperatures more frequent and very cold winters increasingly rare. Average summer temperatures are expected to rise between 3°C and 4°C by the 2080s. Winters are expected to be wetter and summers drier. Sea levels will rise around most of the UK and there may be more frequent storm surges. Climate change will affect all regions of the UK, though not to the same degree.

Climate change will increase the risk of grassland and forest fires. It will increase the risk of floods, including from surface water, rivers and from the sea. Climate change will affect the supply and availability of water and may give rise to more extreme weather events.

These hazards will have implications for the working conditions of firefighters. Climate change will require significant changes to appliances, to the equipment available to firefighters, to training, greater awareness of firefighters’ health implications, to pumping capability and water use and increased call centre capacity.

The UK fire service is not yet prepared for the enormous implications of climate change. The service needs the staff, resources and equipment to tackle grassland fires, floods, drought and storms. There is no logic to job cuts and shutting fire stations when these risks are likely to increase in the years ahead. Firefighting is a green job and firefighters can play a vital role in helping society adapt to climate change.

Government policy on climate change and the fire and rescue service is inadequate. There is a pressing need for a statutory duty to respond to flooding events, backed by funding and resources. The increased risks from heat waves, including wild fires need to fully understood and acted upon. The fire and rescue service should be included in government initiatives on climate change, rather than excluded or forgotten as it appears at present.

FBU reps believe that the fire and rescue service can do much more to reduce its carbon footprint. Fire and rescue authorities are not doing enough on energy efficiency, transport and recycling. Much more can be done to adapt to and prepare for extreme weather. But cuts, penny-pinching and a lack of training are holding back firefighters from tackling these issues.

FBU reps need time off and facilities to act on climate change. The trade union movement is campaigning for legal rights for union environment reps. More could be achieved through national and local agreements, brigade committees, inspections and green events. The fire and rescue service should actively encourage firefighters to participate in the process of tackling climate change.

Read the text (PDF).

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