So Who the Heck is MPHAT?

By Kelly Woods, Director

Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

During these days of uncertainty and rapidly changing recommendations it is hard to stay up-to-date on what guidance is the most current and to whom we should be listening for our personal and occupational safety. We are peppered with new information daily. Development of new groups and acronyms to address the situation seem to be the norm—all designed to help the nation and wildland fire community navigate through uncharted territory.

For the wildland fire service, one such new group formed after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is the MPHAT which luckily comes complete with a catchy acronym. (Say it with me now: M-FAT. Awesome, right?)

But who is MPHAT? What role do they fill? For whom do they work?

The simple answer to these questions is that MPHAT is the Wildland Fire Medical and Public Health Advisory Team established by the Fire Management Board (FMB) to lead COVID-19 planning, prevention, and mitigation for wildland fire operations.

First, Who is FMB?

Obviously, the simplicity in this answer omits a few key pieces of information, the first of which is: Who is FMB?

For that, I will try to stick with the simple answer. If we dive too deep into a running commentary on wildland fire governance, it’s entirely possible that we will drown in a bowl of acronym-induced alphabet soup.

I don’t mean to imply that it’s not important to understand our big picture governance and who works for whom. But this blog post is intended to provide some insight into who MPHAT is and why their perspective and products are important for the health and safety of our wildland fire workforce. To dig deeper into a study of the high levels of wildland fire oversight, I recommend reading Chapter 8 of the  Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations.

So back to the question at hand, who is FMB? The FMB was originally chartered in 2013 by Fire Executive Council (FEC) to “provide a mechanism for coordinated and integrated federal wildland fire program management and implementation.” FMB membership consists of federal agency fire directors or assistant fire directors, deputy directors of the Department of the Interior’s Offices of Wildland Fire and Aviation Services, and the Wildfire Program Manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) housed at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

NIFC

The National Interagency Fire Center, or NIFC, is home to much of the wildland fire national leadership. NIFC is located in Boise, Idaho.

Because FMB is comprised of representatives from federal entities, its focus is primarily on oversight of federal wildland fire policies, budget priorities, and program activities. FMB does, however, consult with non-federal wildland fire partners such as the National Association of State Foresters (NASF).

Now that we kind of understand who MPHAT works for, let’s more fully answer the original question we set out to address: Who is MPHAT?

Now, Who is MPHAT?

As with most acronyms, learning the words each letter of MPHAT represents is only half the battle. Figuring out what responsibility has been assigned to MPHAT and how that mission affects the boots on the ground is what really matters.

The Wildland Fire Medical and Public Health Advisory Team (good ole MPHAT) is comprised of medical and public health specialists from the federal wildland fire agencies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Did you know that the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior agencies employ medical doctors and public health experts? These folks work together with representatives from the CDC, agency equipment and technology development programs, workforce development programs, and the U.S. Forest Service’s Human Dimensions Program to form MPHAT.

Formally assembled this April, the MPHAT mission is to provide expertise, advice, coordination and collaboration with ad hoc external subject matter experts to make recommendations to wildland fire leadership to establish protocols and practices related to mitigating risks associated with COVID-19 in the already complex scenario of wildland fire management. Whew. In other words, MPHAT provides critical expertise and coordination with additional expertise to inform wildland fire leaders at the national, geographic, and local levels in their decision making related to infectious disease prevention during wildland fire operations.

Our Wildland Fire Agencies Have Their Own Medical Doctors and Public Health Experts

Isn’t it cool to know that the wildland fire agencies have been progressive enough about workforce health and safety to hire actual medical doctors and public health experts to shepherd our medical standards and emergency medical services programs?

This proactive action set us up to much more effectively react when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Formal committees and groups comprised with these folks who understand wildland fire and have medical expertise and professional contacts in agencies such as the CDC were already in place to help develop protocols, guidance, and tools to address the pandemic—while still performing the mission critical task of managing wildland fire.

A cool side effect of working through the COVID-19 circumstances is that agencies and their public health and medical experts have been tested and successfully developed processes to rapidly address employee health scenarios. We know they can adjust and focus on critical workforce health and safety concerns whether related to physical or to mental fitness and well-being. I can’t help but think this flexibility will help us in the future.

Learning Curve

The learning curve has been steep. Cultural changes have happened. The traditional incident management protocols have been adjusted.

Nobody truly knows how long the pandemic situation will be with us or how the “new normal” will continue to evolve. But we do have a group focused on medical and health-related issues specific to wildland fire operations. That’s a good thing.

MPHAT will continue to provide critical, consistent input to our decision making at all levels. Whether specific to testing, screening, or prevention, keep an eye out for what MPHAT has to say.

This group truly is comprised of our resident experts for all aspects of COVID-19 planning, prevention, and mitigation during wildland fire operations.

Have a question for MPHAT? Please leave it in the comments section below.

Visit https://www.nwcg.gov/partners/fmb/covid-19 to view MPHAT products.

5 thoughts on “So Who the Heck is MPHAT?

  1. Our Wildland Fire Agencies Have Their Own Medical Doctors and Public Health Experts

    This is an excellent rundown

    NOW

    How does this all square / interface when the firefighting world has to deal with OWCP and health of the wildland firefighter during the mending after injury ,disease, and whatnot after an assignment in to their retirement

    OR is that all on the firefighter once again??

    • Thanks for your message.

      The established injury reporting and workers compensation reporting systems are a necessary component to help document and track injuries and illness on the job. That said, we understand that working through OWCP can be a huge challenge. We have tried to make it easier in the most recent guidance from FMB about testing and who pays for tests. Please take a look https://www.nwcg.gov/sites/default/files/docs/eb-fmb-m-20-012.pdf The memo is in direct support of firefighters to help ensure you’re not worrying about these issues. There is also a current interagency effort working on a concept for COVID-19 Support Teams so if an employee does get COVID-19 while working they are supported throughout the process. Keep your eye out for future updates on this resource.

  2. Is there going to be MPHAT guidance regarding best practices for sleeping options on assignments? Am currently on assignment in a busy tourist town. Despite the availability of on forest areas that have hosted small fire camps before and numerous dispersed sites where module as one could camp and remain isolated, the ranger insists that out of area resources stay in hotels for hygiene reasons (showers, I guess?) Camping was specifically prohibited. This seems very counter to the logic of slowing spread by isolation. Everything I have seen seems to indicate that the best way to contract COVID is to surround yourself with tons of people, many of whom choose not to wear a mask, which is exactly what we are being forced to do. Difficult logic to follow, but I’m not a doctor or a ranger so I might not have all the intel.

    • Thanks for your message.

      MPHAT does not plan to develop guidance on best practices for sleeping options on assignment, mostly because circumstances vary so greatly on assignments. Managers need discretion to make the best decisions under varying circumstances. Overall, you are right – reducing your risk of exposure through limiting close contact with others when possible is key to preventing infection. If camping, we recommend resources should be camped in areas where groups/crews can isolate from each other. If you are staying in a hotel that is crowded it will be extra important to practice good preventive measures to protect yourself. https://www.nwcg.gov/sites/default/files/docs/eb-fmb-m-20-008a.pdf

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