By Dr. Jennifer Symonds
Fire and Aviation Management Medical Officer
U.S. Forest Service
The onset of the global pandemic in the spring of 2020 necessitated the wildland fire community to rapidly adapt many historic processes in order to manage wildland fire while doing our best to prevent the spread of COVID-19 across our community and to the public at large. One of the most successful innovations introduced was the “Module as One” concept where crews stuck together in their module for the entire season riding in the same rigs with the same folks without co-mingling with other crews as much as possible. It was kind of a “module as a crew/family” concept.
It was Successful
Crews, Incident Management Teams, and other wildland fire response folks from across the nation took the “Module as One” concept to heart and not only limited the spread of COVID-19, but also significantly reduced the occurrence of the typical “camp crud” that generally runs rampant in fire camps during the season. A nice side benefit!
What do things look like this year? Vaccines have been administered, infection rates are down, fire activity is picking up. Are we sticking with the practices that were established last year?
The answer is yes, but with modifications to reflect the current guidance, direction, and practices.
Changes for Fire Season 2021
On January 21, 2021, President Biden issued a Presidential Executive Order (EO) on Protecting the Federal Workforce and Requiring Mask-Wearing. Agency medical leads and other public health experts studied this direction and the changing situation related to the pandemic. As a result, the Wildland Fire Medical and Public Health Advisory Team, or MPHAT, has issued new direction to COVID-19 policies which will affect the way fire assets should implement the concept of “Module as One” this fire season.
What are the specifics? Here’s the scoop:
- “Module as One” should be used by crew and modules to reduce exposures to COVID-19 from outside resources or the public, and no longer as a tool to operate in close quarters without masks. Even if vaccinated, this concept and recommended prevention and mitigation practices for COVID-19 can be useful tools to reduce exposures to many infectious diseases and maintain a healthy crew.
- “Module as One” is a concept that is best practiced on a fire incident and not at the home unit.
- “Module as One” is the same as “module as a crew/family.” It does not mean to actually module as an individual. There is no crew hopping and crews should not be divided into smaller units to isolate.
- All federal employees who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks as long as they remain asymptomatic. Those federal employees who have made the personal decision to not get vaccinated or that are not fully vaccinated, only have one of the two-dose series of Pfizer or Moderna vaccinations: you are on your HONOR to do your DUTY to wear masks at all times in an enclosed space – tent/yurt, building or vehicle – unless you are the only person in a vehicle or in an office with walls from the floor to the ceiling and the door closed.
- On the home unit, a crew should still try to isolate from others not on the crew and follow prevention mitigations – hand washing, physical distancing and mask wearing per the Executive Order, but it is understood that some individuals will be going home at night to family which negates “Module as One” on the home unit. Incident Management Team (IMT) members often travel from various locations and often interact with the public and many other IMT members. They cannot be a “Module as One.”
- For the entire season, the same people travel in the same vehicle with the same other people—no need for physical distancing of crew members that are moduling together. No vehicle hopping—except in an emergency. Travel with windows cracked/open to maximize ventilation and consider wearing masks/face coverings in a vehicle for infectious disease prevention, unless you are the only one in a vehicle.
- On a fireline, the fire is the focus but try not to co-mingle close (less than 6 feet apart) to other crews if it is avoidable. Obviously, in a medical incident you may not be able to stay beyond 6 feet. Risk of transmission of coronavirus out in the open air is lower.
- Only wear masks on a fireline if you would have done that normally before COVID-19.
- In camp, infectious disease is the focus. Wash your hands! Consider using face coverings and physical distancing around those not in your module.
- The recommendation is to carry a copy of your vaccination card with you in case you are exposed to a COVID-19 positive case. The health department may require to see it to allow you to be excused from quarantine.
These updates are subtle but important as we again embark on what is looking to be another busy fire season within the backdrop of a continuing global pandemic. Understanding and implementing the modified “Module as One” concept as well as other practices that should be observed and implemented out on the fireline and in fire camp this year is a critical component to another successful season with limited transmission and to help support healthy crews.
To review a summary of COVID-19 related lessons gathered from the wildland fire community in 2020 please visit: