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November 22, 2011

Communication problems, rugged terrain hampered efforts to help Hamm

By Libby Cluett | lcluett@mineralwellsindex.com

The Bureau of Land Management and Texas Forest Service issued a “Serious Accident Investigation Factual Report” regarding Caleb Hamm, who on July 7 collapsed and subsequently died while fighting the 337 Fire in Palo Pinto County.

Autopsy and toxicology results indicate Hamm died of hyperthermia – uncontrolled heating of the body’s core temperature.  

“Mr. Hamm, a 23-year-old male, appeared to be in good physical condition. He was beginning his sixth season as a wildland firefighter and his first season with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bonneville IHC [Interagency Hotshot Crew] based in Salt Lake City, Utah,” stated the Serious Accident Investigation Team report issued in October.

The Bonneville IHC arrived in Texas on July 1 after fighting the Honey Prairie fire in Georgia for six days. The crew had three days on standby in Abilene and one evening shift on the Burnett Fire, stated the report.

On July 6, the Bonneville Hotshots arrived in Mineral Wells to help combat a growing blaze, called the 337 Fire, northwest of Mineral Wells.

The hotshots worked to build a handline and cold trail along the black edge, where the dozers could not reach because of rugged terrain.

The Bonneville Hotshots began shift work on July 7 at 7:30 a.m., which began with briefings at Mineral Wells High School and a safety report of the day’s high temperature, forecast for 105 degrees, with a relative humidity of 18 percent to 26 percent.

The crew returned to “Drop Point 20” of the fire at 9 a.m. and received another briefing on site, which “emphasized hydration” and “pacing themselves,” and began its assignment.

They broke at 1:30 p.m. for lunch, topped off canteens and broke into three squads before continuing.

At 3:30 p.m., the report states that the Bonneville assistant superintendent stopped to talk to Hamm and “said he was completely lucid and did not appear to be fatigued.”

At 3:50 p.m., the crew member working with Hamm “asked if he was okay after he stumbled on a rocky slope while hiking down the drainage. Hamm said he was hot with a little headache,” according to the report.

However, the report states the crew member left Hamm to try to tie in with another squad and “said he would be right back … [he was] gone about two to three minutes before returning to Hamm’s location … [and] found Hamm collapsed on the rocks and unconscious.”

At 3:53 p.m., the crew member called the Bonneville assistant superintendent on the radio saying that Hamm was down.

When the crew EMT reached Hamm, he reported the young hotshot had labored breathing and was unresponsive to prompts but was semi-responsive to pain from a sternum rub.

Hamm was about 2,100 feet from Drop Point 20, the closest place an ambulance or helicopter could reach. At first, the operations chief and an air attack pilot tried to evacuate Hamm with the air-attack helicopter.

Between 3:56 p.m. and 4:20 p.m., Hamm’s condition deteriorated and he stopped breathing. At 4:14 p.m. an operations chief “notified Mineral Wells Fire Department from his cell phone. [A MWFD] ambulance was dispatched and was enroute at 1616 hours.”

At 4:16, “Air attack contacted Operations Chief A and recommended Air Evac from Mineral Wells. This request was based on Hamm’s deteriorating condition.”

At 4:21, the SAIT report states that Hamm went into cardiac arrest and that CPR was delayed while Hamm was being extracted, “which took two to three minutes.”

Air Evac arrived at 4:31 p.m. with a paramedic and registered nurse. They reached Hamm at 4:35 p.m. and “began advanced patient care.”

The ambulance departed at 4:45 p.m. and arrived at PPGH at 4:58 p.m. At 5:03, the attending physician pronounced Hamm deceased.

The SAIT report findings note that:

• Hamm was not severely dehydrated and his electrolytes were within the normal range.

• There were issues with communication, namely the designated division “point of contact” did not have direct communication with accident scene personnel.

• Cell phones were used to coordinate medical response per Incident Action Plan, resulting in others not being able to monitor critical communications.  

• The Global Positioning System coordinates for key locations were not identified in the Incident Medical Plan (ICS-206) on the Incident Action Plan for the 337 fire.

• The IAPs for the 337 fire for July 6 through July 8, 2011, and IAP Safety Analysis (ICS-215A) did not contain specific reference to extreme temperatures or hydration nor was it included in the IAP Safety Message.

• Bonneville IHC was well prepared for a medical emergency with EMTs, backboard, trauma kit, and oxygen.

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