Emergency Response to Inmate Firefighter Killed in Northern California Hampered by Weak Radio Signal

The top of the tree that struck Matthew Beck on May 24, 2017, killing him. (Cal Fire)

The radio used by the supervisor of a crew of prison firefighters clearing brush in Humboldt County was unable to connect with emergency officials in the moments after a 3,000-pound tree fell on one of the inmates, killing him last month, according to a preliminary Cal Fire report.

"Tree! Get out of the way!" the unidentified Cal Fire captain yelled after hearing two loud pops. He looked up to see the 146-foot-long Douglas fir tip over toward his crew members who were clearing brush near the community of Orleans in the Six Rivers National Forest on the afternoon of May 24.

Matthew Beck, a 26-year-old prisoner serving time for burglary, could not hear the captain shouting over the noise of chainsaws, state fire and prison officials said. The 105-year-old tree struck him in the head, and he fell into a ditch.

Another inmate firefighter from the same unit, the Alder Conservation Camp in Del Norte County, was hit by the tree and knocked off balance but not injured, Cal Fire's "green sheet" said.

The Cal Fire captain rushed toward the fallen tree. He told one of the inmate firefighters nearby to get the tree off Beck. That prisoner used a saw to cut off a section of tree so they could place him on a board and move him on to nearby Ishi-Pishi Road.

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But the supervisor could not contact the agency's Emergency Command Center (ECC) in Fortuna (Humboldt County) to start an emergency response on his Cal Fire hand-held radio. The device looks like a large walkie-talkie, but is supposed to reach much greater distances.

The remote, mountainous location made it too difficult for the device to connect with a radio repeater and the supervisor could not communicate with staff members at the emergency center, according to Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton.

"The topography made communication difficult," Upton said in an email.

A view of the incident site from upslope. (Cal Fire)

The captain ran to a Cal Fire emergency vehicle to use its mobile radio, but it also had difficulty reaching emergency officials, Upton said.

He then drove close to a quarter-mile down the road until he was able to contact the command center.

The supervisor returned and was told Beck no longer had a pulse. Paramedics arrived and determined he died less than an hour after the tree fell.

Cal Fire's preliminary report also found that the tree that fell on Beck was noticed by fire officials before the incident.

"The hazard tree was identified prior to the road work being started and estimated to be outside the work area," the green sheet says.

State workplace regulators have launched an investigation into Beck's death. But that probe will focus on the state's prison agency, not Cal Fire, according to Luke Brown, a spokesman for California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA).

"We are saddened by the death of Matthew Beck, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends," said Scott Kernan, the secretary of  the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in a statement the day after the incident.

That release said that Beck died before life-flight crews were able to reach him due to the remoteness of the accident scene, but did not include information about any communications problems.

A CDCR spokesman referred requests for comment on the preliminary investigation to Cal Fire.

Beck was serving a six-year sentence for burglary in Los Angeles County, according to prison officials. The agency says he was the fourth inmate firefighter to die on a fire line since the prison firefighting program began in the 1940s.

Last year, Shawna Lynn Jones was struck in the head by a falling boulder while helping work a fire in Malibu, becoming the first female inmate firefighter to die in state history.

California relies heavily on prisoners during wildfire season. It uses about 3,900 state inmates to battle wildfires and work other infrastructure projects.

Inmates in the program receive $2 an hour when battling fires, and some of them get time off their sentences. The state estimates the program saves as much as $90 million a year.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the supervisor's radio device was broken. Cal Fire officials say the device was not broken, but was unable to connect with emergency officials.

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