Opinion

Pulaski’s gift: A firefighting tool and a political legacy

Ask any wildland firefighter and they’ll swear by their “pulaski,” a tool that combines an axe and a mattock (similar to a pickaxe). It was invented by U.S. Forest Service Ranger Ed Pulaski in 1911, one year after the nation’s largest wildfire nearly took his life and left him permanently scarred. While Pulaski is remembered for his firefighting tool, it was the pain and suffering he and hundreds of other firefighters endured that led to today’s workers’ compensation system.

In 1910, Pulaski was a forest ranger in the fledgling U.S. Forest Service, formed in 1905 by President Teddy Roosevelt. He was supervising a fire crew on a small blaze near Wallace, Idaho when an immense firestorm, pushed by strong westerly winds from the Palouse, crested the horizon. Pulaski and his 45-man crew sought refuge in a cave as the inferno roared by outside, generating intense heat and sucking oxygen from the air. Even though five on his crewmen perished, 40 were saved thanks to Pulaski's resourceful leadership.

"The Big Burn" incinerated 3 million acres of forest in two days, roaring across Washington, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia, killing 85 people and scorching several towns, including Pulaski’s hometown of Wallace. Smoke wafted as far east as Chicago. The fire destroyed enough wood to provide our country’s lumber needs for 15 years.

But almost as tragic as the death and destruction was the fire’s toll on the rangers and firefighters.

Because there was no workers’ compensation insurance, Pulaski and others had to pay their own medical bills. Even though he was severely burned and suffered permanent eye injuries, Pulaski covered the hospital bills for a 17-year-old Butte lad who was refused treatment because he had no money.

The scandalous treatment of the firefighters finally pushed Congress to approve Roosevelt’s long-stalled workers’ compensation program. Passed in 1916, the Workingmen's Compensation Act, sponsored by Sen. John W. Kern, D-Ind., and Rep. Daniel J. McGillicuddy, D-Maine, established a program to protect federal civilian employees and their dependents in the event of work-related injury or death.

The plight of people like Ed Pulaski was not lost on Mark Reed, president of Simpson Timber Company. In 1911, Reed, a second-year Republican legislator from Olympia, pushed through our state’s first workers’ compensation program for public- and private-sector workers. Unsatisfied because the law covered only lost wages, Reed secured a no-fault insurance program in 1917 that paid wages, medical bills and other expenses.

However, over the years, Washington’s workers’ comp system has become one of the most expensive in the nation. Our per-worker costs are the second highest in the U.S. and injured workers miss an average 266 days of work, almost three times the national average. While the number of claims has decreased, administrative costs at the state Department of Labor and Industries increased $39 million last year alone.

One reason could be lack of competition. Except for a few large companies, the state has a monopoly on writing workers’ comp coverage. In fact, Washington is one of only four states that forbids private competition.

This fall, Washington voters will decide whether private insurers can compete with the state monopoly. Initiative 1082 requires private insurers to follow the same rules and regulations — the only difference is competition, and competition works. Just three years into privatizing their workers’ comp system, West Virginia’s insurance commissioner reports that “…treatment of injured workers has improved and rates have been reduced over 30 percent.”

A century ago, Ed Pulaski kept his focus on the workers; we should do the same today. The important thing is not who writes workers’ compensation coverage, but how they are regulated and how the workers are treated.

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