A three-part series by Rachel Reimer
In the Winter 2017 issue of Two More Chains, firefighter Bre Orcasitas discussed wildland fire culture. In her blog, https://theevolvingnomad.com/2016/11/20/fire-culture/, she wrote, “Hearing ‘don’t F… it up’ is a sarcastic yet serious show of support for whatever small task you have taken on.” This blog series digs deeper into how and why that phrase has meaning, and examines wildland fire culture and learning.
Wildland firefighting is dangerous work. And yet every year, there are hundreds of new recruits hired into the ranks of wildland firefighters, regular people who undergo a learning process in order to become one of the team. It is through this process of learning that they are able to transform from “the public”–those people we order off of our fires, and hopefully keep far away from any real firefighting–into “wildland firefighters”. When I consider the topic of learning in wildland fire workplaces, I think of new recruits because they are enduring the most obvious and steep learning curve. But in reality, the learning never stops. My question is, can we learn when the stakes are so high that failure is not an option? Doesn’t learning require a “safe-to-fail” environment where people can honestly engage with the vulnerability of trying something new for the first time? Or, is the sarcastic yet gritty and horribly honest phrase ‘don’t F… it up,’ the sum total of all we need to know about learning in wildland fire?
I explore these questions through my experiences in the 2016 fire season instructing at boot camp, leading my crew, and at the Women’s TREX in Northern California.
We’re not here to breed sissies
When I think back to my experiences as a rookie at the ten–day boot camp my agency runs for new recruits, I didn’t feel like there was room to fail. I was intimidated. I tried really, really hard all the time even when no one was looking, in part because that’s who I am, and in part because I suspected that there was never a time when no one was looking. I distinctly remember the hill runs, pushing myself to physical limits I didn’t think possible, watching as people vomited and hyper-ventilated at the top, trying desperately to slow my heart rate and recover before the next lap, thinking ‘Oh shit, it’s going to be me next.” The stress is real. It’s real at boot camp because it’s real in our jobs…or at least that’s what I thought then.
This year I was invited to attend boot camp again. I joined the ranks of the privileged few who get to run the camp. When I got the call, the first thing I did was up my PT. Hill runs three times a week. I realized that while I would be an instructor…I’m still a rookie instructor. But this year it was different. What I saw at boot camp this year re-framed how I think about learning and safe-to-fail spaces within wildland fire.
At boot camp the instructor cadre had many conversations about the learning curve of new recruits, all revolving around the need to push people to expand their skillset while also not breaking them down as human beings. We want them to be tough, capable of handling stress, and yet also comfortable asking for help. We want them to prove they can work hard, that they will earn their way, to show pride in their work ethic and yet not have attachment to ego or exhibit too much personal pride. The paradox of learning puzzled me, and I thought about it through the season as I interacted with my crew.
Running saw– the irony of ‘don’t F… it up’
On the small Initial Attack crews that the BC Wildfire Service utilizes, there is limited room for a delay in passing on skills. With three or four people to an Initial Attack fire, often in large timber with a significant amount of saw work, everyone has to be capable of performing most fireline tasks. This is why rookies on IA crews often get to run a saw, something unheard of on the larger 20-person unit crews. This year I thought about safe spaces for learning as I handed a chainsaw to the 19-year-old rookie I had on my crew. After hours of classroom training and in-the-field instruction, it was finally time for him to make his first cut. I looked at him and said, “I will be right here. Look up between cuts and make eye-contact with me, if I tell you stop–STOP. I trust you. You’re going to do great.” I smiled. He nodded, eyes wide, every muscle in his body tensed. In my mind, I was screaming don’t F… it up!
What does that even mean? Well, for me it means that I care about my crewmembers and I don’t want them to get hurt, which means that I fear the consequences of them making a mistake. Let me say that again.
When I think about my crewmembers making a mistake, I am afraid.
Why? I don’t want them to fail. That fear of failure inside of me creates an intolerance of mistakes–even small ones. Because small mistakes lead to big ones, right? Wrong. Small mistakes lead to learning, which prevents big mistakes.
If I am afraid of anything that isn’t perfect in me or in my crew, I will create an environment where shame is everywhere, fear of failing is high, and the willingness to be vulnerable and take on new tasks will diminish. In short, an intolerance of mistakes can cause me to lead in a way that is not empowering, but instead intimidates those working for me.
As a leader, I try to be aware of my own fear that gets triggered when my crewmembers make mistakes. Instead of transferring that fear to them, I say “I trust you” when the fear inside me wants to say “you’d better get this damn near perfect, or else you’re not good enough, which means that I’m not good enough, and you’re probably going to get us both killed.”
Research has shown that when you look like you might be weaker than others in your group for any reason, the urge for people around you to put more pressure on you to perform is even greater.[i] If you’re last on the hill run, you’re going to get yelled at. When it comes to being seen as weak in wildland fire, it seems like that experience is more common for women. Or is it?
[i] Van Der Zee, K., Atsma, N., & Brodbeck, F. (2004). The influence of social identity and personality on outcomes of cultural diversity in teams. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35(3), 283–303.