By Bre Orcasitas
Looks can be deceiving
Surely, there are countless reasons why someone would “choose” to leave the fireline. People come and go in fire like a revolving door and it’s easy to make assumptions as they pack up their lockers or desks. Perhaps it’s a worthy effort to put focus on some of the most prominent reasons why people leave and examine how it looks from the inside.
There you are out on the fireline minding your own business when WHAM! One of a thousand scenarios takes you out. Not completely though, just enough to significantly alter your life. Maybe the injury pushes you out of the jump world; maybe it forces you out of fire completely. With either scenario, there is a sense of loss. You chose a certain avenue of fire because it was where you fit-in. Now you get to “choose” a different avenue of fire or get off the fireline entirely.
It’s less than desirable, but you know you shouldn’t complain because there are so many others who were banged-up to the point that they couldn’t come back at all. You are counted as one of the “fortunate” ones. Those who couldn’t return to fire after their catastrophic injuries but nevertheless, managed to survive are counted in the “lucky to be alive” category, which leaves little room to express anything but gratitude for their altered existence. An existence filled with chronic pain, doctor appointments, therapy sessions, and tracking of medical paperwork. When you’re “lucky to be alive” people give you the “yeah, but…” if you muster up the courage to tell someone how you really feel.
I am so sick of dealing with OWCP that my head is going to explode.
“Yeah, but you could be taking a dirt nap right now! The paperwork is probably better than the alternative right?!”
Starting a family
There seems to be a constant panic about keeping women in fire. There are even committees dedicated to the retention of women. So what’s the problem? Although women (just like men) leave for countless reasons, starting a family is a heavy hitter. So let’s scratch beneath the surface, shall we?
First, let us recognize the ratio; for every 20 men in fire, there is approximately 1 woman. Just using statistics alone it’s easy to see that most male firefighters have a spouse who is not in fire, whereas most female firefighters have a spouse who is in fire. Why is that? As a woman, often times it’s much easier to have a relationship with someone who “gets it” rather than someone you have to explain your profession to. “What are you doing out there in the woods with 20 dudes?”
Since most female firefighters are married to fellow firefighters it makes starting a family exponentially more difficult because you don’t have the non-fire spouse with bankers hours to fall back on. Although a woman is no less dedicated to her career, she has no choice in carrying, birthing, and feeding her child; that’s just biology. Since there has been no smart career pathway created to navigate this circumstance within the firefighting community, the woman’s career is adversely affected and/or demolished, whereas the male experiences no career strain for the exact same situation.
While supervisors of the dad-to-be often times don’t even broach the subject of their upcoming parenthood, women hear statements from their supervisors such as, “well we could lateral you over into dispatch”, “family is the most important thing so if you need to leave fire to start a family that’s okay”, “so what are you going to do?” It’s being supportive without being supportive at all. But what else are the supervisors supposed to do exactly? There’s no flow chart for this because we haven’t collectively decided that it matters enough to figure it out.
Women are essentially forced into choosing between having a family or fighting fire, but men aren’t. Men don’t get placed in dispatch because they became a parent. There’s an overt assumption that if a woman becomes a parent she will be leaving fire which, often times ends up being true, but it’s because there is no support system not because she caught an uncontrollable case of baby fever. Because let’s be honest, fighting fire is a hell of a lot easier than the 1st year of parenthood.
To put the focus back on identity, how easy do you think the transition from fire culture to mommy culture is? You trade in your fire boots for a cutesy diaper bag and give up your nomadic lifestyle for a groundhog’s day existence. Having the firefighter’s stereotypical can-do attitude now leaves you feeling like a failure because as hard as you tried, you couldn’t figure out how to be a firefighter and a parent at the same time. And on top of that, you miss the fireline because it’s where you belong.
If you happen to find yourself on the fireline with a woman who is also a parent, stop and shake her hand because she made miracles happen in order to be there.
Saving your family
It’s no secret that there are high rates of divorce amongst the fire community for obvious reasons. During the fire season, work-life balance simply does not exist. The off-season used to be a time to reconnect with your family and try to make up for lost time, however, there has been an increase in meetings, trainings, and hiring obligations over the last several years that keeps fire folks away from home semi-regularly during the winter as well.
People want to spend time with their family and this career is not conducive to maintaining healthy relationships, so firefighters sacrifice positions on their beloved crews to ensure that their child will be able to recognize them when they walk through the door.
“Choosing” to take a lesser position, or leaving primary fire in an attempt to create some semblance of work-life balance looks good on paper but the reality is bittersweet, because it’s nearly impossible not to harbor feelings of loss. By taking that “lesser” job you traded in your passion for a steady paycheck that meets the need and nothing more. Your sense of purpose fades away as discontent slowly seeps in to take its place. You’re more or less leaving your fire-family for your family-family. One family takes a hit either way.
Retirement should be a time of celebration, a time when you can transition into the “choose your own adventure” part of life. But for many ground-pounders, their mandatory retirement date hangs over their heads like a guillotine. This is what you know, these people are your family; how are you expected to simply walk off into the sunset with a smile on your face? It’s just not that simple. “You have dedicated your life to this profession, congratulations! You’ve done it long enough that we are now forcing you to stop.” So the retirees give a courtesy chuckle to the youngster’s comment about how lucky they are to be done, while at the same time feeling slightly lost about what they’re supposed to do next. Where’s the IAP for this?
Assumptions are salt in the wound
As it turns out self-extrication is jarring, whatever its form, in fact, it’s more like involuntary separation because it doesn’t feel like a choice at all. It takes time to come to terms with the loss of part of your identity; some people may never come to terms with it.
From the outside it’s easy to make the assumption that people who didn’t get killed in an accident are lucky, that all women want to have babies and are less committed to the job, that if you left your position to be closer to home you’re happy about it, or if you’re up for retirement you must be stoked. To assume these things would leave out the heart of the matter; being a wildland firefighter is more than just a job. The longer you’re in it, the more entwined with your identity it becomes until you can no longer recognize yourself without it, and then what?
So maybe it’s worth asking a follow-up question to those folks who are packing up their desks and/or lockers. You never know if that follow-up question could end up altering the outcome of someone’s situation, or at the very least, it can help them to feel valued as they walk out the door.
Bre Orcasitas is the author of ‘The Evolving Nomad‘ blog site. Go there and read more of her stuff!
Related: Two More Chains – Fall 2017 “Why Identity Matters” is the focus of this issue. Read about Wally Ochoa, Lead Sawyer on the Winema Interagency Hotshot Crew, who survived a career-ending injury on the 2014 Freezeout Ridge Fire. As you read about Wally’s ordeal, ask yourself hard questions about who you are, what you do, what risks you take—and what those risks are worth.