The Beating Heart Within Us

Redding IHC Crewmember – 2016

Being a Redding Hotshot is an incredible training opportunity. That is the priority reason that I endeavored to become one. I am now into July of the 2016 fire season. I have performed training now as a firing boss (t) and as a crew boss (t). I have received a multitude of classes that otherwise would have placed me firmly in the lower half of a wait list on my home unit.

Redding 7

Of all the training and all the experiences that I will take with me from this season on the Redding Hotshots, I believe that participation in the South Canyon Staff Ride is the most valuable and precious. Earlier in the training season, we also attended the Rattlesnake Fire Staff Ride; it was a very good precursor to South Canyon.

As is necessary for all staff rides, preliminary study was undertaken to best understand the facts and sequence of events. Unlike South Canyon, however, the Rattlesnake Staff Ride takes place over a single day. In that single day we walked the ground, discussed decisions and actions that occurred, and performed tactical decision games.

The final element of all staff rides is the integration. This is where you coalesce all that you have learned and distill it all into a “take away” message. For the Rattlesnake Staff Ride I distilled a message derived from the results of the tactical decision games. This message was that when a sudden change is observed and a call to action is obvious, it is appropriate, prudent, and necessary to take the time to engage your mind, and others, before you engage physically. It is also at this time that you can go to the crosses and make peace with the memories of those who have passed away, and the terrible fate that has become your lesson. I certainly remember the 15 fallen firefighters who perished in 1953. To the extent that is possible, as an emotional being, I reached back into that time and tried to be there with them. It is not easy.

The South Canyon Staff Ride transpired over three highly organized and orchestrated days. On the evening of arrival we convened in a room where time was conscientiously allotted to allow the participants, group leaders, and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to create an abbreviated cohesion. This was invaluable as, unlike anything I had ever experienced, the SMEs were survivors of the tragedy.

1994 is still recent history to today’s wildland firefighter. Those living breathing people in that room and eventually on that same mountain with us, where 14 brothers and sisters died, were actually there. It was astounding. They wore the same PPE, carried similar fire shelters, and used the same radios, helicopters, hand tools, and chainsaws that we carry today. They used the same procedural approaches, Incident Command Structure, and safety protocols that we use. They were real and they felt real. There were questions. Everyone had questions and there were answers. I heard some of the most visceral and vulnerable answers to tough questions that will ever be heard.

My mind was awash with the events of July 6, 1994. A connection was established and reinforced in a way that cannot be replicated by anything less than the full force of what that program is. At the end of the field day we regrouped in a dining hall were the integration of the experience occurred. The range of experience levels in that room was all the way from entry-level firefighters to seasoned fire managers. And everyone had a novel and insightful contribution to the integration ceremony. Normally, one would not use the word “ceremony” with staff rides. But this was more than a staff ride.

I distilled the experience into this message: That a lesson cannot be truly assimilated into the core of one’s being so as to influence thoughts and actions unless there are strong emotional underpinnings. In the future it would be smart of us to try and behave, teach, and listen to the best of our abilities with attention paid to the beating heart that we each have within us. Make an emotional and intellectual connection to the messages you want to matter.

 

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