The Student of Fire Era

[Over the next several weeks we will feature content related to “Growth in the Wildland Fire Service.” The content published here will also be featured in the Spring 2019 Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Paul Keller

For four seasons, from 1986-1989, I was a member of the Zigzag Hotshot Crew, based on the Mount Hood National Forest’s Zigzag Ranger District in Oregon.

Paul Gleason was our Superintendent, a position he had held since 1979.

I live in the Zigzag area on Mount Hood’s west side. Back in the 1980s, I therefore knew of the Zigzag Hotshots and their long history. I was honored to become part of this family of firefighters.


Sure, back in the day we trained, too. But it was the Dark Ages compared to the Student of Fire era that is obviously alive and well on today’s Zigzag Hotshot Crew.


At first, after leaving the crew and continuing my career in fire elsewhere, I was aware of the Zigzag Hotshots, their personnel, and their activities. But down through that swift river of the years, even though I still lived in the Zigzag area, I, unfortunately, eventually lost all contact with the crew.

This same void of connection applied to the other many alumni who had also once served on the Zigzag Hotshots before and after me.Zigzag Hotshot Logo2

Long Overdue

Enter Devin Parks.

Thankfully, Devin, now in his second year as Zigzag Hotshot Superintendent, wanted past crew “old-timers”—like me—to get together and break bread with today’s Zigzag Hotshot Crew.

On a Friday in April—at the end of Zigzag’s first week back in operation this season—Devin and his crew hosted a barbecue lunch for past crew members.

No one had ever done such a thing before. Turns out, this “family” reunion was long overdue.

As Devin explained in his electronic invite that was spread far and wide a few weeks before the event, “The intent of this gathering is to connect the current crew with those who have served as Zigzag Hotshots throughout our proud history. This is a great opportunity to pass down our history to the newest generation of Zigzag Hotshots, as well as to learn about these incredibly talented individuals who are carrying our program into the future.”

Good Vibe

The word successfully got out to former Zigzag crew members. A total of 20 of us—from various eras—returned to Zigzag that day to attend the barbecue. (Hans Redinger, a former Zigzag Hotshot Assistant Supt., probably traveled the farthest, making the 220-mile drive down from Washington’s Snoqualmie Ranger District, where Hans is Fire Management Officer.)

As soon as I arrived, I joined in with a group of folks—both former and current crew members—who were shooting the bull, laughing, and probing each other with various questions. I looked around and quickly realized that these informal cross-generational conversations were bubbling up everywhere.

There was an unmistakable good, communal vibe resonating in the air.

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The old and the new. Devin Parks, Superintendent of the Zigzag Hotshot Crew (pictured second from right), had his crew host a barbecue in April for past crew members “to connect the current crew with those who have served as Zigzag Hotshots throughout our proud history.”

Those of us who had been on the crew during the “Gleason Era” were asked questions about Gleason. While much has been written and documented about this wildland fire legend—whose life was taken by colon cancer in 2003—those of us who worked on Paul’s hotshot crew shared some little-known inside scoops with the current Zigzag Hotshots. Call it: “family history.”

For instance, the crew headquarters. Us old-timers were blown away by the crew’s current home base, located in a completely refurbished one-time two-story fire warehouse behind the Zigzag District’s main office facility. We admired the crew’s overhead offices and their spiffy classroom training area.

Gleason was a maverick. Rather than be tied to that main district office facility (where he did have a desk beside the FMO’s desk) he preferred he and his crew to go more guerrilla. Ten miles up the highway, in a remote Forest Service compound that then included a parking lot and three historic cabins (Gleason lived in one of them), is where Gleason’s crew reported for work—right there in that gravel parking lot. Yep. (If we needed to go indoors for training, we used a meeting room down the hill at the Zigzag Ranger Station.)

Today, in the Zigzag Hotshot Crew’s indoor training area the wall is lined with several crew photos from numerous years. You’ll find Paul Gleason in just one of these—the 1991 crew, Gleason’s last year here. (After 12 years as Zigzag’s Supt. Paul transferred to Colorado’s Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest to be a District FMO in 1992.) So where are the other 11 “Gleason” years’ annual crew photos? Sorry folks. There aren’t any. Like we explained to the current crew members at the barbecue, Gleason was a maverick and a guerilla Superintendent. Except for that one 1991 exception, we never took official crew photos. It was good to pass on this “inside” family history to Zigzag’s current crew.

Super Hosts

Today’s Zigzag Hotshot Crew were super hosts. They provided all of us with delicious hamburgers, brauts, salad, desserts and refreshments.

After chowing down and continuing to brew good conversations between the “old” and the “new” we all gathered into one big circle. Superintendent Devin thanked us alumni for traveling to and attending this special gathering. We then went around and everyone had an opportunity to introduce themselves and say whatever they wanted.

I was truly impressed with the current crew members. As they spoke, it became apparent to me that a beneficial cultural change has transpired and become ingrained since I put down my pulaski three decades ago. These folks get the “big picture”. They read and study RLS’s and FLA’s and train, train, train. Sure, back in the day we trained, too. But it was the Dark Ages compared to the Student of Fire era that is obviously alive and well on today’s Zigzag Hotshot Crew.

At the same time, it was so good to learn that many traditions continue. Today’s Zigzag Hotshots obviously nurture and promote a strong passion for interfacing with wildland fire—just as we once did before them. And these current folks PT just like we did, too—humping up that dreaded super-steep Hunchback Ridge. Yes!

I also got a really strong cohesive vibe from this tight crew of wildland firefighters. As a former Zigzag Hotshot, they made me proud.

After our introductions and reflections were over, we all gathered up for a group “family” photo. We then continued our sharing in a celebration of ongoing conversations. The barbecue was supposed to be over at 1300. But our mutual, combined energy powered it on long after that time.

Here’s my recommendation. If you’re on an established crew who hasn’t reached out to your alumni for quite a while, you might consider doing so. I can guarantee you, it will be a win-win.

Chasing Spots

By Travis Dotson

Spot! 

We’ve all heard it. We’ve all yelled it. We can all feel the little push on our pulse and the tingle in our toes just hearing it in our head.

It can be calm or it can be chaotic, but no matter how it’s called out—it’s time to get serious.

Let’s look at the most common ways we holler this one word and all that gets communicated by the way we voice this attention getter.

Spots

The Heads-Up

This is the notification version—loud enough for people to hear but with no urgency conveyed. This is saying “heads up, we have spotting, but don’t worry about this particular spot because I just put it out.” This is purely a notification, information for our communal SA, just feeding the common operating picture for the greater good. That is a lot of information to convey with the volume and tone of one word.

A Little Help!

Then there is the come help me out version. It’s definitely loud enough for folks on either side of you to hear and has just enough urgency conveyed to inform others to come help. It’s usually clear that if everyone gets on it, it won’t be a problem—but, start steppin! You can hear it in your mind. Actually, try saying it out loud just to practice: SPAAAAHT! (Hopefully you are reading this in the break room at the station. Then you can see if you did it right based on people’s reactions.)

ALL HANDS! (Fixin’ to Go Over the Hill)

Last but not least, there’s the full-on scramble. This is a bellow from the bottom. It’s loud, urgent, tense. Just shy of panic. Panic is never cool, but getting everybody moving sometimes requires a little pepper in your pipes.

What we’re saying in this instance is “we’re probably not going to catch this one, but we need to haul ass, bust ass, and pray for the luck that so often smiles on us, cause this one has legs!” This is a serious shout. Don’t be messing around with this one. In fact, if you put this call out there and the situation doesn’t warrant it, be ready to catch hell. It’s a good way to get a nickname—“ole Freddy Freak Out over here.” But nobody is joking around when it fills the air. We come running. We don’t EVER hesitate to get there and jump in, get dirty, and do our duty—to help.

We all know this in our bones and we learned it quick, because if you don’t come running when it’s time to chase spots—you don’t belong here. AND, if you don’t call for help when it’s time to chase spots—you don’t belong here.

Did you catch that part? The part where you learned how to call for help?

You know exactly where I’m going.

You are Not the Exception

Why is it we are so capable of calling for help on the fireline but will literally kill ourselves before asking for help off the line?

Emotions regularly kick our ass. I know you think you are the exception—some sort of lone wolf emotion-master killer-ninja bad-ass, but you’re not.

Not if, but WHEN you are struggling with whatever hard sh*t comes your way—call it out. Just let one person know you got a few spots. Even if you are gonna stomp them out with your boot, it’s just a heads up. You never know how many more are out there and you never know when it’s gonna go from nothing to scramble mode.

When you are holding line for the crucial burn show, would you ever see spots and just ignore them? Just hope they don’t grow together? The answer is no, you wouldn’t, because you’re not dumb (although you have eaten some ridiculously rancid rubbish for absurdly low sums of money).

HandsAsk for Help

We are all capable of doing not-so-intelligent things. In the case of hotshot Olympics, the consequences are rather benign (aside from the emotional scarring of any happenstance spectators).

But the not-so-intelligent move of not getting help with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and post-traumatic stress gets real in a hurry.

That stuff will push your ass into a hole.

But that’s OK, because you know how to ask for help. Little spot, big spot, lots of spots—don’t matter. Call it out.

Ask for help, Toolswingers.


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This article is the Ground Truths column from the Fall 2018 issue of Two More Chains titled “Traumatic Transitions.” Please read the the rest of the issue available here:

https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/two-more-chains-fall-2018

Clean Yellow Shirt

By Madeline Scheintaub

There is a raggedy circle of people standing around a giant map. Look around. Green and JPEG image-240D8C2B7DF8-1yellow; stained green and dull yellow; green and yellow-grey; green and yellow mottled with black; and vibrant green and brilliant yellow. That last person, what are you thinking about them?

I am that last person and I often hear: You’re blinding me. Go hug a tree in the black. I also hear the subtext: You’re new. You don’t belong. You haven’t proven yourself. You’re not entirely welcome.

My brilliant yellow is an honest signal. I am proud to wear it. It says: I am newer to firefighting. It is not my full-time job. I’m new on this fire. The subtext is: There are probably some skills I’m still working on. I might not have the search images to reliably pick out the hazards. I might need or want some extra explanation. I don’t have lots of experience in fire to draw from.

In a first impression, bright yellow Nomex and unworn gear can be taken as an indicator of relative skill, experience and belonging. This is the challenge I put out there. Take that first impression and make it conscious. Now what are you going to do?

Dig a little deeper.

Is that person in the blinding yellow really new to fire, or just lucky enough to have some new gear to break in? Are they new to this fire? What is their role here? What are they bringing to the work we are doing together? Is there anything they need? How is knowing more about this person’s experience level going to make everyone safer and the work more productive?

Are you going to create distance? Are you going to push that person away as an outsider or a burden? Can you have togetherness in the fire community without making those at the edges unwelcome? If that person with bright colored gear intentionally dulls those bright colors, are you losing anything?

I am going to continue to wear my brilliant colors until they fade with time and experience. I hope you ask me about them and why I am choosing to be out here with you.

What is YOUR Job?

By Megan MartinezScreen Shot 2018-10-29 at 9.26.32 AM

Can you work in fire and also take care of your non-work life and self?

I started fighting fire for the federal government in 1998, when I was 19.  I spent nine years as a temporary firefighter, and I’ve been permanent since 2010.  For a long time there was nothing I wanted to do more than go on fires.  I embraced the culture wholeheartedly.

I loved the sense of purpose and the camaraderie, and I was good at being a badass.  I tried to work at least as hard, if not harder, than anyone else.   I pretended to know things I didn’t, and I tried like hell to hide all weakness.  I talked sh*t about people who did any different.  I was all-in. Sound familiar?

For many years, my non-work life just wasn’t a priority.  I dated fire guys, and then married one.  It was okay for a while that sometimes our assignments kept my husband and me from seeing each other for most of the summer.  Then it started to seem ridiculous.  He got out of fire.  I stayed in, and got a job as a Fuels AFMO.

I took the job because I loved working on the proactive side of fire management. I was sure I could keep up the all-in game, at least for another five years. Instead, I found myself in a position where the job seemed never-ending. No one told me this specifically, but I knew I was supposed to run the burn program, manage contracts, write NEPA, and enter data, in addition to supervising, going on local and national fires, and acting as Duty Officer at the drop of a hat.  I knew it because I’d never seen anything different.

I also knew I was not allowed to question it, that no one would understand anything less.  I was still physically capable, and I don’t have kids, just a wonderful husband and friends, and a house and a garden, and a love for outdoor recreation and travel.  I did have a minor but important health issue that needed a predictable schedule to address. I also had been in denial about a staggering family tragedy for well over a decade, and it had resurfaced to weigh heavily on me.  Nevertheless, it was clear to me that I would lose everyone’s respect if I spoke up.

Then at my uncle’s funeral, I had a eureka moment:  I’m crazy to put work ahead of taking care of myself.  Still, I hemmed and hawed.  It was hard to give up my persona as a badass chick–I invested so much time and energy into that schtick that I didn’t know who else I was.  I finally did it though.  I asked for six months off from my PFT job as a Fuels AFMO. This took more courage than anything I’ve ever done on a fire.

Luckily, my supervisor supported me. But when I came back, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore.  My supervisor offered that I could focus on fuels duties, but it was perfectly clear to me that you’re either all in or you’re all out. I was no longer willing to be all in.

Spring before last I announced I was leaving and started looking into other careers.  My mind was made up, and I loved having a predictable schedule.  I enjoyed that outside of fire, there’s a lot less posturing.

What to do instead?  I have always described natural resource management as my ideal career.  Once I left my fuels job, I had been telling people I would like to work in vegetation management.  But there were no local vacancies, so I decided I would leave the Forest Service.

Signs

Then something funny happened.  I realized that I really care about my job.  Public land is amazing.  Making a difference is important to me, and what the Forest Service does matters.

What the Forest Service does in fire and fuels management matters because it sometimes protects human life and property.   But we’re a land management agency, not a municipal fire department, so that’s not our only job.  What we do also matters because it can promote healthy ecosystems, clean air and watersheds, and recreation and rural economies.

Maybe I could stay after all. This is what brought me to the question: “What is my job?”  Is it really true that I must be all in or all out?  I realized that I had a conundrum faced by many permanent fire personnel fortunate enough to have lives they care about outside of work:  If your job could entail endless commitment, how do you know you’re doing enough?

How many fires must you go on?  Does your sense of duty and fire retirement imply that you’ll be available for all local fires?  How about nationwide fires?

Is it your job to respond to mutual-aid fires in the winter?  Is it different if you work in California than if you’re in a quieter region, contentedly playing or working on your off-season life and collecting unemployment?

Is it your job to take care of the land on your home unit or to go wherever the action is hottest?

Is your job different if you have dependents than if you don’t?  I have heard more than one person say something like, “He can be Duty Officer—he doesn’t have kids.”

Is it your job to act like a cool guy?  What about to teach young firefighters how to act cool?

Is it your job to stand in the heavy smoke until someone tells you to stop, even if you standing there doesn’t buy anything?  Is it your job to tie-in the direct line even if a burning snag or widow-maker teeters as you work nearby?  Is it your job to tell others to do so? (I’ve done all of these!)

What if your body wears out before you hit your 20 years?  What is your job then?

Oh, and then here’s another can of worms:  What is the job of the U.S. Forest Service?  We have well-intentioned policies that rarely get translated to any ground-pounder.  (Is it your job to know policy?) We have the reality that nothing, absolutely nothing we do will prevent fires forever, juxtaposed with a culture still largely stuck in a time when preventing fires forever seemed both possible and desirable.

We tell our firefighters it isn’t their job to engage in high-risk structure protection, and then at times engage in areas with extremely slim margins for safety or retreat.  We sometimes fancy ourselves heroes for suppressing fires in areas that have only a minuscule chance of ever threatening infrastructure in forests or rangelands that might benefit from fire.  We sometimes expend huge sums—and risk life and health—to take on problems that are better solved by local government, by patience, or by nature.

There’s a lot of good to be said about Forest Service fire management.  We engage with something hard and dangerous, that is rapidly changing, politically volatile, and entails personal liability–all in a manner that is often organized and cohesive.  It’s well-meaning, too.  Although I think the conceptual leadership could be a lot better, I don’t doubt that many of the higher level decision-makers are good people. They have sacrificed a lot to get to where they are (and I know this is true of field-level personnel).

I don’t think any of this is easy, and I don’t have the answers.  But I do think it matters; the work matters and our lives outside of work matter.  With fire seasons growing longer, and more and more development in the WUI, the job won’t get any easier.

The choice to take care of our incredible natural resources, the public, private infrastructure, and our personnel will have to be deliberate.  We’ll have to choose to do things differently.  I used to think that change would come from up high, that I just didn’t understand enough to make sense of it, or make a difference.  Now I think any meaningful change will come from the field, from module leaders, AFMO’s, and local FMO’s.  First we’ll have to try and sort a few things out though.

What is your job?

 

Honor The Fallen

By Travis Dotson

How exactly do we Honor the Fallen?

honor1

It’s a tough question because it has a thousand right answers. One of the most important ways to honor is to learn. We are always in danger of squandering the bitter opportunity that tragedy affords us.

This video is a glimpse of what so many of us struggled with in the aftermath of the Yarnell Hill Fire. This is just a few fire folks walking the ground in January 2014 and grappling with how to advance our culture in the aftermath of devastation.

Take a look.

Making sense of bad outcomes is difficult, often impossible. But nobody wants the pain to be without benefit. Suffering without growth is tragic.

Let’s choose growth. One way to grow is to challenge long held beliefs. The window for genuine inquiry opens wide after disorienting circumstances – when we are shaken we struggle to re-balance. For many the re-balance means doubling down on long held beliefs, for others it requires a heart wrenching letting go of previous convictions.

What are some of your long held beliefs?

Are you willing to question them?

Are you willing to consider a new perspective?

And after all that, are you willing to actually alter your actions?

Growth is difficult.

Honor the Fallen

 

 

Gloveless Idiots

By Travis Dotson

Some people don’t like the picture at the top of this page. Here is part of an email we received:

“The current Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website home screen pictures three wildland firefighters working in the black with handtools. From my perspective they appear to be less than 10 feet apart and two of them aren’t wearing gloves. Have NWCG standards on Line Construction and PPE changed?  I always speak up on these type issues since this is a pending Condition Yellow 9 Line IWI.”

Here’s another one:

“Just sharing that the header picture strikes me wrong, unless you are trying to show a lesson to be learned….no gloves and using hand tools seems out of place, given that we teach people to use gloves and keep their sleeves rolled down — am I missing something?”

So let’s talk about the picture, or rather the practice the picture captures — wildland firefighters working without gloves on. First of all, let’s do some acceptance around the topic:

  1. It happens. This picture depicts reality. This is how work gets done, whether we want it to be done that way or not.
  2. This is a divisive topic.

Number 1 is self-explanatory. Number 2 seems silly, but it’s true — we like to “Us and Them” the crap out of this hot potato. There is a bright line between the Glove Nazis and the Gloveless Idiots.

Glove Nazi’s have super clean Nomex, no tolerance for nuance, and certainly wouldn’t know which end of what tool is best used to fry grub worms (or why you would fry grub worms).

Gloveless Idiots are a bunch of babbling backwoods booger eaters who have no sense of cause and effect.

Well, we won’t get far if we believe either of those extremes will we? (But I bet you bought one of them anyway.)

OK kiddos, let’s sooth our hurt feelings and come back to the table for a little slice of compromise pie.

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Gloves protect our hands. Gloves make some tasks more difficult.

Individuals make personal decisions about risk all day everyday. (Insert your favorite daily risk decision example here. Most people use driving, so don’t use that one.)

When and where to put on gloves is the ultimate “efficiency / thoroughness trade off” dilemma. It’s a pretty tough nut to crack.

What if…

  • Every time you saw a photo of firefighters working without gloves on you thought: “Wow, those folks must have a very compelling reason not to wear gloves…I wonder what it is?”

What if…

  • Every time someone asked why you aren’t wearing gloves you thought: “Wow – this person really cares about my safety, that is so kind.”

More acceptance. Fewer assumptions.

What if.

 

Suicide: Behavioral Health Advisory

The following is an advisory circulating in the wildland fire community.


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Behavioral Health Advisory

 

Subject: Caring for our own: Suicide Prevention and Behavioral Health

Distribution: Fire & Aviation personnel, Nationwide

Discussion: Suicide rates are increasing in this country, and while we do not have specific numbers, tragically, suicide affects our employees. Suicide does not discriminate on the basis of gender, age, background or profession.

Help‐seeking is often perceived as “weakness” to be avoided at all costs. This stigma, by its very nature, promotes silence and discourages asking for help when it is needed. Reducing stigma—making it OK to not be OK, and OK to seek help—is the first step. By openly addressing the topic of mental health among our employees, we can embrace the notion that this issue is no different than any other injury or disease.

Our workplace is a critical partner in preventing suicide. We have an opportunity to give people a sense of purpose, hope and community, all of which are psychological buffers to distress. Take the time to connect with each other. Each of us has the ability to make a positive difference in someone’s life. One life lost is too many.

Risk Factors

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Heavy alcohol or drug use
  • Witnessing traumatic event (s)
  • Major physical illness or injury
  • Loss of a close relationship
  • Isolation or lack of social support (e.g. off‐season, retirement)
  • Knowing others who have died by suicide

Warning Signs

  • Sudden withdrawal from social contact
  • Persistent feeling of hopelessness
  • Increasingly reckless behavior
  • Mood swings/ Change in behavior
  • Having a suicide plan (me, place, method)

There is hope. It is important to talk about suicide. Help is available.

Get Help Now

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

800‐273‐8255

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/


Veterans Crisis Line: Confidential support available 24/7/365 for veterans and their families and friends, regardless of enrollment in VA health care.

800‐273‐8255 and Press 1. Text message to 838255

https://www.veteranscrisisline.net (online chat available)


American Addiction Centers Firefighter & First Responders: Peer support for behavioral health and substance abuse.

888‐731‐FIRE (3473)

https://americanaddictioncenters.org/firefighters‐first‐responders/


Treatment Placement Specialists: Individualized behavioral health assistance program (BHAP) with intake specialists trained to work with first responders.

877‐540‐3935 (Or see the map on the website for the TPS in your area.)

http://www.treatmentplacementspecialists.com


What You Can Do

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF AND OTHERS. Monitor and manage mental health, just as you would physical health. Do not be afraid to ask for help and seek medical treatment. Thoughts of suicide can occur in anyone. It is not their fault, but rather a need to treat a mental health issue.

TALK OPENLY AND ACTIVELY LISTEN. Peer support goes a long way to protecting mental health. Open communication is especially important for the survivors after a firefighter suicide occurs. Listen actively, let someone who is seeking your help talk at their own pace and ask them open‐ended questions.

SHOW COMPASSION: Psychological risk is an undeniable part of the job. Be patient and supportive; do not judge or stigmatize individuals experiencing a mental health challenge.

BE DIRECT. If someone seems at risk or shows warning signs, ask “Are you thinking of suicide?” and “Do you have a plan?” Recognizing a potential suicide is critical to preventing it.

BE PROACTIVE: If someone you know has a suicide plan, connect them with a higher level of care as soon as possible. If it is safe for someone to stay with them, do not leave them alone. Call 9‐1‐1 immediately.


To download a printable version of this advisory please click here:

https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/suicide-awareness-and-prevention

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To download a printable version of this advisory please click here:

https://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/suicide-awareness-and-prevention

The Queen Bee, Tokenism, and Pushing Feminine Away

By Sara Brown

Reflecting on eleven seasons as a wildland firefighter, I explore three reasons why women in fire don’t universally encourage more women to join wildland fire by revealing personal, and often uncomfortable perspectives.

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Reason 1: Creating a Persona to “Fit In.”

For the Sake of Safety, “fitting in” with the firefighter culture is essential for safety and a positive work environment. In order to “fit in” with the culture, I created a persona that was not my authentic self. Each time I moved to a new fire crew I found myself needing to prove my worth as a firefighter and working to be viewed a trusted member of the crew such that I would be included (and safe). The easiest way to do this was to create a masculine version of myself. This meant that I didn’t contribute as many of the positive characteristics that females typically possess, such as providing: alternative perspectives on risk taking, alternative ways to get things done, and emotional safety for my peers. Work by Jennifer Taylor, PhD, at Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health corroborates my experience.

Reason 2: The Culture Limits Potential Benefits of Diversity.

The well-intended concept of “inclusivity” may be overrun by “exclusivity” of the fire culture. Cultural exclusivity likely defeats many of the positive aspects that are commonly attributed to diversifying a workforce. The current culture in wildland fire attracts people who either naturally “fit in,” or are willing to conform to the hyper-masculine culture. Minorities who join fire, (women for example) stifle many of the unique perspectives they may otherwise contribute to the culture in order to fit in. Cultural exclusivity has limited perspectives and stifled diversity within the overall culture. When women act in masculine ways to fit into a culture for psychological and physical safety, they can’t provide “diversity”–in effect they contribute to the culture the same way as men do.

Reason 3: Pushing “Feminine” Away.

At work I have pushed other female firefighters (particularly “feminine acting females”) away, rather than bringing them into relationship and supporting them. Two theories suggest that conditions in the workplace might contribute to this behavior.

Theory 1: Tokenism

In the late 1980’s, Robin Ely, then a graduate student in the Yale School of Management, found that women in male-dominated firms believed that only so many of them would make it into the senior ranks, and that they were vying with one another for those spots. This dynamic is known as tokenism.

Theory 2: Queen Bee

A Dutch psychologist, Naomi Ellemers, was trying to understand the near-total absence of senior women in academia. She found that senior women coped with gender discrimination by emphasizing how different they were from other women. She termed these women “Queen Bees.” Ellmers provides conditions in which queen bees emerge: when women are a marginalized group in the workplace, have made big sacrifices for their career, or are already predisposed to show little “gender identification”— camaraderie with other women. According to Ellemers, Queen Bees, “learn the hard way that the way to succeed in the workplace is to make sure that people realize they are not like other women.”

Hopefully these thoughts/experiences, and the following questions will spur discussion about this important topic across multiple levels of the firefighting program.

Is there a tipping point of women firefighters that can be reached beyond which tokenism and Queen Bee syndromes disappear?

Currently our firefighting system seems to support woman deciding to “do fire” on their own with some mentorship. These “self-made” female firefighters meet and accept other woman who made it on their own, but may be skeptical of helping others who didn’t “make it on their own.”

The Challenge – How can we find a way to get the ones who “made it” on their own to want to mentor others who may need a bit more help?

Or should we?

Watch the webinar:

 

Sara Brown works for The USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station

Underslung Heroes

By Travis Dotson

Remember the Cerro Grande Fire in May of 2000?

  • 230+ Homes Destroyed
  • 18000 People Evacuated
  • Nuclear Facility Threatened
  • Damage Cost – One BILLION Dollars
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Burned homes from the Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos NM.

Nothing too outrageous by today’s standards I suppose. But consider this:

It was an escaped prescribed fire.

That’s a huge deal.

So, who were these clowns playing with matches on the doorstep of a nuclear laboratory right in the middle of the southwest spring winds?

Well, here is one member of this lousy light-it, fight-it, and lose-it team—in fact, this goofball was in charge when the fire went over the hill:

Paul Gleason.

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Paul Gleason

Hmmmm . . . Paul Gleason. Why does that name ring a bell? I feel like there’s some sort of big-deal significance associated with that name. Oh, wait. Isn’t that the dude who came up with LCES?

How did this happen? Like any other tough day on the line, there’s one slop-over kicking their ass and the Burn Boss (Gleason) suggests they make the magic name change (convert from RX to Wildfire—the most oppressive game of semantics we play).

So, they convert it. Now it’s a wildfire and Gleason is the Type 3 IC. Next comes the most common of all common tactical decisions. Direct or indirect?

We all know the direct or indirect dilemma is a fairly standard operational decision that needs to be made, just like it was that day. In the context of what eventually happened, this particular direct/indirect decision has gotten quite a bit of scrutiny. I think you should let Gleason walk you through it himself – watch this video: (Go right to 11:30 – 15:00 for the direct/indirect decision)

 

Are You Really Willing to Go There?

The “Bad Apple”. There’s one in every bunch, right?

Are you really willing to go there? Are you willing to boil this entire series of events down to a simple case of: “They should’ve turned left”?

Are you willing to say you would have made a better tactical decision than Paul Gleason?

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The Bad Apple Theory

Paul Gleason said: “I had a preconceived bias against underslung line.”

I don’t like underslung line, either. Do you?

Crucial Decision Points

Yet, this is exactly the type of decision we love to crucify folks with using the perception-twisting kaleidoscope of retrospect omniscience.

As we look back at bad outcomes we create a story and in that story are critical turning points. Of course, these turning points are given significance only through reference to the eventual outcome. Who cares if they went direct or indirect if no houses burned down?

So now we have the story and identified the crucial decision points. We all love to customize these crucial points in our never-ending quest for the adoration of our peers via gaudy display of operational virility. Peacocks we are. We all want to be recognized for our “unique insight.” (In fact, I’m even on this quest myself right here within this article. But everything I’m saying has been said before. Damnit, now I have to find another route to self-esteem!)

What I’m really saying here is we love to parry the “They should have gone direct!” blow with the oh-so-clever “Well they never should have lit it!” mindset. Touchdown! The Monday morning quarterback brings home the bacon every single time!

Newsflash: That is not a clever insight. Neither is its simple sister: “Why were they even there in the first place?” Oh, how we love to toss that one out in relation to the latest entrapment, especially if it is related to structure defense. Again, not clever or even remotely insightful. We all know exactly how we get where we get because we all get there on every fire. We just walk away by the grace of Big Ernie.

The Comfort of Finding Fault

Let’s see here, where were we? Oh yeah, throwing rocks at Paul Gleason for making the wrong decision. Or not stopping the ignition. Or not listening to the weather service. Or listening to the weather service. Or not praying hard enough.

Maybe it wasn’t Gleason. Maybe it was somebody else.

Did you just feel the relief as we moved the crosshairs? Ahhhh, the comfort of finding fault—it feels so natural. I mean, who are we kidding? A prescribed fire that torches a town? SOMEBODY must have screwed-up. It’s not like that was the plan! Please feel free to pause here and let the comfort of that last sentence wash over you.

It should be unsettling to acknowledge how cozy that self-righteousness feels.

The Bad Apple, there’s one in every bunch.

Paul Gleason and Eric Marsh

Let’s time travel our target shooting session.

Hmmm, what year should we jump to? How about 2013? It’s so easy. Eric Marsh might not have been Paul Gleason, but he’d led his crew on a hike off a fire more than once. Bad Outcome = Bad Apple? Try giving Marsh the leeway you give Gleason.

Does it feel any different?

Apples and oranges, you might say. (Considering our current context, that’s kind of funny.)

But is it really that different? An operational decision with an unintended outcome. What if the personalities were reversed? What if Eric Marsh was the Burn Boss/ICT3 at the House Burner RX and Paul Gleason was hiking his crew to the ranch when they were overrun by fire?

Would you make sense of those outcomes differently than you currently do?

I’m guessing you would. You might try a little harder to see what you aren’t seeing, actively asking yourself: “What am I missing here?” But that Bad Apple bucket is enticing isn’t it? It’s a lot less work to just toss the bad operator in and move on. Especially if they are dead. Especially if they weren’t “Agency”. Especially if they didn’t have the right kind of buckle. Especially if, especially if, especially if . . .

Stand Accountable

We are all amazing firefighters. We are all bad firefighters. It just depends on the day and the circumstances. And the outcome.

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“I had to face the fact that there were times that I made decisions that led to the eventual outcome of this fire.” – Paul Gleason

I know the Bad Apple theory is appealing. And it might even be true sometimes. But don’t get lazy and use it without putting genuine heartfelt inquiry and introspection into the matter. Acknowledge the shifts where you were the Bad Apple. Acknowledge the future shifts where you will be the Bad Apple.

Everyone says: “We all make mistakes.” I think we all make decisions using everything we have learned and experienced to this point. I think we all care deeply about the people next to us. I think we all want to learn from tragedy and heartbreak. I think we can do better.


“There is no way to get around how uncomfortable it is to stand accountable for your decisions” – Paul Gleason


 

Listen to the related Lessons Learned Center Podcast:

Bad Apples

Saddle Up

By Travis Dotson

Alright folks, listen up. We have a tough piece of line to put in. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s gonna suck. It’s certainly dangerous, but that’s nothing new. This chunk of ground is gnarly. Ground just like this has killed more than a few good firefighters.

Looking at the bigger picture, this piece is absolutely critical and there is no way to avoid it. We have to go direct. This piece has to get tied-in–and we are the ones to do it.

Briefing1

Tactical Briefing

We have a solid safety zone, but it’s a haul to get back down here. We have super-dialed lookouts, the best there are for this type of assignment. We all have to keep track of where we are and keep in close contact with the lookouts. Each one of you needs to keep a pulse on your gut. If anything starts to feel sketchy you need to speak up and RTO.

Here’s the other deal. There’s a couple crews already in there moving dirt. We need to get in there and help. There are crews coming in behind us as well. We all need to chip in on this one, it’s a big chunk of ground and there’s plenty of work for everyone.

You been at that briefing? Of course you have. What did you do when it was over? You saddled up and got to work. Because that’s what you signed up to do: Hard sh*t for the greater good.

Ready to saddle up and get to work doing hard sh*t for the greater good?

It’s just another shift, only this assignment involves a different kind of work.

For this go you’ll need to saddle up and answer tough questions for an important study.

Some of the questions are hard. Hard like personal. Hard like they could make you uncomfortable. But you’ve been uncomfortable before–nothing new there.

“The long-term physical, psychological, and behavioral health risks of wildland firefighters are not well-documented in research.”

We have all seen and felt the fire-specific impacts to our physical, psychological, and behavioral health–both good and bad. We all want to advance our ability to care for each other. We need research to establish an anchor point. That research starts with you.

Get in there. Do the work. Get the line in.

We don’t turn our backs on doing our share of hard sh*t for the greater good. We saddle up and get to work.

Moving!


What to Expect:

1. First, a few questions to see if you qualify to participate in this study.

2. If you qualify, you will be directed to the Wildland Firefighter Health and Behavior Survey.

This survey will take 15-40 minutes to complete.

Click here to get started: https://umt.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_080qdGFTskXOAVD