You don’t need to have a title to be a leader on the fireline.
So writes Pam McDonald in her recent post on the Wildland Fire Leadership Blog. Citing author Mark Sanborn’s book You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader (part of the curriculum in WFL’s Professional Reading Program), McDonald points out “Each one of us is a leader, whether a leader of one, new leader, leader of people, leader of leaders, or leader of organizations”.
One the fireline, it is vitally important that firefighters work as a cohesive unit, responding to and implementing the tasks given then by the Incident Commander. However, there is opportunity for individual leadership for everyone on every fire. Even the most inexperienced firefighter can be a leader by listening closely to instructions and asking questions when he doesn’t understand and making the choice stay alert and aware of his conditions.
I’m probably the last person in the fire community to have seen SMOKEJUMPERS. The one-hour special, which follows Missoula rookie smokejumpers, aired last month on Country Music Television (CMT). I knew about it well in advance: Bill Gabbert over at Wildfire Today even did a write-up on it a week ahead of time.
As a former U.S. Forest Service Smokejumper, hearing the news that there would be a reality TV program about Smokejumpers made me cringe. Hollywood’s version of firefighting rarely resembles reality, and though I enjoy watching the Red Skies of Montana as much as the next person, it promotes an unrealistic interpretation of what we do. To my surprise, I found the program thoroughly watchable. Despite a couple of places where I disagreed how the job was portrayed, the show was exciting and fun to watch. Here’s hoping that the show comes back for a few more episodes!
The letters appeared on my helmet a week after my 18th birthday. I noticed on the way to a call, as I toed off my sneakers and stepped into my bunker gear pants, stomping to get my feet all the way down into my rubber fire boots and slipping on my jacket. I stopped for a second and stared at my helmet. The carefully applied black plastic letters that spelled out my last name had been removed. In their place were two words: WRONG TURN.
“Who messed with my gear?” I yelled. No one looked up, busying themselves with putting on their turnouts. My Captain paused beside me. He dropped his cigarette on the apron and ground it out with the toe of his boot. “Get in the rig.”
I sat in the back seat of the engine, my face burning with humiliation. I knew why they’d changed the lettering on my helmet. I was the newest member of a small close-knit volunteer Fire Department, but I thought I’d been on my way to proving myself to the other firefighters. Until last week. On the way to a medical call, I’d read the map wrong and my ambulance had ended up at a dead-end across a ravine from our intended address. Luckily, the other ambulance en route didn’t follow us, and the patient suffered no harm. We could literally see the house and the other ambulance across the ravine, but in order to get to it, we’d had to retrace our steps, going all the way back to the main road.
“Hey, Wrong Turn. Wrong Turn!” One of the other young firefighters, just a year or two older than me elbowed me to get my attention. “You took a wrong turn in the ambulance. Hey, maybe joining the fire department was a wrong turn too!” He smirked at his own cleverness.
As soon as we returned to the station, I started picking at the lettering. I could hear all of the other firefighters laughing about something in the break room, and I walked outside the station, holding the helmet in my hands. It would take less than five minutes to get the letters peeled off, and I was certain I’d rather have no name on my helmet than wear an embarrassing reminder of my mistake everywhere I went.
The Captain walked over and stood beside me, looking outside at the gathering dark outside the station. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and tapped one out. “Never take up smoking,” he said. “Filthy habit.” He glanced over as he lit up. “You’re peeling them off?”
“Yeah,” I said defensively.
“Don’t blame you. That was just plain mean, doing that to you.” He took a long drag on the cigarette and blew the smoke out. “At least, you can choose to take it that way.”
I stopped picking. “What do you mean?”
“We depend on each other much more than people in other professions. Building bonds, building trust means something more to us than most people. Because I have to depend on you to be there for me in a life-or-death situation. Some people would say that they’re teasing you as part of making friends with you. You screwed up last week. So what? We all do. They’re all waiting to see if you can handle a little teasing, because like it or not, they have to trust you to save their rumps, and they want to know what kind of person you are.”
“So, you’re saying I shouldn’t peel off the letters?”
“I’m not saying anything.” He took another long draw of his cigarette, and went back inside.
I thought about it for a few minutes, then carefully pressed the letters back down in place.
The next evening was our weekly training, and it seemed like everyone there had to make a joke about my helmet. Even our Chief got in on it, telling everyone that ‘Firefighter Wrong Turn’ would be in charge of cataloging the map binders – as long as she could find them. I had to retell the story of the mishap a dozen times. It was embarrassing, but it was also fun, as the other firefighters recounted their own past mistakes. The letters stayed in place on my helmet for another six months. By the time they disappeared, I was no longer an outsider at the Fire Department, but truly part of the family, and I’d learned that the way to succeed as a firefighter was as part of a team, rather than in spite of the team. For a hot-headed teenager, it was an important lesson to learn.
“No more Wrong Turn?” My Captain glanced at my helmet.
“Nope.” I turned the helmet over in my hands. Whoever had removed the lettering had also cleaned the gummy residue away before carefully reapplying my name. “I kind of miss it.”
“You got off easy,” he said with a chuckle. “I was ‘Light Bar’ for a full year.”
I was half asleep when my squad boss handed out copies of U.S. Forest Service report RMRS-RP-9. He rattled the table as he walked by, and all four rookie hotshots sat up straight, yawning. We’d practiced cutting line all morning, and had eaten a big lunch. It was a hot afternoon, and the airless meeting room of the Fire Cache made it hard to stay focused on learning.I looked down at the title of the report. USFS Fire Behavior Report, 1998: Fire Behavior Associated with the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado.
One of our squad bosses walked to the front of the room. Alex held his hat in his hands, squeezing the the bill of the cap. Alex set down his hat and looked straight at us. “I was a member of the Prineville hotshot crew in 1994. We were coming back from fighting some fires in California, and they sent us to Colorado,” he began, than had to stop to clear his throat. “It was supposed to be a break for us,” Alex said. “It was just this little fire burning near Glenwood springs. No big deal. They didn’t even send anyone out to do a size-up until it had been burning for a couple of days. And then they asked us to go and take care of it.”
Over the next half hour, Alex described what had happened on the fire. He calmly and unemotionally led us through the USFS report, pointing out which of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and the 18 Watch Out! Situations were ignored. He described how little time the fire crews actually had to escape from the oncoming fire front: from the time the firefighters realized the fire was just 270 feet away and started running, it took just 10-15 seconds for the fire to reach them. Ultimately, 14 firefighters were lost in the blaze, including 9 of the 19 member Prineville Hotshot crew.
Reading the USFS report on Storm King changed the way I approached my job, and wildland fire. I learned the Standard Firefighting Orders and the Watch Out Situations by heart, and no matter how tired I am, I make sure to always stay alert and aware whenever I am on the fire ground.
Photo copyright 2004 Rachel C Smith All Rights Reserved
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, reported on Friday that there were more than two thousand new fire ignitions around the country this week. Of the 2,274 fire starts, 86 rapidly grew into large fires. By week’s end, all but 18 of the wildfires had been contained. The remaining 18 large fires are burning in 8 states. Windy conditions and low humidity are forecast to persist for several days. NIFC’s Significant Fire Potential Outlook released at the end of March suggests higher than average potential for large fire starts in late spring and early summer.
Photo: Rachel C. Smith, All rights reserved