When I first started firefighting as a season at the Forest Service, my only stress was dealing with my physical stamina to keep up with the crew and make sure my boots didn’t cause me any hot spots. Did I have enough water? Do I have to double lunch today?
By the time I ran a crew, my worries had to include the firefighters for whom I was responsible. Now, in addition to my physical condition and my food and water, I had to worry about those I supervised. What about work / rest? When I was driving a crew or an engine, we did not even worry about the work / rest relationship. I’m sure many of you remember that they worked 24 or even 48 hours straight. This is how we got into the 16 hour maximum shift policy. Because in the old days, we did not bother with the need for proper rest to make good decisions, maintain performance, and keep ourselves alive. But I deviate …
In those early days for me, even as a supervisor, my stress level was not great. But in those days, our fire seasons were not that long. Depending on where you worked, fire season can only last a few months. After the fire season ended with the monsoon rains, cooler temperatures or the first snow, we went back to our project work such as fuel projects and prescribed incineration. Maybe we went back to school or took off to spend the winter on a beach in Thailand. Yes, it was not bad then. We can handle anything for a few months. We knew in a short while the fire environment would change and we would be back to a shorter workday and only 5 days work weeks. But those days are long gone.
Our fire seasons are now literally all year round. Unless there is snow on the ground, we have the potential for a veld fire. You live the “new normal”. You respond all winter to fires in Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Texas, California, etc. It’s not like it used to be. The fires have changed. But have we changed?
We have changed by increasing the number of permanent employees. We convert seasonal to permanent full-time employees. And rather than returning firefighters to school or taking a job as an elevator operator at the local ski resort after the season is over, they now work 16s, for months longer than we ever used to. What has changed is we have increased the number of firefighters affected by the unsustainable pace of our current fire climate
Families are also affected. Birthdays are missed and anniversaries are only remembered as you walk out of a dusty canyon far away from family and loved ones. Relationships are messed up and everyone is affected, whether on the line, in camp or back home. Approximately? What are we going to do about it?
Twenty years ago when I was a District FMO / Divisional Head, I had the old work attitude I grew up with. What was, you work during fire season and play in the winter. When one of my captains asked to attend a wedding a few days down in the middle of the fire season, I was disbelieving. Days off during fire season? What? You work in fire season, you are not going to play. There will be plenty of time to take off when the snow lies on the ground this winter. It took a thoughtful captain to sit me down and explain why it was so important for him to have a four-day weekend off and attend a family wedding in the middle of the fire season. It was a turning point for me. I had to think about what he said. It was as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes.
I began to realize how to take better care of ourselves and our people. I understood that our divorce rate, alcohol abuse and our horrific suicide rate are a tragedy with no end in sight. Our world, our fire seasons are not like I grew up with. Approximately? What do we do about it?
Our agencies develop protocols, support services, medical and counseling services, etc. And it’s all good and important. But that’s not the whole answer. Just as there is not one easy answer for the new big mega fires. There is also not one easy answer to address our employee stress. And rather than critical incident stress, what we have is chronic incident stress, based on the long grind of 16-hour days … day after day, month after month, year after year. We watch our employees lose out due to suicide, alcoholism, aviation accidents, burns and hooks.
How does this chronic stress affect us? Have you ever been really angry with your boss or co-worker? I mean over the top crazy. Have you ever written an email that you should not have? Had too much to drink because a co-worker was killed in an incident? What about getting angry with your spouse or children? There are many ways we respond to stress. I am no expert on the subject. But I had my own inappropriate and negative reactions to the work. Maybe I’ll include some of those reactions in another story, but let’s just say I did a poor job managing my own chronic stress.
Most of my stories include leadership lessons with humorous bits and pieces of incidents that happened to me over a 45-plus year career in the fire service. But this topic has no room for humor. It’s as serious as a heart attack. What can you do as a firefighter? Captain, BC, Chief? We all have a role to play. Those of you who know me also know that I am not a gentle touch. I was a tough supervisor and fire leader. I always felt I had to be. But the world has changed. Our workforce is being driven at a pace it was never intended to be. We let our workforce engine tour too much.
I have no silver bullet? I do not have the one right answer for all our chronic incident stress issues? But I know we need to be aware of the stress on our employees and their families. You already know that. You see it. You hear what your wife or husband or partner is saying. Our co-workers and supervisors and subordinates all feel the same way and experience the same chronic incident stress.
What about us starting to make extra effort to look after each other? As supervisors, maybe we just take a breath and listen to our people. I do not suggest that supervisors become lax in their work. Of course, we must hold our staff accountable for their performance. But let’s start exercising a little emotional maturity and realize what six or eight months of fire camps, long shifts, driving through the country, dealing with inexperienced agency administrators, empty seats on the engine or crew, unrealistic expectations of the organization and most importantly , which is the absence of the home do to our friends and co-workers. This is not the time to be like my supervisor in the story, “Shut Up And Dig”. It’s the time to be a smart supervisor and co-worker.
You can listen to stories on this topic at BobbieOnFire.com, episode # 29, “It’s All About You – Coping With Job Fatigue”
Both sides of the line of fire is Bobbie Scopa’s uplifting memoir of brave the heat of fierce challenges, professionally and personally. It appears in September and is now available for pre-order.
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