Speak Up – The Wildland Firefighter

In 2002 I was a new COO in a Type 2 Incident Management Team (IMT). I escaped as a division supervisor for years. I enjoyed being a freelancer. I met new people at every assignment. I was sent out when I wanted to be and stayed back on the District when needed. Being a freelancer met my needs to travel outside the region when the local teams were sitting idle at home and yet I could stay at home when my District Ranger was concerned that I was away.

Once I was a qualified OSC2, one of the local ICs immediately approached me about his team. I already had a reputation as a good firefighter and Fire Management Officer, so he jumped at the chance to get another solid Chief of Operations. I can’t help but think that having a female COO on his team was also a plus. But that’s just a guess on my part.

At the pre-season IMT meeting I met the rest of the team. The security officer was a crusty old Vietnam vet who wasn’t too happy to have a female Chief of Operations on the team. Growing up, he was instilled with the value that men go to war to protect the women. And in his mind, firefighting was akin to fighting. He was very clear on this issue, but as I knew he would, he finally got a capable female COO on the team.

The other Head of Operations has been with the team for many years. He was a great friendly man and a good Chief of Operations. The whole team loved and respected him. But I could tell he was insecure about me when we first met. He didn’t say much, but I could see him looking at me, not sure who this new partner of his was. It was clear that he was wary of me. And I don’t blame him. He did not know me from Adam. Right after we met, I told him he shouldn’t expect me to take the Planning Operations role all the time. I would take my turn to be in the camp as Planning Operations, but I expected to rotate into the field operations position as much as he or the other OSC2 that filled in on the team.

I think I was a little more direct than he was used to. He just stared back at me as I told him how it was going to be. But in 2002, I wasn’t going to put up with any misogynistic good old boy behavior on a team I was a part of. And I certainly wouldn’t play second fiddle. Looking back, I was quite the bitch. But that’s what a good female CEO should be like. In 2002 I already had 28 years of experience being treated badly by the good old boys. You could say I had a huge chip on my shoulder. I was a good fireman. I knew it and anyone who fought fires with me knew it too. I will not play second fiddle to my co-COO.

Looking back on that initial meeting with the guy who would be one of my best work friends ever makes me laugh and maybe cringe a little. Years later he laughed and told others in his big booming voice, “yeah, she came guns blazing and told me how it was going to be and put me in my place”. When I heard him tell that story with a laugh, I cringed and felt a measure of pride.

On our first assignment working together, he took the Planning Operations position in the camp and let me take over as Field Operations. I think it was really an opportunity for him to sit back and observe me. It wasn’t a complex fire, but it was a big one and we didn’t have a lot of resources, so we just tried to anchor and flank. Finally I came up with a plan to do a big burn out to reduce the necessary miles of fire line. He and the IC were a bit skeptical of my plan, so they came out to check on the day of the big burnout. The burnout went according to plan and in their eyes I earned my stripes. I was one of them.

The Supervisors Division was an easier win. It was clear to them that I knew my business. Because I was an active division supervisor for 12 years before becoming a COO, I don’t have to pretend to know my job. I was tough and decisive, but with a quick smile. The Division of Supervisors followed easily.

The next year and several fire assignments later, our IMT just completed a fire assignment in Wyoming. It was a good assignment. The local fire organization was devastated by the fire and when our IMT arrived, we accepted responsibility with a humble professionalism common to many IMTs. And we extinguished their fires. The saying from the movie Ghostbusters came to mind… “We came, we saw, we kicked his ass”! We all thought we were a bad ass Operations department. And in reality we were pretty good.

We flew to the fire on government planes, but now in the middle of tourist season we were waiting for commercial flights home. As we sat in the airport bar waiting for an announcement for a possible flight, we knew it was more likely that we would spend another night in a nearby motel.

For the moment we felt full of ourselves and relived all our past glories. The Division Supervisors, the other Chief of Operations and I sat around the airport bar telling stories and laughing. It was a great team building experience. Our Esprit de Corps was high and I felt as if the men sitting around the bar table were really my brothers. Life was good.

Finally, one of the division supervisors asked the senior operations chief how he liked living in the big city, since he had recently moved to the Forest Service regional office. Previously, my friend, the Operations Chief, lived and worked in small towns typically of Ranger Stations and out of the way forest offices. In his booming voice, my Operations Chief friend said with his country twang, “well boys, the big city can be pretty strange. Just the other day I saw one of them “he-she” walking around”. He went on to laughingly describe how “this he-she was just walking around showing off her new breasts”. Everyone laughed and my friend just smiled.

I was shocked, I didn’t know what to say. What should I do? should i talk Should I use this moment as a teaching opportunity? Would it ruin the friendship and brotherhood we’ve all built over the last few years if I talk about his inappropriate comment? I remained silent. Finally I spoke up and said, “well, you never know what goes on in people’s lives”. That’s all I said. It felt like a pretty lame response considering what was said.

The moment passed and I never said anything else. Our friendships continued and our mutual professional respect only deepened with the Division Supervisors and my fellow Chief of Operations.

Around the same time back at my home forest I had the opportunity to witness a conversation that still stands out in my mind. My Forest Fire staff and another member of the Forest Leadership Team were in conversation while I stood nearby with some other fire service employees. I paid no attention to the conversation that was going on in my circle of friends. Instead, I listened to the conversation that was going on nearby between my Fire Service personnel and the other Forest Leader.

Their conversation was about diversity in our organization and it went something like this… “You know, you probably have gay and lesbian employees in your fire organization”, said one leader. “No, absolutely not. There are no gays or lesbians or whatever in my fire organization. If there was, I would have known it.” The other Forest Leader did know this. She knew this and now the fire brigade personnel have been informed. He must have thought firefighters who were LGBT had horns sticking out of their foreheads. He was adamant that there were absolutely no LGBT employees in his organization.

But I am a trans woman myself. I switched about five or six years ago. I never mentioned that critical piece of information to any of my co-workers. It wasn’t a topic that just came up. I didn’t know how many people knew my history. And why should they? Would it matter? Should it matter? Was it even any of their business?

This man who was so sure there were no LGBT firefighters working for him was one of my biggest supporters. He gave me everything I needed to be successful when they brought me in to be one of the District FMO/Divisions. If I needed additional staff, increased budget, RX support, backup to remove unproductive staff… he was there for me. To this day I consider him a friend. But at the time he was so positive that he would know if there was an LGBT firefighter on the Forest. And what difference did it really make? Who really cares?

But I cared. It made a difference to me. Here I was, a respected capable and proven fire leader on my Forest. But the Fire Department personnel made me want to shut up and hide. I was worried about what he would think and how he would change his attitude towards me if he learned about my history.

Someone else might have been intimidated or scared. But I was too full of myself and confident in my abilities as a firefighter and leader to back down, but I was definitely touched. I always had to be vigilant and when I thought about being more honest and open about my past and who I am, his comments made me tighten the rope about that information.

It really doesn’t matter if we’re talking about race, ethnicity, or gender. It does no good to make negative comments about the very diversity we should strive to include. Think of the tax money we spend to provide a service to the public. How do the negative comments and behaviors affect our effectiveness and efficiency as an organization? It doesn’t matter if you work for a municipality, a state or the Fed. Casual or not so casual comments have a negative impact on the organization. A leader who makes a disparaging comment, whether in jest or seriously, will have a detrimental impact on their organization. Guaranteed. It doesn’t matter if there are no trans crew members, or black crew members, or female crew members. Those comments confirm the opinions and encourage the behavior we are trying to stop. We should avoid that behavior because it negatively affects the crew interactions.

Over my 45-year firefighting career, I have seen many firefighters driven away from teams and agencies by overt bullying, discrimination, and other more subtle comments and influences. When we lose firefighters to bullying and discrimination, they take with them the years of experience and the tens of thousands of dollars invested in their training. From a strictly financial point of view, this is incredibly wasteful. It also inhibits other diverse candidates from applying for jobs. It’s an embarrassment in the fire service.

You have probably heard the saying: “What we allow, we promote”. Think about it. If we allow subtle or not so subtle derogatory and negative comments and behavior, we are promoting that behavior. As leaders, and we are ALL leaders, it is our responsibility to speak up. Talk like I was too scared to. Make a difference for the benefit of your crew, the organization and the public we serve. Be a true leader.

More stories are available at BobbieOnFire.com and my entire memoir, Both Sides Of The Fire Line is available at Chicago Review Press or any bookstore.

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