Years ago, I spoke at a national wildfire conference. My topic was how to prioritize incidents at the regional level in order to allocate limited resources appropriately. When resources are scarce, someone has to decide which fire gets the few available engines, crews and helicopters. And that was the subject of my discussion that day.
After my presentation and discussion, there were some people waiting to talk to me. A state ranger from a particular western state did not like what I had to say. So I had to smile and nod as I listened to his complaints about not having enough resources for “his” fires. Others waited because they wanted to ask specific questions about the details of decision making at a Geographic Area Coordination Center.
One of the men waiting for me had something very important to talk about, and he chose to wait until all the others had finished their questions or comments. When it was finally his turn, he excitedly told me about a time when we were both working together on a major mega-fire in Southern California. But I did not remember him.
“What, do not you remember me? I was on your section on the pine fire. ” (not the real brand name) He reminded me of how he was on the line of fire for days as they lost thousands of homes and more than a dozen lives before our IMT finally showed up to take over the incident. I was the DIV Sup assigned to the area where he worked incessantly for days. He told me how I finally took him to our team’s training officer and had him register as a student. Apparently, that training task led to his future red card qualifications and eventual promotions. It was a very big thing for him. He attributed that fire and his training opportunity as a major event in his career. Yet I did not even remember it. But he did it because he was watching.
Later that evening as I was walking around the vendor booths chatting with some work acquaintances and sipping a beer, I noticed that a Southern California department chief was looking at me. He was a tall man with a shaved bald head and a considerable mustache. You know the look. He looked like a tough character and seemed intimidating to me. After a few minutes of staring at me, I was not sure if he wanted to either talk to me or fight. I was hoping for the first one. Eventually I stopped avoiding his gaze and made eye contact with him. He walked up to me and asked in a grumpy voice, “You were on the French fire, weren’t you?” (not the real fire name). I remembered that fire. It took place twelve years before and held many important events for me. But I was not too quick to answer his question. I was careful. I was still not sure if he was a threat.
“The French Fire … yes, I think I was there.” His attitude immediately changed. He started talking about an incident that happened on the fire while he was working for me.
“You were my Division Sup,” he said. “I was a strike team leader who worked for you and one day you assigned another strike team engines a task that they did not want to do. You wanted them to get off their engines and step up a way to pick up some hot spots near the line but off the road. Their strike team leader said they could not do so. They did not want to leave their engines. “
I vaguely remembered the incident he told me about, but not much of the details. He then described how he was watching me to see how I would deal with the strike team leader of a municipal department refusing an assignment. Not to deny it for safety reasons, but to refuse it because they “did not want to get off their engines”. My new, big, bald friend with the big mustache watched me all these years to see how I would handle the situation.
I handled it like I always handled similar situations. I called the ICP and left them demobile because they could not or did not want to do their job. Really pretty simple. But for my new friend, it made an impact. Twelve years later, he recalled watching a female federal division supervisor demo an entire strike team municipal engines because they were reluctant to get off their engines, climb a hill, and stick out a hotspot. I only had a vague memory, but he watched.
Fast forward to a few years ago, I enjoyed the sunshine and a beer at a spring baseball game in Arizona. The sun was shining, the grass was green and I was with friends. It was such a nice day and I had fun. So I took some pictures of the field and the stadium and posted them on Facebook. Within minutes, one of my old Battalion Chiefs from my old days responded to the fire department saying he was at the same game. Wow, what a coincidence. We have not seen each other in 25 years.
“Where are you sitting?” he asks. “Let’s meet behind the stands” I said. We both walked from our seats through the Arizona sunshine and found each other next to the beer and hot dog stand. We were both much older. He lost a lot of his hair, and I gained a lot of weight. But we hugged and with big smiles started telling our stories about the good old days.
The first thing he tells me, the number one thing he remembers about me, is how I always stood up for myself. He remembers a time when the Fire Chief shouted at me about something. I certainly remember that the old Chief did not like me very much. But what my friend the Battalion Chief remembered was that I stood up for myself and did not allow the Chief to push me around. I really do not remember the specific event, but the Battalion Chief remembered how I stood in front of the Chief’s desk while yelling. I apparently remained calm and asserted myself and did not allow the Chief to bully me. That was the first thing he remembered about me. He also watched.
One of my favorite stories about something I did that I had absolutely no memory of dates back to a significant wildfire where several firefighters were killed. I was intimately involved with the crew who were burned and led a rescue of one of the firefighters who survived. Eleven years later I was on a major Type 1 fire as a Sup section and a firefighter came to me after my morning section outbreak briefing. He said to me, “Bobbie, I’m Jim Smith (not his real name), don’t you remember me?” I felt bad because he clearly felt emotional about something, but I did not know who he was. He reminded me of the fire we were on. I remembered the fire, of course, but not him. On that fire I was a Strike Team Leader and he was one of the Engine Captains.
He continued to tell me about him and his engine staff before and during the inflatable. As he told the story as I drove through his crew, I stopped and told him that if things were going our way and since we did not have a good safety zone or escape route, an option for him was to put on his heavy cloth to take. mountain lids, his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs) and getting his crew into the decent big culvert where our water-filled sight was. I told him they could drive a burn out inside the culvert. While he was telling me this story, I thought he was crazy. I have no memory of this. But even crazier, the fire blew up, and that’s where they drove it out. Inside a culvert, under the road with their SCBAs on covered with storage lids. It was a big event for him and his crew. No memory of this for me, but he listened and watched.
Over the years, I have told many stories about myself from previous collaborators. Some of those stories I’m not too proud of. Some of them are funny and I must be ashamed of them for sure. But mostly, the stories are positive. I think I have a good memory and remember a lot of stories. Some of the events end up in one of my podcasts. It is clear that some important events were never imprinted on my memory, but on others. That’s the point. Those around us look at us, listen to us and think about what we do. Even if we do not think it’s a big deal and nobody cares, people pay attention to us.
But there is a point to this story above my fond memories. The point is, whether you’re a supervisor or not, people are watching you. Your supervisor watches and gets a feel for how you handle your firefighters. Your peers also keep an eye on you because we learn from each other. Maybe you are an example for them to follow. Hopefully they are not watching you to learn what not to do. But they look.
You already know that the people you are supervising are watching you. They look to you as an example. This is how we inspire our people. Hopefully you are someone who wants to emulate them.
Your supervisor’s supervisor is also watching you. They are looking for future leaders and managers. This should come as no great surprise. I mean, you always keep an eye on your crew, other officers and chiefs. This is what we do. But when we think of ourselves, we often forget that people also pay attention to us. But they are. They do and they will.
Realizing the impact we have on those around us is a leadership moment. We are influenced by everything we say and do. To be aware that we are always being observed, we should stand up straight. I did not always behave as I should. I could write volumes about what not to do. It took me years to learn this simple idea. But hopefully you are much smarter than me and have already figured it out. The sooner we realize that our co-workers, friends and bosses are always watching us, the sooner we become aware of how we influence others. Be sincere and be the leader around us all wanting to be, regardless of your job or position.
A version of this story can be listened to at, http://bobbieonfire.com/2021/04/02/69-if-you-think-people-might-be-watching-you-they-are/
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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