Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Thoughts on Fire, PTSD, and Stress

Happy Camp fire 2014
Happy Camp fire 2014; photo credit: Justin Vernon

Thoughts on fire, PTSD, and stress

by Justin Vernon

There have been a few articles and news clips I’ve read on Facebook recently that provoked discussion, and motivated me to write a no-so-short opinion piece with my thoughts on the matter. The first is a feel-good type of clip from NBC News, interviewing firefighters on the Happy Camp Complex in Northern California. In the clip you hear, more than once, firefighters mention the various mental difficulties of the job. The second garnered very strong conversation on various social media pages, and is from USA Todaytalking about PTSD and firefighters. The two are linked, I feel, because they both deal with difficulties facing wildland firefighters today.

My initial thoughts after reading the PTSD article, and seeing the flood of comments both for and against the idea that firefighters can in fact exhibit signs and symptoms of long term stress, was that while very few fire folks experience PTSD in the modern, full-fledged military definition, almost all of us are exposed to stresses that can trigger mild symptoms without us even realizing it. Compared to military personnel who experience multiple deployments overseas, see friends and comrades get shot, blown up, and live in brutal environmental conditions for months on end, we firefighters have it pretty easy. There’s no denying that. But I’ve seen young veterans diagnosed with PTSD who had relatively easy deployments, weren’t shot at, didn’t see friends die, and rarely left the security of the base. They had it relatively “easy” compared to other young veterans I know who did experience the worst that the recent conflicts had to offer.

My point isn’t to disparage or question those who served; rather, it is to point out that there are varying levels of PTSD, and different people respond differently to different stressors. I disagree with parts of the USA Today article implying that climate change and longer fire seasons are causing PTSD in firefighters. But I do agree that many of us do experience PTSD. You can’t tell me that those who have experienced tragedy first hand aren’t susceptible to PTSD, and while those events are relatively rare, they do happen more often than we’d like them to. The fire community is small compared to the military, and it only gets smaller the longer you do it. It seems that even after 14 short years in the field, I will almost always see people I know on a fire assignment, no matter where it is. This smallness means that when tragedy does strike, it will have a larger impact on the community as whole than might be thought just looking at the number of firefighters in the USA. Those of us that choose this as a career and stick with it form the core of what is in reality a fairly small group, and events like Yarnell create national ripples that feel more like tsunami waves in our spheres of influence.

But I think the larger issue, and the one that deserves a closer look, is the long-term exposure to constant low-level stress that many of us face for a majority of the year. As is alluded to in the NBC News clip, many of us spend a majority of our time in the summer away from friends, family,and our homes. How many hotshot crews, helitack crews, smokejumpers, and others spend the period from May through October working a 14 days on, 2 days off schedule, with the 14 to 16-hour day being typical? Many of us do, and regardless of the allure of overtime, it’s impossible to work that schedule year after year with it taking a toll on our personal lives. How many fathers and mothers on hotshot crews have missed kids birthdays, anniversaries, even weddings of friends and family because they felt that they couldn’t take the time off to be there? How many of us have trouble forming lasting relationships because our seasonal schedule disrupts the cycles that most people consider normal?

Let me describe a bit more some of the things that cause stress among some groups of wildland firefighters. For most of my summer, for example, I can be called to a fire at any time. This means that most mornings I leave my apartment not knowing if I’ll return that evening, or even that week. To a degree I have to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, and that tension is reflected in how I live my daily life during the summer. While I enjoy the adventure of not knowing where I’ll lay my head each night, after a while it begins to wear me down. Not being able to schedule time with friends and family, canceling dates because I’m three states away on a campaign fire, these things create stress.

The same stress is created when you spend two weeks at a time away from home. While I don’t have a family of my own just yet, I see the stress being away from family and missing the small moments creates in others. I know dads who regularly miss the birthdays of their kids, and while they deal with it for various reasons, it’s not fun.

Then there’s the stress of the actual job, the sleeping on the ground for weeks on end, the physical toll taken after a long season of digging line, running chainsaws, and hiking up and down some of the roughest terrain in the country. There are the health issues – the camp crud that is a fixture in most large fire camps, the bronchitis and sinus problems that come with breathing smoke on the line and in the valley inversions that can be so common at fire camps. Not to mention the rolled ankles, sprained knees, minor cuts and scrapes that accumulate over a season that aren’t in and of themselves problematic, but can be stressful over the long run.

There’s also a cultural stress. As a group it’s often frowned upon to be the “weak” member of the group who needs more time off for whatever reason. Granted, some crews are better than others at fostering family time and allowing for days off, but as a whole it’s tough. When the culture places great emphasis on being there all the time for the crew, and the crew becomes your family, it creates a kind of stress when you put other life priorities before the crew. I took two weeks off in July for the first time in 14 years to visit family in Montana, and while my supervisors were great in allowing me to do so, I took an enormous amount of crap from my coworkers for it. It was mostly in good fun, but when a large fire broke on my home unit while I was on vacation it caused momentary pangs of guilt that I was off having fun while my crew was working their ass off.

The point of this long-winded, rambling essay isn’t to say “poor us,” or “feel sorry for me;” it’s to highlight that it can be stressful job, and not for the reasons most people would think. Sure, we face fire in it’s most raw and primal form, but that’s not necessarily what causes our stress and anxiety. While we don’t face the trials of combat, we do face many of the others things that cause PTSD among veterans – the time away from home in a stressful environment, the percieved lack of control over our personal lives – albeit on a different scale.

I think that fire is a great job, in part because of the challenges, but I think that as the fire organization evolves to meet new challenges, we have to change our expectations of firefighters as employees. For most of the country, fire season isn’t something that happens between July and September anymore. For some places, wildland fire is now a year-round endeavor, and while we’ve adapted in some ways by funding crews year-round instead of seasonally, we still have that mentality of working all we can while there’s work. While that was fine when fire season meant a few busy weeks in late summer for the local crews, it leads to burnout when fire season extends across regions, and crews chase fire from May until October, or in the case of California, from January through December. It’s rapidly becoming a year-round job, yet we still mostly treat firefighters as temporary or seasonal employees.

We have to take a longer view, and treat fire not like an emergency where it’s “all hands on deck” until the end of fire season, but as our job, and approach it appropriately. We’re in this for the marathon, not the sprint, and we should act accordingly.

It’s time to wrap up for now… for some folks it’s been a long, busy season, and for others it’s been a long, slow season. Stay safe out there as the season keeps on truckin’ in California.

Until next time…

Justin Vernon is a regular guest contributor on our blog. Justin works for the United States Forest Service and is a member of Sparks for Professional Reading Program Change. Check out his Chasing Fire blog. All expressions are those of the author.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Food for Thought - Bring Your Best Every Day

Bring your best every day.

Bring your best every day.

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#fireleadership #firemini

Friday, September 19, 2014

Are You Ethically Challenged?

(Photo credit: University of Arkansas at Little Rock)
by Al Mozingo 

Let me ask you a couple of questions about the title of this article. Do you have high ethical standards? Do you think about the ethical aspect of your decisions? Does your organization have a Values and Ethics Statement? Are you conforming to the Values and Ethics Statement? Is your ethical stance and that of your workplace compatible? These are just a couple of questions that you must ask yourself and answer in regards to ethics today.

In general, I believe that most people want to be considered honest, up front, and one that can be counted on. Are you a person that people go to, in regards to something that they believe may be unethical, for your person opinion? We all should strive to become a person with high moral principles. A person in which people want to deal with because we feel they are honest.

Over the years I have had people come to me for input about ethical issues. I believe in being honest and up front. Sometimes I can be too honest. You might ask, “How can you be too honest.” What I am saying is you don’t have to always answer questions that someone asks. I use to answer questions that would put someone in an unfavorable light, because I wanted to be honest, I wanted to tell the truth. I can tell you that from personal experience, it can be a big problem. There are times as a supervisor, you do not need to answer the question and divulge information that is not really beneficial.

I have also had times where people “Jump to Conclusions.” Do you ever do this? We need to guard against ourselves judging another by jumping to conclusions I have seen several instances where people believe they are so smart that they know exactly why a person did something. In the end, they were completely off base and could not be further from the truth. The habit of deciding why a person does something is a bad habit to form! Some people do not even know why they did something themselves.

If you are a person of high integrity: Do you show it by your actions of kindness and compassion? You should always try to communicate effectively with empathic listening and understanding. Show a little kindness and compassion to another person. Be considerate, show some flexibility with your thinking and have tolerance towards others.

By being a person who looks for a “Win-Win” you can focus on right thinking. Try to do what is right, “Do the Right Thing.” One mindset that can help you to this end is the “Golden Rule.” With the “Golden Rule” we treat others the way we would want to be treated. As a supervisor, I always try to be fair and impartial. Treat your people with respect, showing a caring attitude toward them.

As a leader people are always watching your actions. Do your actions match with what you say? Try to stay above and beyond reproach. I know it is almost an impossible task - but, try! Speaking up when you see an injustice is certainly something you should do. Focus on “The Right Thing.” As your standard on how you treat people, use “The Golden Rule.” Maintain a caring attitude when dealing with other people. To help with your own ethical decision making, to help you stay on the right ethical path, use the following two charts. Good Luck!


1. Do you ever make assumptions about people?
2. Do you really know why someone does something?
3. Is assuming something about someone productive and positive?
4. When you assume something are you always 100% correct?
5. Can assumptions cause one to jump to conclusions?
6. Is jumping to conclusions constructive?
7. Is everyone motivated the same?
8. Do you really know what someone's motives are?
9. Do you ever judge why someone does something?
10. Can you really judge the intentions of another?
11. Are these judgments always 100% correct?
12. Do you ever state these judgments orally?
13. When criticizing someone do you know all the facts?
14. Is criticizing a person constructive or destructive?
15. Does everyone think the same or perceive things the same?
16. Why don't all people think the same or perceive things the same?
17. Do you ever draw premature conclusions?
18. Is the communication process perfect?
19. Have you ever been involved with miscommunication?
20. Have you ever had conflict because of miscommunication?
  • We all need to strive for understanding and to be understood! 
  • Please give someone the benefit of the doubt! 
  • Exhibit a loving and caring attitude when dealing with people! 
  • Ask yourself: Is your heart in the right place? 
  • Do you realize that making assumptions, drawing premature conclusions, making judgements and jumping to conclusions can affect your leadership style?
"It is difficult to negotiate with those who do not share the same frame of reference." ~ Nelson Mandela

1. Do you have all the facts?
2. Have you made any false assumptions?
3. How much time do you have to make the decision?
4. Have you considered the individual, organization, and the community?
5. Have you factored in any of your own values?
6. Are you striving to do the “Right Thing”?
7. Are you striving for a “Win-Win” outcome?
8. Are you consistent, treating everyone fair and impartial?
9. Develop options (choose the best and choose a second alternative plan)?
10. Consider pressure, cost, personal gain, limited resources, convenience, etc.
11. Consider the consequences.
12. Is your choice based on ethic decision making?
13. Implement the decision.
14. Evaluate the outcome (Are changes needed?).
15. If a change is needed, start with number one again.

Apply the Golden Rule:  Are you treating others, as you would want to be treated?

Reprinted with the permission of the author. Al Mozingo is certified in Organizational Development and Leadership Training. If you would like to contact him, see his website.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Food for Thought - Seeing the Need

"We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say 'It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.' Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes." ~ Mr. Fred Rogers

"We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say 'It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.' Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes." ~ Mr. Fred Rogers

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Recovering from Adversity

Nothing speaks more about resiliency than picking yourself up and moving on after you have fallen. This inspirational video shows that we can recover from our adversities if we make the effort to do so.

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge
Have you participated in this year's Wildland Fire Leadership Campaign - The Resilient Team? Take a moment today to work through or develop your own activities that focus on team or personal resiliency. Download the reference guide today! The campaign ends November 30, 2014.

2014 Wildland Fire Leadership Campaign

Monday, September 15, 2014

Food for Thought - Blind Obedience

"Blind obedience is detrimental to all and is a sign of not only poor leadership but also poor followership." ~ Steven R. (Randy) Watt

"Blind obedience is detrimental to all and is a sign of not only poor leadership but also poor followership." ~ Steven R. (Randy) Watt

Friday, September 12, 2014

Tuolumne Fire - September 12, 2004 - California

Eva Schicke
(Photo credit: Cal Fire)
Tuolumne Fire - September 12, 2004 - California
Incident Summary: The Tuolumne Fire is reported by a Stanislaus lookout at 1233 hours. Dispatch initiates a standard response, including the dispatch of a helicopter with helitack crew. 1259 Air Attack (ATGS) arrives over fire and reports fire to be between 5-10 acres, spreading up-slope and up-canyon with a steady 3-5mph wind. The fire is burning near the bottom of the Tuolumne River Canyon, just upstream of a major river confluence at 1450’ elevation in light, flashy fuels, predominantly oak leaf litter, light grass and mixed brush with an oak overstory consistent with Fuel Model 2. FDFM (Fine Dead Fuel Moisture) is 4-5% and live fuel moistures at critical stage. Temperature is 89-94, RH 18-24%, and there is no frontal or thunderstorm activity. The canyon is very steep, observed to be 80-120% slope. At approximately 1335 the helitack crew begins constructing downhill fireline. 10 minutes later they take emergency action when a sudden wind shift that causes a fire flare-up which overruns their position. Of the 7 person crew, 3 firefighters suffer minor injuries and one firefighter is killed.

1305 the helicopter arrives over the fire and drops the crew on a gravel bar 3/4 mile downstream of the fire. They hike from the LZ up-canyon to a dirt road that parallels the river and walk the road toward the right flank of the fire. The fire is burning both above and below the road. Their helicopter is directed to begin dropping water on right flank above the road.

A local Division Chief is dispatched to the fire to be IC and drives past the helitack crew to the right flank. He observes a slow backing fire and returns to the location of the helitack crew, who are still hiking. Talking with the helitack captain, he does not identify himself as IC, announce a strategy or specific tactics. He does state that he wants the crew to find a safe anchor point but the crew understands him to want them to “anchor this fire on the right flank, the road down to the river”.

1335 the crew arrives at the right flank on the road and looks for access to the river and safe access to the bottom of the fire.

ATGS and IC decide to continue to use the helicopter on the right flank above the road. The helitack captain hears this exchange on the radio.

ATGS receives a radio call about a spot fire and misses discussion about helitack crew working below the road. (In a post-incident interview, the ATGS will state that he thought the crew was above the road.)

After scouting down the right flank about 70 feet, it is decided to construct indirect fire line downhill for 250 - 300ft to the river burning out from the road as they go. Safety zones are identified as down to the river, up to the road or into the black. All crew members agree with the plan and inform their helicopter pilot.

An engine is assigned to support the helitack crew. The crew is not notified that the engine was assigned to support them and that it was close by.

1340 firefighters located about 30ft down the line from the road remark that the burn out is pulling in nicely. There is a “flutter” in the wind and the 3 firefighters closest to the road are told to grab backpack pumps just in case.

1345 a sudden wind shift causes the fire to flare- up, change direction, and overrun the crew. 30 seconds later one crew member is dead. No fire shelters are deployed.
Eva Schicke Memorial
(Photo credit: Cal Fire)
Lessons Learned Discussion Points

During size-up, what fire behavior did the personnel observe? If you were at a fire in a similar setting, what local terrain features and other factors might lead you to distrust the fire behavior seen?

It is common for people to have communication problems. On an incident where these issues can
easily compromise anyone’s life safety, what are you going to do to minimize communication errors… as a Crew member? Crew boss? Pilot? IC?

Your crew has been dispatched to this fire. How will you handle the “Lookout” aspect of LCES? It is common to hear that “everyone on the crew is a lookout”. Discuss what each person must do to make this an effective alternative to the “traditional” lookout.

This fire had an Air Attack and a helicopter. Discuss if and how aerial resources can be used as additional lookouts and sources of information. What are some downfalls to using them in this role?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Food for Thought - Chaos & Opportunity

"In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity." ~ Sun Tzu

"In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity." ~ Sun Tzu

SHARE throughout your networks to IGNITE the Spark for Leadership!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Success is a Continuous Journey

"Fire leaders trade the indulgences of complacency, second-guessing, and fault-finding for the responsibilities of bringing order out of chaos, improving our people, and building our organizations." ~ Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, p. 67.
As the statement says above, wildland firefighters do not indulge in complacency. Take a moment to reflect upon the leadership lessons embedded within this short TED Talk by Richard St. John on success. Although the talk focuses mainly on financial success, the model can easily be transferred to leadership in the wildland fire environment.

Video Takeaways
  • Success is not a one-way street. Once you achieve success, don't retreat to your comfort zone and stop doing what you did to get you there.
  • Work hard and push yourself.
  • Ask questions. Be curious. Listen. Observe. Problem solve. Make connections.
  • Focus on the task and people.
  • Follow your passion and do what you love.
  • Serve others.
  • Be persistent.
(Photo credit: Richard St. John's website)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Food for Thought - Everyone Wins

"Everyone wins when a leader gets better." ~ Bill Hybels
"Everyone wins when a leader gets better." ~ Bill Hybels 

SHARE throughout your networks if you agree.

A special shout out of thanks to Melissa Neill for permission to use this photo. © Melissa Neill