Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Breaking the Mold

(Photo credit: Leonard McLane)
Working in wildand fire can be difficult at times, and not for the reasons one would think. I recently read the Summer edition of Two More Chains, a product of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, and I had a few thoughts on the subject of our culture as firefighters, and how it can have a darker side to it, in the shape of the heavy drinking, partying, functioning-alcoholic aspect of the culture that’s widely accepted.

Ever since I started in fire I’ve been a bit of an outsider because I’m not much of a drinker, or partier. I seem to have a physiological makeup that isn’t very conducive to being a heavy drinker – after a beer or two I get very sleepy, and I really don’t experience that “buzz” that many people do. So for me, drinking is something I do in moderation not because of any moral or religious reason, but because it just doesn’t affect me the way it does most people. I have two or three beers and all I want to do is go to bed. It’s great for relaxation after a long day, but terrible for socializing. I do enjoy a beer with friends, but I very rarely have more than a few drinks, and never drink to excess. That puts me at odds with a large unspoken component of the fire culture, which is the party hard, work hard mentality. I’ve nothing against it per se, but all too frequently there is enormous peer pressure to join in and get smashed every night, and the ramifications of that behavior often bleed over to the work environment. We’ve all seen it… the crewmembers that come in to work hung over and spend the morning sleeping it off, or worse, and we’ve all seen it accepted by our leadership.

To me that’s not acceptable behavior, but it’s frequently the modus operandi of many fire crews. Being a functioning alcoholic is often a badge of honor, a status symbol of sorts, and sadly, not being “one of the guys” can have negative impacts on crew cohesion.

To me, the issue is multi-faceted. It’s not just the inter-crew cohesion issue, it also extends into our professional lives, and our personal relationships outside of fire. To me, fostering this culture of acceptance of alcoholism is a mistake of gargantuan proportions. All too often I’ve seen others look the other way as FMOs, AFMOs, Station Managers and Engine Captains get DUIs, be suspended from work, and then come back as if nothing happened. It’s not professional, it sets a terrible example for our young leaders, and it perpetuates the image of wildland fire as a less than professional field.

It also impacts our personal lives… how many of us over the years have been less than perfect fathers, husbands, mothers, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends, because of this culture of irresponsible behavior? How many relationships have you seen fall apart from a combination of crazy work schedule and alcoholism?

It’s not all bad, don’t get me wrong. I think there’s great value in having after work BS sessions over a beer or two. Organizational barriers are lowered, and lots of discussions that just couldn’t happen at work take place around a bonfire. There are bonding moments that happen when a crew gets together after work and socializes.

So here’s my take on it. Just like anything else, drink and party in moderation. Think about the professional image you want to project as a firefighter, and think about the impacts it may have on your personal life. Take care to not shun or ostracize those who don’t drink as much, or leave early at crew parties. As leaders, and followers, think of ways to set the tone without being harsh. Try to change the culture one action at a time. Be understanding when your fellows head out to blow off steam, but know that you don’t have to participate to the degree that others do. Know that just because “everyone else” is getting hammered, you don’t need to.

As for me, I’ll keep having a drink or two with the folks when I feel like it, and I’ll be fine heading home early when I’ve had enough. I’m too old to be out living the night life every day, and I’m fine with that. I’ll keep feeling the pressure to go out with the guys, but it’s no big deal to say no.

Until next time…
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Justin Vernon
Originally posted on Chasing Fire on August 23, 2014
Justin Vernon is a regular guest contributor on our blog and 2016 Paul Gleason Lead by Example Award winner for motivation and vision. Justin works for the United States Forest Service and is a member of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee as the steward of the Professional Reading Program. Check out his Chasing Fire blog. All expressions are those of the author.

Monday, May 2, 2016

IGNITE: Never Cease to Learn

Who dares to teach must never cease to learn. –John Cotton Dana

Who dares to teach must never cease to learn. – John Cotton Dana

Thursday, April 28, 2016

IGNITE: Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is an inward application of situation awareness. Fire leaders have an inner drive to analyze and know ourselves. –Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 59
Self-awareness is an inward application of situation awareness. Fire leaders have an inner drive to analyze and know ourselves. – Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 59

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

NWCG Meets at TFS to Discuss Future of Wildland Fire Leadership

National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Leadership Subcommittee in front of the Sanders Corps of Cadets Center on Texas A&M University; photo credit: Jessica Jackson
April 15, 2016 — COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Some of the nation’s brightest and most accomplished leaders in wildland firefighting met this week at Texas A&M Forest Service headquarters to discuss the future of leadership development in the field.

Attendees were all members of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Leadership Subcommittee, representing all facets of wildland fire from fire departments to state and federal agencies.

The Leadership Subcommittee promotes and enables the development of leaders in the wildland fire service, by providing educational and leadership development opportunities and supporting leadership innovation and best practices.

“We want the folks of this committee to go back and communicate to their agency what’s going on across the nation and for the doers on the committee to continue to come up with new ideas and plan events that will help forge new leaders,” Shane Olpin, USDA Forest Service, committee chair said.

Javier Vara Sanz demonstrates the simulation table in the Emergency Operations Center; photo credit: Jessica Jackson
Javier Vara Sanz demonstrates simulation table in the Emergency Operations Center; photo credit: Jessica Jackson
Main items discussed were the NWCG’s curriculum, toolboxes used to support the curriculum, each agency’s ability to create leadership programs and the future of the committee.

One way to ensure the relevance of the committee in the future is by incorporating younger members to help diversify membership and help the committee stay connected to what’s going on in the field.

“A number of us were invited to help bridge that gap between the ‘boots-on-the-ground’ firefighters and those in upper management. It helps to better identify how what’s going on in this committee applies to what’s happening on the ground,” said Ashleigh D’Antonio, Payette National Forest, co-curriculum unit manager for the committee.

D’Antonio added that by bringing in younger members the committee is helping to continue a cultural shift where leadership training is integrated into all levels of firefighting courses.

Another important item discussed is emerging technology and how to best put it to use.

“Technology is changing the way things are done, we know there’s a value in it and how people are learning and staying connected, so we’re trying to embrace it and find the appropriate use and application for these emerging technologies,” Olpin said.

Leadership Subcommittee members learning about the Corps of Cadets; photo credit: Jessica Jackson
Leadership Subcommittee members learning about the Sanders Corps of Cadet Center on Texas A&M University; photo credit: Jessica Jackson
While visiting Aggieland, the group also had the opportunity to visit the Texas A&M University Corps of Cadets for a briefing on the core values instilled in cadets to make them efficient and effective leaders.

“Leadership development is an integral part of the Aggie tradition and we are proud to introduce these leaders to those traditions,” said Mark Stanford, Texas A&M Forest Service fire chief and agency representative.

Leadership Subcommittee members learning about the Corps of Cadets; photo credit: Jessica Jackson
Leadership Subcommittee members learning about the Sanders Corps of Cadet Center on Texas A&M University; photo credit: Jessica Jackson
Members of the committee represent nine organizations, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, City of San Diego, Fire Department of the City of New York, Florida State and Texas A&M Forest Service.

Learn more about NWCG and wildland fire leadership at http://fireleadership.gov.

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Texas A&M Forest Service Contacts:
Jessica Jackson; Communications Specialist; 979-458-6619; jjackson@tfs.tamu.edu

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Reprinted with permission from Texas A&M Forest Service. Click here for the original story.

Monday, April 25, 2016

IGNITE: No Lapses of Integrity

There is no such thing as a minor lapse of integrity. – Tom Peters, author
There is no such thing as a minor lapse of integrity. – Tom Peters, author

Thursday, April 21, 2016

IGNITE: Building Cohesive Teams

Fire leaders build cohesive teams—not simply groups of individuals putting forth individual efforts—to accomplish missions in high-risk environments. –Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 52

Fire leaders build cohesive teams—not simply groups of individuals putting forth individual efforts—to accomplish missions in high-risk environments. – Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 52

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Honor & Learning - Rattlesnake Staff Ride

Cross at Rattlesnake fire memorial

Looking Back and Remembering Our Fallen

Rattlesnake fire staff ride

Rattlesnake fire staff ride

In preparation for the 2016 fire season, the Carson City District BLM took its entire fire staff to the Rattlesnake staff ride on the Mendocino National Forest. This idea came from the District’s operations group that was tasked to come up with a team building exercise to help prepare our on the ground leaders for the 2016 fire season. Justin Cutler, Assistant Superintendent for the Silver State Hotshots coordinated with the Mendocino Hotshots to make this happen. Chris Markey, Superintendent for the Mendocino Hotshots facilitated our staff ride. 

Rattlesnake fire memorial

On July 9, 1953, a brush fire started Northwest of Elk Creek, CA on the Mendocino National Forest. That evening 24 men were sent to contain a spot fire. The wind shifted and the main fire jumped containment lines. Nine of the men made it to safety, however 15 men were overran and perished by the quick moving fire.
Rattlesnake fire memorial

What We Learned from the Rattlesnake Staff Ride
  • Remembering and learning from history helps bring the importance of what we do closer to heart.
  • Helped create District cohesion by going through the staff ride as a team.
  • Helped see where we have been and where firefighting is now.
  • Helped see the importance of good communication between resources. 
  • Helped show the importance of having clear escape routes to sufficient safety zones.
  • Helped show the importance of being aware of local weather influences.
  • Helped identify areas of focus for the 2016 fire season to bring back for our seasonal staff.

Rattlesnake fire placard

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A special thank you to Shane McDonald, Jon Palma, Justin Cutler, members of the Carson City District BLM and Chris Markey. All pictures are compliments of the Carson City District BLM.

For more information, check out the Rattlesnake fire in the Staff Ride Library

Staff ride map

Monday, April 18, 2016

IGNITE: Developing Your Subordinates

Exemplary leaders strive to create the conditions that make flow possible. That means they need to continually assess their constituents’ capacity to perform in the context of the challenges they face. Such assessment requires attention to the skills and the willpower of each person they lead. –Kouzes & Posner, The Leadership Challenge

Exemplary leaders strive to create the conditions that make flow possible. That means they need to continually assess their constituents’ capacity to perform in the context of the challenges they face. Such assessment requires attention to the skills and the willpower of each person they lead. – Kouzes & Posner, The Leadership Challenge

Thursday, April 14, 2016

IGNITE: The Art of Leadership

Ultimately, the art of leadership requires successfully balancing many factors in the real world, based on the situation at hand, to achieve a successful outcome. –Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 9

Ultimately, the art of leadership requires successfully balancing many factors in the real world, based on the situation at hand, to achieve a successful outcome. – Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 9

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Fitness Park to Memorialize Fallen Smokejumper

Luke Sheehy, a former member of the U. S. Forest Service Redding Smokejumpers and the BLM Diamond Mountain Hotshots, was killed in summer 2013 while fighting a fire in northeast California.
Luke Sheehy, a former member of the U. S. Forest Service Redding Smokejumpers and the BLM Diamond Mountain Hotshots, was killed in summer 2013 while fighting a fire in northeast California.
March 5 was the first major workday at the BLM's Swasey Recreation Area, a popular destination for mountain bikers and hikers, to begin developing the Luke Sheehy Memorial Fitness Park. Sheehy, a member of the U. S. Forest Service Redding Smokejumpers, was killed in summer 2013 while fighting a fire in the Warner Mountains of northeast California. Prior to becoming a smokejumper, he served as a member of the BLM Diamond Mountain Hotshots.

Teams working to develop the park included firefighters as well as members of an AmeriCorps crew and students from a Shasta High School Regional Occupation Program. Due to open this summer, the park will feature a dozen workout stations — including pull-ups, sit-ups, and bar dips — adjacent to a hiking and mountain biking trail used frequently by wildland firefighters for physical fitness training.
Volunteers, including AmeriCorps members (orange raingear), work to clear vegetation and smooth the ground for later construction of the Luke Sheehy Memorial Fitness Park. (Photo by Jeff Fontana/BLM)
Volunteers, including AmeriCorps members (orange raingear), work to clear vegetation and smooth the ground for later construction of the Luke Sheehy Memorial Fitness Park. (Photo by Jeff Fontana/BLM)
Tim Bradley, fire management officer for the BLM in Redding, CA, said members of the public will be welcome to use the site to work toward the physical fitness standards required for wildland firefighters.

The fitness park will also include interpretive panels. One will focus on the BLM Firefighter Fitness Challenge and provide information for those who want to achieve those standards. Another will discuss use of prescribed fire, describing several burns that can be seen in the Swasey Recreation Area. And one panel will provide information about Luke Sheehy and his commitment to wildland firefighting and physical fitness.
BLM firefighter Garrett Dunn, left, provides direction as workers excavate an exercise station pad. Dunn, now assistant superintendent for the BLM Diamond Mountain Hotshots, conceived the memorial fitness park idea. (Photo by Jeff Fontana/BLM)
BLM firefighter Garrett Dunn, left, provides direction as workers excavate an exercise station pad. Dunn, now assistant superintendent for the BLM Diamond Mountain Hotshots, conceived the memorial fitness park idea. (Photo by Jeff Fontana/BLM)
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Story by Samantha Storms, Public Affairs Specialist, BLM California; reprinted from the BLM Daily, March 21, 2016