Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Resiliency Through Suffering: Lessons from Wildland Firefighting (After the Fact)

The ultimate team result is resilience: teams that can bounce back when problems or errors threaten cohesion and synergy. - Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, p. 55
I grew up in a city. I had divorced parents and the first time I slept outside (on purpose, without alcohol being a factor) was my first fire on the Roosevelt National Forest. Needless to say, I didn’t really fit the mold of the prototypical wildland firefighter, if there is one. I had a crazy engine captain who came from SoCal, who taught me to be a decent firefighter mainly through sarcasm and hard PT hikes and runs. Although I sucked at pretty much everything in retrospect, I somehow managed to convince myself I was awesome at everything, just like 99% of all other 18-24 year olds do.
After a couple of years on the engines, I got picked up by a local hotshot crew. Surrounded by a bunch of other like-minded professionals (read: other bravado soaked meat-heads, including the girls on the crew), we managed to suffer our way throughout the western United States and Alaska on an annual basis. One of the guys on the crew defined hotshotting as “endurance of discomfort,” which is still the most apt description I’ve ever heard. I loved it the year’s I did it, and time has softened the edges of the memories, but after a lot of time I still can’t remember a story that doesn’t involve being too hot, too cold, too hungry, too winded, too blistered, too dehydrated, too drenched, too sleep deprived, or a combination thereof. Even in my toughest “you can take your pack off if you don’t want to get stronger” moments, I was totally the guy who was talking junk about Jumper line being black on both sides, then sneaking up to ask how to get hired when I saw Jumpers and my crew wasn’t around.

Eventually I got picked up to jump in Idaho, and promptly broke my leg on my first jump in week three of Rookie Training. A helluva lot of worker’s comp. paperwork and a year later, I graduated from my second Rookie Training and had ol’ Earl Cooley hand me my jump-wings. On a side-note, I was so nervous about landing my second “first jump” in my second edition of Rookie Training, my exit was so epically bad, and I was so twisted up, that I barely got my risers spread and my chin off of my chest before I hit the ground and was so dizzy when I hit, I couldn’t have straightened my legs to break them on landing if I wanted to. After a few years with the rounds, I transferred to the BLM and got New-Man Training up in AK, then spent one season in the Basin, before hanging up the Pulaski for life as a city firefighter.

In these moments of reflection a few fires and funny stories always stand out, but most of the fires and the time on the road, plus a lot of the names of the people I spent a ton of time with have faded away. What did I take away from all of it, and how does it help me today? I came to realize that most of the time when I was younger I was just pretending to know what I was doing, or had fooled myself into thinking that was true. I know that I’m not any better now, but at least I’m self-aware. So what did I learn that is tangible from all of this? Here are some of the things that were lost on me then, but that I use almost daily now, and never would have developed had it not been for the fireline and the mentors/leaders I was lucky enough to be around for all of those years.

It tends to be a buzzword in leadership courses and self-help groups, but never have I had to be more resilient, than the long shifts that there was no choice but to endure. Sitting in a crew buggy next to somebody chewing potato chips at 120 decibels while you’re at your wits end, making it to the “top” of the Salmon River Breaks only to realize it’s a false ridge, getting that piece of line mopped up to 2 chains in, only to get assigned to go to 300’ the next day. All of those little moments of “suck” wind up moving the bar a lot higher as to what one can endure and still perform. It also lets you appreciate the comfy confines you might be sitting in today, if you really know what uncomfortable is.

Recognition Primed Decision Making
Dr. Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist, did a bunch of work interviewing people involved in high risk professions to gain insights on how they make decisions under stress. His initial hypotheses all proved untrue until he developed the model that has gained so much traction in both the military and wildland firefighting through the modern fireline leadership courses.[1] The idea that experiential knowledge is gained through going to fires, training to some extent, and just talking about fires with senior firefighters and mentors can develop the metaphorical slides for the slide tray. The idea that intuition is really just those experiential “slides” being measured against one’s situational awareness. It’s more than just fire, however. In my years living in a buggy or para-camping, there aren’t too many emotions that myself or someone near me hasn’t been through that I experienced. Think of how many good and bad days that a single firefighter witnesses in his or her peers, leaders, and subordinates in the course of a season. Rage, depression, anger, guilt, and joy are all pretty frequent visitors to any crew dynamic, and that’s probably covered in every fire camp chow line. Having these up close and personal interactions prepared me immeasurably for my interpersonal work relationships in the much easier environment I deal in today. It taught me to be far more patient with people, even myself, than I could have ever thought possible.

System 2 (Protocol Based) Decision Making
The flip side to Klein’s more naturalistic decision making process is psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s work on System 1 and System 2 type decision making.[2] Kahneman lumps intuition and emotional response into his System 1, and defines System 2 as a more rational, logical, algorithm based decision making process. This, for me, rolls into more of a strict protocol or checklist/acronym model. When you don’t have a slide or the experiential knowledge to make a decision, and a decision still needs to be made, what do you do? That’s where checklists, SOP/SOG’s, and acronyms come into play. It allows you to have a place to start from, or an aid not to forget something, in an arena where you might not have the experience to make the correct choice. Back in the day, I could load up in Winnemucca and be fighting fire in the Coastal Range, and if you hadn’t been there before, you had better have some local knowledge in the form of local resources or local SOP’s to not get crushed by an unfamiliar fuel type or fire. As a young, dumb firefighter I didn’t pay much heed to the checklists and SOP’s, but as an old, dumb firefighter, I tend to get a lot more into the weeds on SOP’s, because there is always a “why” behind them, and usually the “why” is where the lesson lies.

Train the Way You Play
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman lays out in his book On Combat, the importance of realistic training and stress inoculation for high risk jobs.[3] Obviously, as a hotshot and smokejumper, fire training often takes the form of on-the-job training on actual fires. You can’t get much more realistic than that, and it serves those disciplines very well because they have the luxury of plenty of fires to go hone their craft. To the district folks who may not have that opportunity, or the structure guys that I surround myself with now, realistic training is at a premium. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but all of those hours I spent running a saw on various fuels project had a direct effect on my comfort with a saw cutting fireline on fires. All of those days coming up with a plan for the day and executing, set me up for a life of minor leadership roles and hopefully a little respect from the organizations I have served. You want to get better at pullups? Do pullups. You want to get better at running a saw? Go run a saw all day/every day. You want to be a better leader? Lead from somewhere, even if it’s just being a bad example.

I’m not sure I’ll really ever have any true conclusions, but it’s safe to say that wildland firefighting has given me far more than I ever gave it. I look back at my time on the line with nothing but reverence, and they certainly were the most formative years of my professional life. If you’re still in the game, take time to think about the lessons you are learning and applying every day. Keep LCES in place, stay physically fit, and take pride in whatever crew you are on. It’s always amazed me how everyone is on the best crew in the country, but it’s always true. This list is by no means exhaustive, what are some lessons wildland fire has taught/is teaching you?

James Greenwood lives and works in Boise, ID. He has a BA from Colorado State University, a JD from the University of Idaho College of Law, and is an inactive member of the State Bar of Nevada. His words and opinions are his alone, and he in no way is speaking for any current nor former employer.

[1] Gary Klein, Sources of Power: How People make Decisions, MIT Press, 1998.
[2] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011.
[3] Lt. Col. David Grossman, On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace, Warrior Science Publications, 2004.

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