[Over the next several weeks we will feature content related to “Growth in the Wildland Fire Service.” The content published here will also be featured in the Spring 2019 Issue of Two More Chains.]
By Travis Dotson
Who has been to this operational briefing?
“Alright, listen up folks. Over here is a bunch of open line that is gonna bite us in the ass if we don’t deal with it, and over here is all the good work we have already done that I’m feeling pretty good with. FBAN says today should be pretty chill but there is a decent chance for active fire tomorrow. So I want to get out there and aggressively patrol that section that is looking good. Let’s take some time today to admire all that good work we have already done! On that other piece, the open back door, let’s just wait and see what happens. We can always hope things turn out OK. That’s the plan! See you at DP 13—right there where the WishInOneHand Road and CrapInTheOther tie in.”
Nobody has been to that briefing!
Well, maybe a few of us have. But, hopefully, that is an outlier because that is not how we roll. We focus on where the work needs to get done and we get to work when we have the window. So why am I even talking about this?
I feel like I’m about to give a version of that briefing, and it feels kind of awkward.
It’s no secret that I tend to focus on the bad stuff. The stuff we need to get better at—our cultural shortcomings. I love to point out fire service blind spots and the overabundance of hypocrisy. I feel I have to zero in on that stuff because that is where the work is.
I also recognize that reading my rants with regularity one could come away with the wrong impression. One might think I view the fire service as a giant mob of dirtbags collectively digging an ever deeper echo chamber to bumble around in chanting meaningless catch phrases to no one in particular. This is not the case. I need to acknowledge that. WE need to acknowledge that.
The wildland fire service is incredible. We are a collection of high-quality individuals working to create and maintain high-quality teams and organizations. We do amazing work and we make ourselves better all the time. Here is a short list of relatively recent self-induced growth:
- We can use Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).
- Our boot diversity has exploded.
- Radios are smaller.
- Lunches have improved.
- Our maps are more functional and accessible (although they don’t fold up as well).
- We are better at planning for and dealing with medical emergencies on the fireline.
- We are better at recognizing and dealing with the impacts of trauma on our workforce.
- We have improved the way we treat firefighters when reviewing accidents.
- We have almost started to wrestle with outdated cultural norms around gender and power.
And then the caveat. Remember this is a list of improvement—progress does not mean perfection. Trust me, I have had plenty of bad lunches in the past few years. But a bad lunch in 2018 is a far cry from a bad lunch even five years ago (and they get worse the further back we go).
Why am I so hesitant to point to good stuff? Why does it feel a little awkward?
Maybe I’m afraid it will be interpreted as permission to stop working on whatever is mentioned. Maybe it feels a bit Pollyannaish—like I’ll be accused of rockin’ rose colored goggles. Maybe I’m just a pessimist.
Or maybe I am the product of a culture that encourages a pre-occupation with failure. I think there is some research out there that says that is a good thing. I can’t remember exactly what it’s called but I think it somehow involves the words “High” and “Reliable.”
Whatever it is that makes me focus on the areas needing work and hesitant to tout success, doesn’t matter. The fact is we get better. That is what we do.
We should take a moment every so often to look back at all the good line we have put in, do a few fist bumps and have a snack (from our high calorie snack-packed lunch). And then get back to work.
Strong work, Toolswingers!