By Richard Davis
Assistant Fire Engine Operator – Huron-Manistee National Forest
I have a red hardhat, the seasonal employees have yellow hardhats. Some places break it down by colors and striping, depending on your position on your module. And in some places you can even get collar brass depending on how you are “ranked.”
The question is: Do these ways of ranking people help us on the fireline?
I have heard the argument that this visual ranking helps you identify people quickly in pressing situations. I argue that using visual cues for “rank” or position cuts into the core of what we teach young firefighters.
This happened earlier in my career. I was a senior firefighter fresh on a new crew. I wore a nice new yellow hardhat with E-631 plastered on the side.
We arrive at the fire, I begin getting gear out of the truck. Some folks from another module pull up to our Engine. I walk over to point them in the right direction. “Hey” I say as I walk up. I don’t get a response. I continue to their door. I’m now literally two feet from the Superintendent’s face. “Hey, I’m Rick.” But, once again, absolutely no response. This guy looks directly past me and addresses my Engine Captain. After my Captain chats with them for a moment they drive off without even looking in my direction.
That was one of the more strange interactions I have ever NOT had. I don’t know if I can quite articulate how that made me feel in the moment. Thinking about it afterward, I certainly didn’t feel empowered by the interaction I had with that individual. Later, I explained this to some of my co-workers and chalked it up as a strange incident. Then one co-worker said, “Guess that kinda proves your hardhat theory.”
If you have known me for more than two weeks, we have probably had a conversation (no doubt instigated by me) about “hardhat colors, collar brass” and any other visual cues to your “status” on the fireline.
These things are widely used in wildfire, especially in certain areas. Turns out this Superintendent fella I had the previous “strange interaction” with was from such a place. Could this all be coincidence? I am honestly not sure. This type of moment is not uncommon for folks though, especially those in the bright yellows and yellow hardhats.
All of us in wildfire start out as the “new guy” or seasonal employee. I bet everyone has had similar incidents happen to them. Unfortunately, this rips into the core idea the U.S. Forest Service (as well as other agencies) has been preaching to its firefighters—that everyone’s voice matters, speak up, and if you see something say something.
On one hand, we tell people to be open and that their voice matters. But on the other, we say wear this hardhat that tells everyone else you are not worth talking to. Doesn’t that seem a little harsh for something as simple as wearing a yellow hardhat or wearing some brass on your collar?
My argument is that these simple things are yet another roadblock to open communication between those at the top: white hardhats, and those at the bottom: yellow hardhats. I have relayed a personal experience of mine here. But here’s a hypothetical situation that we have all seen: White hardhat, DIVS, walks up on the line looking for the Engine Captain. DIVS walks by those yellow hats and finds the red one. Not a big deal, right? Wrong. The yellow hat gets two things from this lack of interaction, neither good. First they get one less personal interaction with DIVS—creating a barrier between them. Second, they feel less useful. This, in turn, makes them less confident, therefore less likely to communicate.
You might think that people would not take a lack of interaction so adversely. But one thing we know about human nature is that most of us desire affirmation and acceptance, especially in a new setting. When you feel like you are not getting that it can trigger confidence issues, aka less communication from that person.
Are We Equal?
Are we equal? This question is obviously very vague. In what ways are we equal? Training? Experience? Age? OK, so we’re not equal in every way. But are we equal in the sense that we are all human beings? I would say certainly yes. And yet we don’t always treat subordinates in this fashion. Is there some sort of internal drive to be superior to the person next to us?
Right now you might be thinking: I certainly treat my subordinates as equals! But really think about it. I believe that most of this stuff is unconscious. We treat others under us as lesser (at least for work).
How Do We Prevent This From Happening?
If all this is true, how do we combat this unconscious treatment of our subordinates? My first thought is that a good first step is to recognize that this phenomenon commonly exists. Here’s something else I am certain of: We should not systematically do things that feed into this scenario, such as collar brass and colored hardhats.
It might help to spotlight another example besides hardhats. The language you use when engaging people on a daily basis is also a major component of this troublesome pattern. “Hey Rick, do you mind going to do that engine check first thing this morning?” vs. “I told you to go do that engine check!” Or, the phrase that I have learned to loathe: “Sh*t rolls downhill.” Or how about, “Go wash the buggy?” vs. “Do you mind washing that buggy?”
If we want people to speak up or contribute their opinion on things, we need to do a better job of including people and using language that is inclusive and empowering. Just saying: “Speak up if you see something” a few times a year is not enough to build that confidence in people to say what is on their mind, especially in a stressful situation.
There’s something else we can do to help empower people to do a job outside of their comfort zone. We need to give people meaningful jobs, including meaningful intel when it comes in. Such positive actions will help to create strong, confident employees while also challenging them.