The following is one of the many writings featured in the most recent “One Foot in the Black,” the official newsletter of the U.S. Hotshots Association. This newsletter’s aim is to focus on “the issues, insights and innovations that will shine a light on the IHC mission.”
As Anthony “Crobar” Escobar, Editor-in-Chief of “One Foot in the Black,” points out in this newsletter’s introduction, “. . . the stories herein have an applicability unattached to any particular time frame, and the observations and lessons that may be drawn are valuable no matter the time of year, or the year.”
‘And Other Duties as Assigned’
By Anthony “Crobar” Escobar
When I was first hired as a crewman on the Los Prietos Hotshots (today’s Los Padres Interagency Hotshot Crew) I enjoyed being in a Position Description (PD) that ended with these five simple, all-inclusive words: “And Other Duties as Assigned.” Granted it was a different time, a different workforce and a different social environment, but it didn’t matter. “And Other Duties as Assigned” was an honest statement. It implied that in addition to all the aforementioned specific requirements and responsibilities, we will be asking you to do some unforeseen tasks and some yet to be thought of projects.
As a young, immature, naïve and easily impressionable crewmember on the Los Prietos Hotshot Crew (LPHS), I was exposed to countless unique challenges, many of which turned out to be invaluable learning opportunities. It would be impossible to list all of the fun and not so fun tasks we attempted, or all of the imaginative and bizarre projects we were assigned to complete. We took on the essential and the pointless, the planned and unplanned, and the funded—or not—projects all with the same zeal. We completed them all because to us “it all paid the same.” As a testimony to hard work, high standards, and effective leadership, many of them still stand and work today.
There wasn’t an engineer, a mechanic, an architect or an accountant amongst us. We didn’t have a contractor’s license, a building permit or a hazardous waste disposal plan that I was ever aware of. Those of us who could read couldn’t read blueprints, and those of us that couldn’t read, didn’t need to read them either. Nobody wanted to work with us, but everybody wanted us to take on his or her projects. We got the things that needed doing done, and we got the things many believed couldn’t be done, also done.
We rarely had all of the right tools or everything we needed. We worked with what we had and/or what we could find. None of these inconveniences could detour us, because what we did have was substantial: a Bonehead, great with a chainsaw, and a Turkey that could fix it if it had a motor. We had a Goat that could draw, and we had a Willie who could drive a stakeside and a nail with the best of them. We had Killer and Perv who could break anything, even if it didn’t need breaking. The Guard could wheel a bus and tow anything—especially if it was off-road. Speedy and Righetti were like match and fuse, Ratso liked cookies, Rookie had smoke in his eyes, and the Ugly Kid was “coo coo for coco puffs.” Jdub was always thoughtfully trying to figure out how he could make his foreman’s life a little better, and I was just happy to assist.
We were a well-led, tightknit fire crew. We were willing to do most anything no matter how far-fetched. We cut fireline and fuel breaks with the same zeal, tenacity, and humor. We chipped brush and chip-sealed roads. We planted some trees and we cut others down. We built fences to keep people out, and others to keep cattle in. We dug ditches and filled in ruts. We helped build roads and then we built gates to close them off. We built and maintained trails and we built our own tools to make the job easier. We painted, paved, and roofed the entire compound, and then we got evicted. But that just turned into another project for us. We cut the poison oak from underneath the oak trees, and just like that we had a new home, a new area of operations. And through it all I never once heard anyone say: “It’s not my job” or “It’s not in my job description.”
“And Other Duties as Assigned” was a fun, healthy, and motivational philosophy for us. It was a liberating phrase; we understood that there were no bounds to what we might be challenged to do. To know that the agency thought we were capable of anything made us capable of everything. Never once did I feel exploited while learning a new skill or using one I had brought with me. We often mocked the phrase. At times it was the only legitimate justification we could come up with for some of the crazy things that we attempted and accomplished.
It was because of “And Other Duties as Assigned” that I learned many useful skills, skills that have since been used many times over. I even learned some semi-advanced skills in plumbing, electrical, roofing and concrete work. The colorful cast of characters that were the Los Prietos Hotshots was a talented bunch of fools. Together there wasn’t much we couldn’t accomplish. Collectively we had the intelligence, creativity and the perseverance to overcome every obstacle and every naysayer, to successfully complete every assigned task and even some that weren’t assigned.
As far as I could tell, almost everyone understood and embraced “And Other Duties as Assigned.” We understood the need for the ambiguity and welcomed the diversity of the challenges. Moreover, it was something of a catch phrase for us; it was the closest thing we had to a slogan, or a mantra. The Marine Corps has “The Few, the Proud . . .” the Army used “Be all that you can be,” the Navy says, “it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure” and the Air force tells us to “aim high.” The phrase “And Other Duties as Assigned,” similar to these recruitment slogans, said something about the experience and the people you could look forward to working with.
I don’t know why the phrase isn’t in the PDs of today. The challenge of a well-written PD, given all of the legal requirements—from format to content—tends to marginalize the real nature of the day-to-day reality of the job. By any other name, a Forestry Technician working on an IHC, an engine, helicopter, dozer, or any other primary or secondary position, is a “FIREFIGHTER.” The debate goes on. I would contend that “And Other Duties as Assigned” is the reason our wildland firefighters of today are used so extensively on all types of “All-Risk” incidents.
There was a time when the thought of using a U.S. Forest Service engine to protect a structure was unheard of. Today, sending Strike Teams of federal engines on structure protection assignments is commonplace. Today, vehicle fires, traffic collisions and medical aids are typical emergency responses for many of our stations.
Hotshot crews were sent to assist in the aftermath of the Mexico City earthquake in 1985. In 1992, IHCs were sent to Hawaii to assist recovery after Hurricane Iniki. Countless personnel helped recover debris following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. An Incident Management Team was assigned to the Pentagon after the terrorist attack of 9/11. Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico saw the deployment of an IMT.
These are just a few of the new and/or unique assignments I can recall. The hurricane, flood, earthquake, terrorist attack, and medical aids are today’s version of “And Other Duties as Assigned.” A willing and able attitude, combined with a bias for action, lie at the core or our IHC success story.
When faced with a challenging project, when a natural disaster strikes, or when an IMT has a need, among the first considerations and initial resource orders is a request for Hotshot crews. And Hotshots stand at the ready to assess, and then accomplish, what is asked of them—not charging blindly into any and all requests, but finding a way to accomplish the objectives safely and efficiently, while mitigating unacceptable risk(s).
At the end of my career, the debate between Agency Administrators and the Rank and File still raged.
The debate today is often referred to as “Mission Creep.” By any name the questions remain: what can we do, what should we do, and ultimately, what will you do? All firefighters are faced with complex problems, time sensitive decisions, and other unique challenges that lay beyond the scope of PDs. “All-Risk” has become a way to describe the range of tasks and assignments our personnel face today.
Training, qualifications, and your experiences are designed to prepare you for the requisite duties of your position. That said, when faced with the new and unique situations in today’s dynamic environment, moral judgement, effective leadership, and creative problem solving become critical elements in the decision: can you safely engage, or not.
Ultimately, it comes down to doing the right things, at the right time, for the right reasons, which is another way of saying “And Other Duties as Assigned.”