The Balancing Act

[This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Nick Bohnstedt, Field Operations Specialist (Acting), Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center


Earlier in the season, most of our Helitack crew would be pumped to extend an assignment because it meant more overtime and an opportunity for more fires. But here, at the hood of the trucks in early November of 2020 asking for volunteers to extend to 21 days, my question was met with an uncomfortable silence and averted eye contact. Where had the stoke gone? Didn’t they want more money? More fire? More glory? More time away from their friends and families? More radio noise and rotor wash? It was then it became apparent that we had an imbalance. An imbalance of too much “work” and not enough “life”.


Work/Life Balance – Not One Size or Type Fits All

The challenge with defining appropriate work/life balance is that this elusive “balance” isn’t always clear and is always changing. It is also different for everyone. It’s kind of like a pair of boots. Some prefer logger type, and some prefer hiker. It’s really all about your personal fit and comfort, which can change over time due to factors such as your primary position or age (think Lead Sawyer vs. Type 1 Finance Section Chief).

Regardless of which type of boot you wear, minimum standards exist as a starting point to make your choices. Just like boots, work/life balance is not one size or type fits all either. Most interagency standards related to this topic largely speak only to work/rest ratio, length of assignment, and mandatory days off. To read more on that, reference the Interagency Standards for Fire and Aviation Operations (Red Book).

So where does that leave the firefighter with lessons learned or guidance about how to optimize work/life balance over the course of a shift, assignment, season, or career—and managing all of life’s curve balls along the way such as starting a family, injuries, or shifting personal values? 

While Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), leave categories, and external resources such as fiduciaries or unions do exist in the workplace to support work/life balance, it is largely up to the individual to identify what their needed balance is, given their stage of career, goals, and personal life. It’s a kind of “roll your own” type situation—which most of us value in most cases. Easy, right?

Maybe not so much.

People change. The practice of work/life balance must adapt to meet these changes. The good news is that just like any other skill or practice, the more we as individuals—and collectively as organizations—attempt, learn, and sometimes fail, the more masterful we can become.

For the purposes of this article, rather than “dig line around the entire fire” of work/life balance right now, let’s take it “two chains at time” and see what lessons are available.

A Daily Balance

Some days, the only “balance” you have on a fire is that half-frozen chimichanga in your line gear and a hope that you’ll eventually have a flat spot to sleep on at the end of a shift. Work/life balance when examined at the daily level can be simple, but also affects the bigger picture in the long run. At the bare minimum, our basic human needs such as food, water and shelter occupy the life side of the work/life balance scale here, while the day’s mission occupies the work side.

It really wasn’t that long ago when wildland firefighters could show up to a fire and work until they either caught the fire or their supervisor had mercy on them. This may have tilted the scale of work/life in favor of work, but at the high cost of injuries, fatalities, and human performance.

These days there are many more tools available to help access “life” from the confines of camp and out on the line. Most fire camps are set up with cell phone and internet service, allowing parents to video chat with their kids at night, or to manage personal finances or other affairs. Firefighter nutrition is also better understood, thereby increasing health and performance. Fire managers have also become better educated about risk management. Therefore, when the scale needs to tip in work’s favor to get the job done, we have a better probability of success.

All that about a DAILY balance. So, what about longer-duration assignments or projects?

Rolls, Tours, and Power in Policy

Regardless of how an organization manages its duty and the well-being of its firefighters, a common theme is that it all comes down to the acknowledgement that without providing for life outside of work, the effectiveness of the work performed will eventually wane and employees may start to burn out.

The question becomes: Whose job is it to accommodate this balance? Is it the employee or the organization? The answer is both. Take for instance an AD (administratively determined) employee. AD’s do not have a set schedule like “regular” employees do. AD’s must independently manage their own work/life balance. Private contractors must also independently manage their work/life balance, in addition to considering the well-being of their employees. In either case, without action on behalf of the employee and the organization, the concept of work/life balance is simply lip service. Both parties, the employee and the organization, need to be creative to work toward an optimal balance.

In most organizations, upper-level management holds the keys to this creativity on behalf of the organization. Providing additional days off or schedule restructuring is an authority most managers have. But how are they supposed to know when to exercise this authority if employees are not communicating that a change is necessary?

Without good communication surrounding work/life balance, the default is typically: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

One example of managers exercising discretion and creativity under policy happened this year when the U.S. Forest Service issued agency-specific guidance that changed mandatory days off following assignment, or R&R, from two to three days. Love it or hate it, and whether it is here to stay, this is another win for the “life” side of the scale. Days off after assignment, regular days off, and perhaps, more importantly, how you use those days off, are critical to optimizing work/life balance. Of course, this is easier said than done.

In many ways, the same tools that keep us continually connected while on the job can serve as a barrier to disconnecting from work when we are supposed to be recuperating on days off. Most supervisors have their work email either on their phones or other devices. And while there may be a few holdouts still out there, nearly every firefighter has a smartphone. With a quick touch of a finger you can fill your brain with a wide variety of wildland fire “this and that’s”.

Ever checked the Sit Report on your days off? I know I have.

There is no limit to the amount of barriers that prevent us from getting truly restful days off after assignment. And if you’re in one of the wildland fire disciplines that does back-to-back assignments all season long (looking at you here, hotshots), not developing strategies to optimize your time off after assignment will eventually tip the scale of work/life sharply in the direction of “work”.

The balancing of work and life isn’t specific to fire assignments, either. Long and medium range projects such as prescribed fire can also throw off the balance in favor of “work”. Sometimes even more so when you are going home every night and can more easily bring work home. Other factors such as the stress to implement a project, narrow burn windows, and budget constraints can compound this imbalance, leading to unintended outcomes as captured in the Johnson Gulch FLA from 2021.

Read more about fatigue management and how to optimize your days off in this “Fatigue Management” 2020 Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center blog post.

Seasons of Life

It’s been said that the only constant is change. Looking through the broader scope of work/life balance, perhaps that is one of the best lessons we can learn.

Recognizing where we are as individuals at any given time during a fire year, fire career, or in life is very important. But we also need to be cognizant of the requirements of the work if we want to optimize the balance. After all, each and every one of us CHOOSES to show up and accept the risks and demands of this profession. Navigating this broader-scope balance can be difficult and involves a lot of strategy and sacrifice on both ends of the scale. And, of course, things change. Adaptability is also key.

In the 2018 Fall Issue of Two More Chains, Brit Rosso, former Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center Director, reflects on his career and a subsequent shift in his balance of work and life. What makes his interview particularly compelling in the context of work/life balance is that he explains WHY he chose to make the career change from Hotshot Superintendent to Lessons Learned Center Director as the final phase in his storied career.

Brit Rosso provides key insights into why he chose to make his career changes in the Fall 2018 Two More Chains.

Significant decisions such as Brit’s take place in all phases of a career, from the simple choice to enter the profession, moving from a temporary employee to a permanent position, or into a supervisory or secondary fire position. For most, it might be for higher pay. For others, it may be a step toward another position. And for some, it may just seem to happen organically. Under any of these scenarios, understanding where you currently are, where you want to go, and what you want it to look like when you get there can help you make an educated choice moving forward.

But what about the curve balls that occur outside of the job?

Starting a family, the purchase of a home, aging parents, injuries. Any one of these realities—and many, many more, whether planned or not—can completely change your paradigm of work/life balance.

This may be because your values can change in either direction. Maybe you need more money. So you work as much as possible. Or perhaps time becomes more valuable. So you work less. Either way, if we aren’t clear about what our personal values actually are, and if we are not willing to change our behavior and choices to optimize work and life, the scales can quickly become out of balance.

The choices surrounding major life events or career moves aren’t easy and are very personal. Often, the “big picture” choices you make have consequences beyond yourself. No pressure, right?

Finding a mentor, both on the job and in your life, is a great way to make your plan for a healthy work/life balance as you move through both life and career. Wisdom can be defined as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.” Those who have been through it have that wisdom and can be a great resource and sounding board for decisions surrounding your work/life balance and those big picture choices.

Back at that hood of the truck in early November of 2020, we ended up getting creative and making some compromises. The host unit agreed to downsized staffing on the aircraft, employees who wanted to return home were able to and—in some cases—be done for the year. The helicopter kept working and, in the end, everyone was happy.

Shouldn’t that be a common goal of both work and life—to maximize the happiness?

Stay balanced, my friends!

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