Be Nice

[This is Travis Dotson’s “Ground Truths” column that initially appeared in the Summer 2015 Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Travis Dotson

I’m a little guy. I also look a bit younger than I am (although the grey in my beard is starting to change that).

So when I’m out on a fire and I stand through the re-runs at briefing then stroll over to my “break out” spot—I can read the looks on the faces of all the other resources: “Who brought their twelve-year-old to fire camp?”

Then, when I say: “Hi folks, I’m Travis Dotson – Division Tango Uniform”, I can see the sideways glances, arms cross tighter, a slight lean back, and the ever-present tough-guy glare.

And this is even before they notice the wings on my belt buckle!

Why? Because: “Division is an idiot”—one of our favorite chow line story themes.

I’m Just as Guilty

Why do we do that? Why do we hunt for faults and try to be intimidating?

I’m just as guilty. I’ve done my share of circling-up with the other hyenas to verbally nip away at targets of opportunity—the helitack kid who got our crew name wrong, the trainee from a different region who mispronounced a local feature, or the engine crew who drove over their own chalk block.

Point, pounce, and crucify. That seems to be our default mode, especially if we can get a “dumb smokejumper” story out of it. Damn, that’s some cold-hearted stuff.


Back to the question: Why?

Our behavior certainly isn’t logical. We’re supposedly all working toward the same goal; we’re on the same team, right? Oh, but we’re not!

“My team is who I rolled up with, period.”

OK, I get that. Crew cohesion, shared hardship, bonding . . . all that stuff. I also get all that stuff about doing a 60-second size-up on everyone to inform your decision to trust them—or not—when the shift gets shifty.

But when we encounter those we’ve decided are not “us” do we have to be mean?

Communication is Essential

Communication problems are an issue on every fire (not just fatality or accident fires). We struggle with clarity and understanding as it is. Why do we need to add another layer to this onion?

The bottom line is we need to look out for one another in this business.

The Type 2 crew who speaks a different language than you still needs to know what you know. The engine from across the country might see something you don’t. The trainee who is struggling doesn’t need another challenge.

Our fireline social structure is just a scrambled version of high school. But in this environment the consequences of that behavior are drastically more severe—like your buddy in a casket severe.

Communication is essential. Being unfriendly really screws with communication. Don’t be a turd.

Be nice, Tool Swingers.

2 thoughts on “Be Nice

  1. How can anyone see those wings on your buckle with your shirt untucked? They must be distracted by the flip-flops anyways.

    We all have the opportunity to provide leadership on the fire, whether as that single resource leader, DIVS, or OSC, or any other ICS position.

    The circle and sniff breakout is a great time to break down the barrier, and start to build the team. Sure as a IHC Supt I was very stand-off-ish as I made the attempt to asses who I was working with, and what capabilities they brought to the table. I had to learn to re-evaluate the first impression I built, as time and distance allowed, sometimes that perception was skewed. I’m still guilty of this today.

    It’s frustrating to watch as “we” stand back and allow others to flail on the line. I get it, we all have strong personalities, we don’t like to talk to strangers, we just want to go get after it. But what better service than informally mentoring that type 2 crew, that other trainee, that- whoever, by sharing your perspective. I never liked having a Type 2 crew to come in and “clean up” behind my crew. They have tools, they have saws, let’s get them in the mix and take a leap if they’re comfortable.

    I also still wear a crew hat on assignments, as it helps break down that first impression with the IHC’s standing around the outer perimeter, as if some IHC hat brings instant credibility and wisdom.

    As a IMT overhead, I enjoy nothing more than ditching the name tag, hiking the line, and just chatting with the resources as a unknown peer, digging on that stump hole with that first young firefighter.

    We need to be confident in our positions, but we need to check the ego’s and bring in some humility. Say hello to that young kid working the food bucket line in spike, say thank you when they bag up the trash. Pop into finance and say thanks after dropping your time off.

    Kind of a ramble.

  2. This article reminds me of the one on the color of one’s yellow NOMEX. It could be fresh out of the laundry or a shirt that I HAD to replace. I’m still on your team.

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