By Lisa J. Klinger
My career with the U.S. Forest Service started in the era when fire was everyone’s job. As a seasonal employee, I participated in initial attack. Through 30 odd years as a permanent employee, I participated on fire assignments as an EMT, a radio operator, and as security and liaison officers. As a district ranger for 11 years I was also an agency administrator for several Type 2 fires.
For four years during my district ranger years, I periodically joined Great Basin Incident Management Team (IMT) 6 as a liaison officer. Being a district ranger and an agency administrator provided me with a valuable perspective that was helpful to the work and assignments Team 6 had when I could join them. Participating in these assignments, however, did not provide me with a perspective that I only gained as a full-time team member.
The fall I retired I was asked by the incident commander of Great Basin Team 6 to apply to be an official team member. I have now been a member of Team 6 and my perspective on working in fire and committing to an IMT has changed. I wish I knew as a district ranger what I have learned. I had never understood or realized the commitment it was to be on an IMT. I had no idea how an IMT’s rotation worked or what that meant for scheduling personal time or attending family events, or just having unobligated time. I did not understand what the firefighting community sign up for when they become members of an IMT.
Yes, choosing to be a fire employee does include a level of commitment to some extent, whether or not the individual also participates on a fire team. It is the level of commitment on a daily basis throughout the fire season that I did not understand. As a district ranger, would I have behaved or spoken differently if I knew then what I know now? Yes, absolutely.
Many times I have heard non-fire employees make comments about firefighters. “Oh, they’re just milking it for the money.” “Fire gets everything.” “The haves and the have nots.” “Another assignment so they can go to Mexico this winter.” “All those paid days off after an assignment.” You get the idea. I won’t argue that some of this may or may not be true. I will say that as a district ranger I would have worked harder and spoken up more frequently to try to bring a deeper understanding to the sacrifice many fire employees make as part of their jobs that nonfire employees do not see or acknowledge.
The missed family events, the kids sporting events, family vacations, the time spent with children rapidly growing up, the free time to pursue a hobby, potential health impacts, the stress of the job or assignment, just being somewhere other than home . . . You know what I’m talking about—and the list goes on and on.
If you are a district ranger reading this and are unfamiliar with wildland fire and what it means to participate, that commitment to being on an IMT, I urge you to make the effort to learn from the employees around you. Represent to the non-fire employees a different perspective of sacrifice to the job that non-fire employees may not understand.
It can just be a few statements here and there to make employees think. It may allow a deeper understanding between coworkers that leads to a more satisfying and productive work environment. I wish I had known.
It makes me wonder if I could have built a stronger district team.