On a regular basis, I find myself noticing similarities between fighting fire and being a parent. Here are my top 10.
1. Being a Rookie
As a rookie in fire, you have no idea what the hell is going on.
You think you have prepared yourself in all the right ways and you’ve got friends that are firefighters so you’re pretty sure you know what it’s all about until that first day.
Things are happening at seemingly lightning speed around you while you’re moving at a snail’s pace with a confused look on your face. You watch those around you in a desperate attempt to figure out what it is you should be doing beyond looking like a rookie.
Day 1 of being a parent? Welcome back to life as a rookie. Just like the end of -Day 1- rookie smokejumper training, you’re all banged-up, confused, and completely incapable of even remembering what happened to get you to this sorry state; and just like rookie smokejumper training, -Day 1- is only the beginning.
2. Opening your Taskbook to get Qual’d
Once you start to get your feet under you a little bit as a firefighter they begin throwing taskbooks your way. Want to be a Type 1 firefighter, Strike Team Leader, or Engine Boss perhaps? Not until you accomplish these billion tasks several times proficiently.
Even after you’ve accomplished all the tasks, some poor schmuck still has to “sign you off”, attesting to your competency. If I had a dollar for every time I let my husband know he’d need several more assignments before getting signed off in regard to parenting tasks, well, I’d have a whole lot of dollars.
3. Sleep Deprivation
Sure, the standard length of a shift as a firefighter is 16 hours with 8 hours off. At least, that’s how it looks on paper but the reality goes something like this:
5 am Wake-Up
5:01-5:10 Mad Frenzy to ensure you aren’t last.
5:10 Begin walking in line order to go eat breakfast in fire camp.
5:45 Accomplish all tasks necessary prior to leaving fire camp while crew overhead attends briefing.
6:45 Wheels-Up for the 1-hour drive to the fire.
7:45 Crew Briefing
8:00 Tool-up and hike to your division.
9:00 Begin *working* for the day.
20:00 Back at the rigs to re-furbish gear.
21:30 Back at fire camp and heading for dinner.
22:15 Make a phone call. (If you have cell service)
22:30 Make a visit to the blue room and brush your teeth.
22:45 Roll out your sleeping bag on the ground and kick off your boots.
23:00 Drift off to sleep looking at the stars overhead and wondering if that contingency line you busted your ass on that day will ever get used.
That’s an easy day when everything goes according to plan. Then there are the days that start off fine enough and the next thing you know it’s been 32 hours without sleep and you’re so tired that you have the mental capacity of a drunken 5-year-old.
Welcome to the first 3 (to 12) months of parenthood! What I want to know is, why do they take away the driving privileges of someone who could have a seizure, but it’s perfectly fine to allow thousands of severely sleep-deprived parents to hit the open road without a second thought?
I will call myself out and admit that I began driving down a one-way street in the wrong direction a couple of months into sleep deprivation. If you don’t drink alcohol but would like to know what driving drunk feels like simply become a new parent!
4. Powering Through
Every single day on the fireline there is a point where you must just power through something.
A fast hiking pace set by your crewboss. It takes every single ounce of your being not to fall out of the hike just barely sparing you from becoming that guy.
Getting slapped in the face by a tree branch.
Packing a 5’er, or chunks of cotton jacket hose up a steep slope.
Being ill on any given day during the fire season. (Tough deal, keep working)
Getting a green-sheen meat wad sandwich in your lunch, or a lettuce and tofu sandwich if you’re a vegetarian.
Spilling (lots of) drip torch fuel on your Nomex pants.
Working a stretch of fireline that makes absolutely no sense.
Having the stitching blow out on the side of your boot. Helllooo duct tape.
Getting stuck as a holder when the smoke is drifting unavoidably in your direction.
Eating MREs 3x’s a day for an entire roll.
These things and many more are prime examples of situations that require perseverance because there is simply no other option.
As a parent powering through is just as frequent a task and I’m glad I had my introduction to powering through long before parenthood because somehow it feels less offensive having already been acclimated to the concept.
In firefighting discomfort is “ops normal.” It’s almost a requirement to have at least one form of pain generating from someplace in your body. As you might imagine, regularly going without bathing for two weeks at a time while on assignment can get ‘uncomfortable.’ Or wearing clothes that are so filthy they could legitimately stand up on their own; that might also be considered ‘uncomfortable.’ Riding in a buggy with nine other smelly people, sleeping on an incline, having swamp foot, wearing a 95 lb packout bag on your back for a gnarly 5-mile hike, being sandwiched into a hot, stuffy helicopter, needing to pee while in the jump plane when you’re still 20 minutes from the fire, riding middle seat in a 6-pack truck for hours on end; these things might bring you some discomfort.
In the early years of parenting the discomfort comes mostly to plague women. Pregnancy, labor, birth, breastfeeding, and mastitis are some of the heavy hitters. But don’t fret men, there are plenty of non-gender specific discomforts to be had by all, so get ready to get uncomfortable! Think awkward dad/daughter adolescence conversations. What’s that saying? “You may experience a little discomfort.”
6. Hurry Up and Wait
One of the most frustrating things you can do to firefighters is get them all amped up and ready to go then put the brakes on and force them to wait, and wait, and wait. It feels like your soul is dying in slow motion.
I would not say that patience is something anyone on the fireline has a great abundance of. Everybody wants things to happen either right now or five minutes ago.
Unfortunately, tactics change, aircraft can take forever, and ICs need to make a plan; and so we hurry up and wait.
As a parent the amount of patience that is required to make it through any one single day is unprecedented. I could probably light the city of Seattle with all the energy I generate in my body. The energy is supplied by standing idly by while watching my child attempt to get a spoon in her mouth, crawl up the stairs, zip her own zipper, put on a shoe, get onto a step stool, pull up her pants, Ahhhhhhh!!!
Standing idly by is the best thing you can do so that kiddos can learn. However, that does not mean that you won’t spontaneously combust from all the unused energy you’re generating. Hurry up and wait.
We all get reminded over and over how important communication is. There is verbal, non-verbal, written, and body language. We’ve got “leader’s intent” with its task, purpose, and end state. We also have briefings and AARs. Take notes; repeat the message, paraphrase, etc.
Even with all the ways in which we offer forms of communication we still manage to muck it up on a regular basis. Miscommunication is regularly cited as part of the problem when something goes badly.
At least on the fireline you’re dealing with other adults! As a parent, you’re interacting with a tiny person who doesn’t yet have a grasp on communication of any kind. Initially, they just make noise and use lots of scrunched-up facial expressions. (Or are we talking about a salty superintendent here? Not much difference, ha!)
The more months that pass, the more frustrating it can become because not only are you frustrated, but so is the kiddo. Now they’ve got a basic understanding of what is going on, but don’t realize they’re still out of their element, not unlike a snookie.
And there you are trying to line-out your 1-year-old.
“Okay listen up. You need to get your coat and shoes on before we go outside because it’s snowing. So before you open the door I want to see you ready to go, alright? Great, now let’s move.” They look at you, say “NOOOOO!” pull down their pants, and fling the front door open.
This might require an AAR.
8. The Startle Wake-Up
There simply aren’t many jobs where you are awoken from a solid sleep and expected to function normally within a matter of minutes. It could be sleeping on an I.A. fire and having to leap up to catch a slopover, or springing out of your sleeping bag at fire camp to line out for breakfast.
I’m a firm believer that if there were an alarm clock made with the jingle sound of the metal buckle on a (webbing) fire belt it would be a top seller. I don’t think my ears are more affixed to any sound in the world as to that one. I hear the jingle of another person’s belt and I’m instantly in go-mode because I’m afraid that I’m running behind everyone else.
The startle wake-up is definitely my least favorite thing about being in fire, and as a parent, it’s even worse! You’re doomed to a life of sporadic startle wake-ups and the sound of a munchkin crying has replaced the fire belt jingle for top billing as the ultimate ear-affixed alarm clock.
9. Work Smarter, not Harder
If you are, or ever have been a hotshot you know this one well. It’s not necessarily the go-to in your decision-making even though it should be because “no one ever said this job was easy.”
Work smarter, not harder. Don’t build a “hotshot highway” fireline when a “jumper line” will do the job. Don’t carry awkwardly heavy and bulky boxes up a hillside to a drop point simply because you don’t want to wait ten more minutes for the stake-side truck to arrive; you get the idea.
Being efficient on the fireline is crucial because it already takes an incredible amount of energy to do the job when you aren’t making it harder on yourself.
As a parent, I have all but turned myself into an efficiency expert in order to survive each “shift”. I wash bottles, prep food, and make tactical plans all in the name of efficiency. I strategically pack the diaper bag (backpack actually, I can’t bring myself to carry a cutesy dysfunctional bag) with contingency items as if I were packing my belly bag for a rappel fire. Whatever type of fire resource you are, you know that ounces make pounds, and carrying around useless junk is to your detriment. There is no advantage in “bulking out”.
Those first several months of parenthood teach you that it’s about surviving, not thriving. And if you’re making it harder on yourself your time living amongst the sane will be brief.
10. You Don’t Know what you Don’t Know until you Don’t Know it
Let that sink in a minute.
There are times on the fireline when you are simply out of your element. You may be good, you might be great, you could be the most bad-ass firefighter there ever was but every firefighter has moments when they run into something unprecedented that they have no slides to pull from. You have to operate within the unknown and hope for the best. This is the epitome of parenting.
I have these moments as a parent on a regular basis. How would anyone know that it’s normal for a 2-month-old to poop 12 times in a day but it’s also just as normal for them not to poop for 12 days? This is one of a million examples of operating within the unknown. There is no room for arrogance in parenting because you’re bound to get schooled as soon as you think you’ve got it all figured out.
And so, this concludes my top ten.
Just remember that with parenting there are no IAPs or briefings to pull intel from, you’ve got to scout it out yourself. True, there is no air attack flying overhead to give you a different perspective, but there are adjacent resources that you can tie in with.
Remember those parent friends who said, “You can call me anytime day or night, seriously”; while they gave you an all-knowing look? Call them. They weren’t kidding. They are your escape route and safety zone combined. Just make sure you call in your additional resources before you get overrun.
Good Luck Parent. Now go anchor and flank that kiddo!