Every spring crews nationwide ready themselves for the fire season by way of physical training, medical scenarios and classroom time and every year that guy shows up. How is it statistically possible that we end up with that guy almost every year on every single crew? Even though we all know that guy, there are varying degrees and the scale ranges from harmless to dangerous, with the dangerous end of the scale being more of a rarity but that is the end of the spectrum I want to focus on. That guy-D, D for dangerous as opposed to that guy-H, H for harmless.
That guy-D is the one who can’t seem to drive the trucks without backing them into a building or cuts through their holding wood when dropping trees, etc. That guy-D has potential to hurt themselves and/or those around them. Whereas that guy-H farts in the rig on a 100 degree day when rolling the windows down is the last thing anyone wants to do but that guy-H just made it a necessity.
We joke about that guy-D in the way one does when in disbelief over the level of blatant incompetence they have just witnessed that guy-D display, again. Joking and sarcasm are major forms of communication in the fire world and I would never want that to change but I am advocating for a shift in our thinking; I think we need to start taking that guy-D a little more seriously.
I was giving a presentation the other week about fire culture and someone in the audience made this comment when we were talking about that guy (in general), “We identify that guy on the crew every year but what can we do about it? We still have to work with them.” His comment stuck with me because he was absolutely right, it’s incredibly difficult to get rid of that guy. The task is akin to removing a tick without ripping the head off; it’s embedded and there is no smooth way to remedy the problem. How does that saying go? “In the government it’s really difficult to hire someone and 10 times harder to fire them.”
If you’re lucky you can use documentation to show that that guy-D is a serious safety concern in order to remove them but where do they go? Most often they simply get placed in a different fire position. Type 1 resources tend to use this method (Hotshots, Rappellers, Smokejumpers) because the person could be placed in a less demanding fire position by going to work with a type II resource. But here’s my beef; does shuffling that person around make them any less of a safety risk? Are they magically more competent or are they just endangering people on a different crew? Clearly it’s the latter, which leads me to point out the obvious and ask; how is this okay?
You may be saying, “It’s not okay!” but this is where actions speak louder than words. Even though it’s unacceptable for that guy-D to bring down the integrity of our crew we avert our eyes to the fact that we are passing off the “problem child” to a different crew. We just breathe a sigh of relief and go about our business; and this is the dream scenario! The scenario where you aren’t stuck with that guy-D all season because you couldn’t get them shuffled somewhere else and they wouldn’t quit. This is one of those cultural norms where we feel hamstrung by policy so we just accept it as our reality and hope that nothing serious happens. This scenario I just described happens all the time.
That guy-D isn’t limited to lower level fire folks either. If you’ve been in fire long enough you’re certainly familiar with, “F-Up, Move-Up”.
If you’re in middle management or higher you might get the VIP treatment of being shuffled to a higher position when you make a serious mistake. That’s just what we were all hoping for, incompetence in command. Of course there are exceptions when real action is taken but that is infrequent at best because of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way to do so.
There is real potential in this job to make decisions which could endanger people’s lives including our own. Engine Captains, Crewbosses, Task Force Leaders, Divisions, IC’s etc. all have the ability to put people in harm’s way. There are some jobs in the world where you can “fake it until you make it” but in wildland firefighting there aren’t many corners to hide in, you have to perform. This is why task books exist and why we should never feel obligated to sign someone off. We want and need people to be competent and capable in their roles. For a profession that already has a higher level of risk that guy-D is particularly unsavory.
We recognize that guy-D just as easily at the low levels as we do at the higher levels but we’ve got some cultural barriers that keep us from taking action. For one thing, we function within the chain of command and speaking out against your supervisor can have seriously adverse affects on you and your career; ever heard the term “black ball”? So do you take that chance or do you convince yourself that the odds of your supervisor putting someone in harm’s way aren’t that high?
Another cultural barrier is what takes place after a critical incident. Let’s say there was a fatality fire and that guy-D was involved in some capacity. Do you speak up during the investigation? What if that guy-D was one of the people who were lost, do you speak up then? We don’t sully the name of those who were lost in the line of duty and so the investigation teams are potentially missing some of the most significant human factors that could have played a role in the incident and we are left forever wondering if that guy-D played a part in what happened. This is a tragically avoidable hypothetical because that guy-D shouldn’t have even been there; they should have been removed long before it ever happened.
There are a great majority of cultural norms in the fire world that I’m absolutely on board with but this isn’t one of them. I’m not on board with it but I definitely don’t have the magic potion to sprinkle on the problem to fix it either so that makes me complicit, we all are.
That being said, this would be my 3 step solution to resolving the problem if I had the power to make change:
Step one is putting real effort and resources into recruitment. Find the athletes, first responders, outdoorsy folks and disaster responders that would be logical choices for this line of work and add them to the fire family. The fact that we get as many quality people as we do with virtually no recruitment is a miracle. In my opinion the Americorps National Service program should be our go-to for recruitment. Americorps members embody all of the qualities that we hope for in our rookie firefighters. I truly believe that a great many of our woes in the fire world could be resolved with a focused and comprehensive recruitment program. Firefighting is a profession with little room for error and it relies heavily on cohesion and trust in your fellow crewmembers. Hiring is the most crucial component in creating that cohesion and building the trust.
Step two makes it a requirement for every fire crew to send out clear expectations to their upcoming crewmembers that must be signed and returned prior to their start date. By signing it they are agreeing to show up capable of meeting the standards of performance and if they can’t the crew can work with them through a performance improvement plan that will have measurable goals and time frames.
Step three is to create a universal system that allows removal to be justifiable and swift. If it’s clear that the person is a safety concern and it’s appropriately documented on several occasions that should be all that is needed to take action. I’d also like to attach performance evaluations to step three. I know we have them but i’d like some that are actually clear, concise and specific to our job.
I don’t want there to be any confusion in what I’m saying so let me be very clear; I understand that we all have days when we are that guy, I’ve been that guy plenty of days because I did something stupid or screwed something up. I’m not suggesting we rid our fire community of anyone who makes a mistake or is battling an injury. (For one thing, where would all of our jokes come from? We need humor in this line of work!) Some folks simply need guidance, mentorship or rest in order to be successful. I’m also not speaking about those who end up as that guy purely for personality reasons. Rookie firefighters are also omitted because they aren’t yet supposed to have any idea what’s going on-although they do need to physically keep up with their fellow crew members-I’m referring to the person who we never give any real responsibility to because we know they aren’t capable of completing a task without incident. We safeguard them from themselves by giving them only the most menial of jobs. We all make mistakes, we all have missteps, but we can also recognize the difference between someone who is a soup sandwich and someone who doesn’t understand tactics and strategies.
We have the 10 Fire Orders and 18 Watch Outs to help us identify potentially hazardous situations but neither touches on that guy.
If I were able to add one of each they would read something like this:
Fire Order #11 – Keep vigilant in the face of poor decision-making or hazardous crew members.
Watch Out #19 That Guy
If you look in the IRPG (incident response pocket guide for you non-fire folks) under Duty/Respect/Integrity you will find some threads to focus on in relation to that guy.
“Be proficient in your job, technically and as a leader.”
“Put the safety of your subordinates above all other objectives.”
“Observe human behavior as well as fire behavior.”
“Know yourself and seek improvement.”
“Know the strength/weaknesses in your character and skill level.”
“Choose the difficult right over the easy wrong.”
It’s right there. Duty, Respect and Integrity are the backbone of the fire community so feel confident that you will be supported when you stand-up in the name of safety to say someone is a danger to themselves and others. We preach, See something, say something don’t we? So say something and choose the difficult right over the easy wrong. If you speak up and nothing is done don’t back down, call on other firefighters to help you fight the good fight. Don’t let things get swept under the rug because you never know if 10 years down the road that firefighter you had concerns about will be placed in a position to make a decision that will have irrevocable consequences.
“Put the safety of your subordinates above all other objectives.”
This includes bruising your ego. If you know you are in over your head in a supervisory position step aside, if you see that someone else is struggling to fulfill their duties talk to them about it because we can joke all day long about that guy but it’s the farthest thing from funny when that guy gets smashed by a tree they couldn’t properly fall, or takes down a helicopter because they incorrectly hooked up a long-line sling load or miscalculated a manifest.
Not every person is a fire person and that’s okay, it’s a challenging profession. It’s not a purely physical job and at some point we will all be called upon to make tactical decisions that come with real consequences. Not only that, but we are making decisions inside of a pressure cooker where there are countless variables to factor in, all on a time clock. No firefighter ever intends to make a decision that will get someone hurt but it can happen, even to the best of us. If it can happen to the best of us it makes it even more crucial to be honest with that guy and tell them where their deficits are and what concerns you have because that conversation could save their life, or yours.
Let’s stop shuffling and start speaking up.