There’s seems to be this one certain subject that is sooooo complex and convoluted, and at times contentious, that essentially no one wants to touch it with a ten-foot-pole. Each time someone even grazes the topic people get hot under the collar and so, folks keep their distance as if it were a hornet’s nest. I’m almost certain this attempt will end up exactly the same as all the attempts which have come before it, but it’s worth a shot and I like a challenge so here goes…
Ah, that got your attention. The term “Women-in-Fire” is lame for a lot of reasons; namely, it sounds like the equivalent of slapping a visitor’s pass onto a woman’s hardhat or something. Not that it’s an offensive term, it isn’t, and it’s not meant to be; women use it just as frequently as men. Regardless, we don’t wander around referring to “Men-in-Fire” and therein lies the difference.
I will say outright that I’ve had countless people ask me if I had interest in writing or offering presentations about “women-in-fire” as sort of a niche. My answer has always been, to be blunt, hell no. Just because I’m a chick, doesn’t mean that I want to solely talk about chicks in fire or represent “us” collectively as a group. (Talk about setting yourself up for failure!) I have no business speaking for an entire gender and turning my personal opinion into something more than it is, just an opinion.
I have much more interest in how we as the fire family interact with one another regardless of our collective differences and more so, based on individual personalities and perceptions.
Although I threw that term out there this article is not actually about women-in-fire, it’s about the wide spectrum of human interactions that happen when you are part of the fire family, which involves both men and women.
There is a ton to unravel here so I’m just going to dig right in. Surely someone is going to take offense, misconstrue a point, or downright disagree, and that’s okay I’ll take the heat because these are all growing pains of a cultural evolution. Hold on to your helmets and please keep your pulaskis at bay until you read this in its entirety.
I’m going to put on paper the conversation I have had countless times with fellow female firefighter friends since the sexual assault stories first began coming to light. We’ve been speaking in low tones and peeking over our shoulders to make sure that no one hears us while we’ve discussed our reality; the reality being, we haven’t had any of these things happen to us.
What is currently saturating the media and dominating Agency talking points is not what we have endured. What we have experienced is camaraderie and a family atmosphere. We’ve found a true sense of belonging amongst the ranks of fire crews all across the country.
Well, if that’s the case then why the hushed tones and peeking over our shoulders?
The sexual assault is real too. Although it is a rarity, it obviously exists and by outwardly stating that you’ve had a carefree fire career as a female you’re essentially smothering the flames of the issue; or at least, that’s how it feels. We instead remain silent so that these fire sisters of ours who’ve had demeaning encounters with predatory supervisors/co-workers may put their stories out there to be heard without the background noise.
So then why am I putting this out there?
To address a growing concern.
I have high hopes that I’m not creating any background noise but instead letting some light shine on what you should expect as a woman interested in developing a career as a wildland firefighter. You should expect camaraderie, you should expect to feel part of the fire family, and thankfully, most do.
It’s important to clearly make that point at this juncture because the current outside perception (thanks to the overhyped media) of wildland firefighting is that no woman could possibly get through her workday without being groped and I take offense to that perception because it is a flagrant misrepresentation of our community and the culture within it.
I have never felt unsafe around the men (or women) I have worked with in all my years on the fireline, and I’ve worked in every facet of fire. In fact, I’ve felt more secure sleeping on the fireline strewn out on the ground amongst 19 men in the middle of nowhere than I ever have sleeping in my own house, feeling concerned about an intruder.
It had actually never crossed my mind that I was putting myself in a vulnerable position just by being a woman in the fire world; that is how strongly I’ve felt a sense of camaraderie and belonging. I think that is why those of us who’ve never had these things happen find it so unbelievably shocking.
If you listened carefully, even the women who came forward about assault all touch on the fact that they loved everything about their jobs when telling their stories. Until that is, things took an obvious turn for the worst and their trust was betrayed.
And so, I’ll say this to any person who has committed the ultimate fire family crime and used their position of power (because let’s face it, most times it’s someone in a higher position) to prey on their fellow firefighter:
Your days are numbered. Get your shit together and learn how to treat your fellow firefighters with a mutual sense of dignity or get the hell out. Duty, Respect, Integrity are the ethos that we live by. We don’t need or want a person who solely has a sense of duty without the capacity to respect others, and lacks the integrity to take responsibility for their own actions.
Climbing down off of my soapbox now.
So here I am, outwardly stating that sexual assault in the fire community is a rarity. However, just because it’s rare, that doesn’t make it okay or excusable by any stretch.
In fact, after spending some time ruminating on this I’ve come to recognize what makes sexual assault amongst our ranks so much worse than it even appears on the surface.
Follow me here…
Initially, I thought back to my earlier days when I worked in bars and restaurants as a server/bartender and quickly decided that all professions have issues like this; it’s a societal problem, not a wildland firefighter problem. My mind jumped to thinking, “at least people aren’t drunk out on the fireline!”
But then I sat on it for a while, did some reading, and found the major difference between us and every other profession where sexual assault takes place; we are a family.
We refer to ourselves as a family and we mean that with sincerity. We talk about our “brothers and sisters” out there on the line. That’s what makes this so much worse. The level of trust is exponentially more elevated in this line of work due to the inherent dangers of the job, but also because we see one another as a strongly bonded family.
Here are some quotes I found that touch on my point:
“The aggressor does not have to be a blood relative. He or she can be anyone whom the victim perceives as a family member.”
“The victim’s vulnerability is usually the only leverage some aggressors need.”
“Family loyalty is an incredibly powerful force, no matter how corrupt the family may be.”
These quotes come from Susan Forward Ph.D., and she is talking about parent-to-child incest. If that makes you want to vomit, you are having the appropriate emotional response right now.
I changed a couple of words from child/parent to victim/aggressor because when you swap those words around it turns into something we can relate to.
What we are talking about here is the feeling of complete trust being stripped away and replaced with an overwhelming sensation of being violated. So as I said before, sexual assault is a rarity in the fire community (just as incest is a rarity in a family unit) but that doesn’t make it excusable.
Although the knee-jerk reaction from most agencies/entities is usually to create more required training perhaps a less reactionary route would be to take matters into our own hands on each forest, district, crew, rather than waiting for something to be dictated from above.
How about we all show some integrity and set clear expectations for our subordinates and for ourselves; let’s employ Leader’s Intent.
Up to this point, I have been talking specifically about sexual assault. I don’t want to confuse assault with harassment, because they are not the same thing.
What happens when we take a closer look at the sexual harassment component?
Ughhhhh…. This slope is so slippery that just by scouting it out I knew I was going to fall on my ass. All well, here we go…
When I think of harassment, I envision it as a person(s) who is singling you out and making comments, gestures, etc., which are inappropriate. How do you know if it’s inappropriate? When a comment or gesture makes your stomach drop from the shock of it and you’re left feeling like slightly less of a human being.
With that definition, I would guess harassment is much more commonplace than assault because it’s easier for people to get away with.
Another component of harassment includes unwelcomed advancements that quickly turn into ill-treatment when the person is turned down. This happens way more often. The ego gets involved when someone puts themselves out there and winds up getting rejected, and that can lead to all sorts of issues.
Meanwhile, the person who is receiving the ill-treatment generally just takes it because they feel guilty for hurting the other person’s feelings, even though it is not their obligation to take that on.
If the ill-treatment continues for an entire fire season or longer eventually one of two things will happen:
- The person being treated unfairly will leave the crew, or possibly leave fire altogether.
- The person being treated unfairly will eventually file a grievance against the other person, which almost always ends up being to the detriment of both parties.
What I’d like to advocate for is a third option; direct communication. If you find yourself in this circumstance you may have the capacity to resolve the issue by addressing it head-on.
Sure there are some buffer days of awkwardness when something like this happens but there is also a time limit for catering to someone else’s fragile ego. By keeping your head down rather than confronting the person about their actions you are allowing them to hold all the power in the situation and essentially creating a space for them to develop a pattern for this type of behavior.
I imagine assumptions are being made right now about how I’m putting the ownership on the wrong person, but I don’t think that I am.
How do I know?
I’m speaking from experience.
While I have never had even the slightest concern about sexual assault out on the fireline I’ve had my fair share of unwelcome advancements gone wrong. I never filed paperwork because I felt like that would be taking things way too far, and I don’t regret that.
What I do regret however is not standing up for myself by addressing the issue(s) real time. I had the opportunity to call it out but instead, I stayed quiet, did my job, and endured. The end result is that I essentially passed the problem onto the next female co-worker who assumes the role of “crush” further down the road and had a less than fun time in doing so.
A problem is still a problem even when you choose to ignore it.
Just because you find a way to deal with adversity it doesn’t mean that it ceases to exist.
I happen to believe that much can be resolved through direct communication. Is it incredibly uncomfortable to tackle circumstances like these head-on? No doubt. Why do you think I have regrets about what I should have done rather than stories of success to share with you? But I’ll tell you this; if I had it to do over again I would not hesitate to stand my ground. Even now, years later I fantasize about going back to those moments in time.
We all know what to do because it’s a learned behavior that we regularly practice on the fireline. When a situation calls for it we, “line his ass out!”
Flipping things back to the other side for a moment; No one enjoys the feeling of being rejected when you put yourself out there on a vulnerability platter, but guess what? That is your issue to deal with, don’t dump it on someone else; they shouldn’t be your ego’s collateral damage.
As I said at the beginning of this article, I’m talking about all of us in the fire family, not specifically male or female. We all need to hold ourselves accountable for our actions; women can be the harassing party just as easily as men, neither gender is immune from inappropriate behavior.
As we move into the next component of this article I want to highlight a phrase many of us know quite well:
“That’s not how I grew up in fire.”
This is the best example for me to point to about why any two people have the capacity to see the same situation so differently. What that phrase really speaks to is perspective taking. Perspectives are based on our individual life experiences as well as our personalities; let us all keep that in mind as we tread into these “dangerous waters.”
Here’s a common conundrum that takes place in the fire world; One person feels that they are being picked on or bullied because of the treatment they are receiving, while another person looks at the same instance as the common requirement in this line of work; having to prove yourself.
So how do you know the difference? We’ll get into that. I spoke for myself on this topic in a previous blog post Prove Yourself about how making my way in the fire world felt like a natural progression to growing up in a family with 3 brothers and no sisters, but that isn’t the case for everyone. For many, there is an adjustment period to the fire culture.
Personally, I am of the mindset that this is a tough profession and it isn’t for everyone, male or female. Its most basic requirements are a high physical fitness level and mental fortitude. Due to the nature of the job and the (very real) potential for injury or death, we quickly weed out those that aren’t going to make it. Why? Because the weak link really could get you killed.
Do I feel that women are looked at harder than men in this line of work? Absolutely. When an unknown female walks through the door on Day 1 the thought is generally, “Is she going to be able to hack it?” whereas the unknown male receives the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.
This is the thing though; either route gets you to the same endpoint. The woman will work her ass off and show that she is capable and competent. The male will work his ass off and show that he too is capable and competent, or they won’t. In which case the wolf pack will quickly put that person outside the circle, male or female. Once you’ve proven yourself you are folded into the family dynamic of the crew.
So what’s the difference? Proving someone wrong versus proving someone right.
Of course, I just glossed right over the “standard ops” of chicks feeling that they have to perform to an incredibly high standard in order to be good representation for their gender. (Need an example? A hike in someone else’s boots)
So, what we just did there is graze the surface, now we’re going to dig deeper, ggggget ready! Here we go….
Bullying vs. Earning Your Spot
I think it’s rather important to recognize the difference between being bullied versus earning your spot.
Earning your spot looks different on every crew; here are some examples:
Engine Crew- Building endless hose packs, washing/drying/rolling hose
Hotshot Crew- Sanding/Painting/Sharpening tools, sand-table exercises, etc.
Helitack Crew- Bucket drills, manifesting, inventory.
Smokejumping- Checking chutes, loading the aircraft, climbing for cargo.
All- Push-up, push-ups, and a few more push-ups. Running uphill, running downhill, running far, running fast, hiking uphill, hiking downhill, hiking side-slope, hiking fast, hiking far… burpees, squats, hose pulls, you get the idea.
In general, earning your spot also incorporates building a skill set unique to that aspect of fire. You may get so sick of building hose packs that you think your head is going to explode but guess what? You’ll be proficient and efficient by the time you run out of hose.
No matter which type of crew you end up on one should expect to show up on time, work hard, and contribute to the greater good at the very least. Beyond that, adjust your mindset to a steep learning curve and prepare to be on the receiving end of direct communication.
If you show up on Day 1 ill prepared you will have an uphill struggle and it won’t be because of your gender, size, or how many years you have in fire. It will be because you are not meeting the expectations and are being treated as such.
Is there mentorship to fall back on? Sure. But ask any person in a supervisory position on a crew and they will tell you that the mentorship part should have begun months prior to Day 1. Crews usually send out their expectations along with physical standards, workout programs, directions to crew hikes, contact numbers to call for seeking guidance, etc.
The hiring process is no picnic, so believe me when I say that crew overhead doesn’t want people to show up and fail, they want people to succeed. If you didn’t do your part and follow the PT program recommendations to prep, or call and ask questions you’ve got sole ownership of your fate. (Of course, there’s a little more leniency for 1st-year firefighters) If you’re getting the cold shoulder from fellow crewmembers it’s not because they are bullying you, it’s because you have let them down by not holding up your end of the bargain.
What’s that phrase? “You’re only as fast as your slowest person.” If you are “that guy” and you aren’t showing motivation to improve it will not go unnoticed.
If you prepared appropriately and are putting in 110% yet still falling behind the power curve it’s only a matter of time before fellow crewmembers will offer you a little guidance to get you on the right track. Effort doesn’t go unnoticed either.
I guess what I’m saying is that in fire we operate under the “tough love” umbrella. If you aren’t pulling your weight someone will literally walk right up to you, look you in the eye and say, “You aren’t pulling your weight, and I’m having to pick up your slack. Get your shit together.”
That my friends is the direct communication I mentioned earlier. Tap dancing around the point is not really our forte in the fire world. There is a great majority of the general population that would not respond positively to “tough love” and fair enough, it’s difficult to take. If you are the type of person who doesn’t have confidence in your own ability and needs ego boosts from others you’ll have a hard time finding it amongst the ranks of fire folks. These are but a couple examples of why it requires a certain type of person to be a firefighter.
I think I’ve made my point. So then what does legitimate bullying look like?
One of the best ways to figure it out is to employ this tactic:
Look to your left, look to your right.
Are you the only person being treated this way?
Unfortunately some circles in fire function like a high school, full of clicks and social pressures. There is a distinct difference between earning your spot and being subjected to constant ridicule, and humiliation.
We function by chain-of-command where rank matters. If you are on the bottom rung of the crew it can feel pretty powerless in regards to bullying, so what is one to do?
I am going to boomerang right back to direct communication. (Who knew it was the answer to all life’s problems!) Of course you’ll probably spend an exorbitant amount of time mustering up the courage to confront the person(s), and that’s okay, but eventually, you’ll have to take action if you expect change to occur. And honestly, things may stay exactly the same after you approach the person but if that’s the case you’ll now have the green light to take it higher up the chain in order to get things resolved.
Although this profession requires you to earn respect, your dignity is something that you walk in the door with. It is the foundational basis of humanity and it is non-negotiable.
Point of Ignition
You may have noticed the headings to address each subject and hopefully, you’re making the connection of how one relates to the other.
So then what is the point of ignition? Who starts the fire?
Crew overhead has the capacity and responsibility to lay out their expectations for crewmembers. It’s completely appropriate to set high standards for your people so long as they are clear and attainable. Guess what? I’m going to bring up direct communication again.
In using direct communication there are rarely misunderstandings because it doesn’t allow for much confusion. When expectations go unsaid but are “implied” that leaves room for interpretation.
This all ties into that phrase, “how I grew up in fire”. Green firefighters are absolutely influenced by their crew overhead and those influences become imprinted in their perspective. Crew bosses, Captains, Superintendents, Base Managers, etc. all set the tone through their leadership or lack thereof. As crew overhead, you are inadvertently tasked with the distinguished honor of guiding less experienced firefighters beneath you. The question is, how are your navigation skills?
If the fire community truly wants to show zero smokes regarding sexual assault it’s going to take leadership, not management, leadership. Because you can’t have a crown fire without first having an ignition point.
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