There is a sense of purpose behind this work. Choosing a career in public service is about contributing to something bigger than yourself; it is actively prioritizing the needs of others above your own.
Along with the selfless nature of the job, another component is discomfort. More often times than not you’ll be drenched in sweat, covered in dirt, soot, and ash, and feeling as if you’ve reached the far end of your capacity. That is usually the exact moment when you’ll be asked to push harder, well past where you thought you were capable of.
The realities of the job are not glamorous, but that’s not why we’re here.
Feeling a sense of duty about the job is essentially taking pride in your work and in fire it is imperative that we all collectively take pride in our work in order to be successful.
The efforts of any one person on the fireline are not enough. This profession does not cater to individuals; fire requires a group effort. This is why it’s not about you. What it is about is the greater mission at hand.
Put simply: Do for the crew before you do for you.
Don’t be the one who sits down first, shows up last, or allows others to work twice as hard due to your lack of effort. Any one person’s contribution or lack thereof matters, we all matter.
What’s it about?
It’s about rolling your sleeping bag out on a lumpy chunk of ground somewhere feeling entirely exhausted yet simultaneously looking forward to waking up and doing it all over again, elbow to elbow with people who feel compelled to do the same . It’s about gaining confidence through experience and sharing that knowledge with others, not about being in charge so that you can tell others what to do. It’s not about basking in glory; it’s all about the swell of pride that derives from a job well done and above all else, it’s about answering the call to service.
On paper, everyone must give respect to their fellow co-workers. That sounds swell, but “on paper” is not where we fight fire.
There is an unspoken rule amongst the ranks of the Wildland Firefighting community; everyone must earn their spot. They need to prove that they want and deserve to be there. Respect is not given just by walking through the door.
Blatantly stating this reality might be jarring and it could even make some people angry, but it shouldn’t. Not when we stop to make the very important distinction between respect and dignity.
dig·ni·ty | \ ˈdig-nə-tē \
Is the right of a person to be valued for their own sake, and to be treated ethically.
re·spect | \ ri-ˈspekt \
A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.
Each person’s dignity is to be honored without exception, but as we can plainly see from the definitions above, respect is given to someone once they’ve done something to deserve it and in fire that takes effort.
Earning your spot is a right of passage. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone who is brand new in fire or if it’s a Hotshot Superintendent switching crews; every person needs to prove themselves to their fellow crewmembers and I, for one, don’t think that this is a bad system. In fact, I’d give it my golden seal of approval.
Anybody who has spent at least one season in fire understands the demands of this job and has realized the potential for bad outcomes on the fireline.
In the wildfire community, you’ll hear the phrase, “you can only move as fast as your slowest person,” and we use that phrase for a reason. We will not leave the slowest person behind if something goes south, which means that if someone is lacking in any of the necessary skill sets or physical requirements that the job demands they are legitimately putting their fellow crewmembers in harm’s way. So yes, respect is earned, and rightly so, but how?
By moving with a purpose, volunteering for everything, showing up early, taking more in a line dig, learning from those around you, packing something extra that benefits fellow crewmembers, and by being reliable.
It’s about being the type of person that you would want to have on either side of you if things went sideways. It’s about respecting your fellow crewmembers enough to show up ready to do the work, and if you’re struggling be humble enough to ask for help. It’s about being an asset to the crew rather than a liability. Then, and only then, should any of us expect to have respect bestowed upon us or reciprocated.
It is the third and final segment to our fire ethos triangle and it’s also the most crucial. Integrity is the foundation upon which we build our camaraderie and without camaraderie the “fire family” of which we are all a part, would cease to exist.
in·teg·ri·ty | \ in-ˈte-grə-tē \
Integrity is the practice of being honest and showing a consistent and uncompromising adherence to strong moral and ethical principles and values.
What does integrity look like in motion?
It’s pointing the finger inward before pointing the finger outward. Integrity involves consistently examining your own shortcomings and striving for improvement simply because you aim to be the best version of yourself. It’s about taking responsibility for your actions rather than throwing someone else under the bus and above all else; it’s what you do (or don’t do) when no one else is looking.
Integrity is a building block of trust. Being capable, competent, and proficient in your position simply isn’t enough. The fire community requires more from each of us and we have a moral obligation to rise to the occasion.
Each fire season crews rebuild their camaraderie, folding new folks into the mix every spring. People size each other up and figure out where, and how each crewmember fits and what they can contribute to the crew.
Rookies have an incredible amount to learn, know, and understand, which may come in the form of hose drills, crew hikes, sand-table exercises, 10 and 18 quizzes, etc. These are learning opportunities, not punishments. It’s entirely possible that new crewmembers could feel as if they are being held at arms length until they’ve proven themselves through effort or out on the fireline; which, oddly enough, has no relation to being liked or disliked.
That last paragraph holds a certain value that experienced firefighters tend to take for granted. If you aren’t a rookie and you read the above paragraph it all seems very obvious; this is the crux. It is our collective duty to explain these things to new firefighters at the outset rather than assume that they understand our cultural norms.
Earning your spot and bullying may look the same to a person who was never provided the why. Why are you making me run hose lay drills? Why do you keep quizzing me on the Standard Fire Orders? Why don’t I feel like I’m “in” when I’ve been working here for 3 weeks already? Earning your spot and being bullied are not the same thing and it’s pretty crucial for experienced firefighters to clarify the difference to those coming up under their guidance.
Expectations in this profession are high, so set expectations of yourself even higher. High expectations placed upon any of us should not be a deterrent, but rather a goal to reach and surpass.
When we clearly define our expectations and what success looks like it’s akin to handing someone a map with a marked drop point rather than having them guess where you want them to end up. This is how we can set people up for success rather than setting them up for failure.
Being able to rely on the person to your left and right to pull their own weight in the most challenging of circumstances is not a small ask for any of us, trust is everything.
Integrity driven actions are a point of pride in wildland fire, which is imperative because we don’t always have someone looming over our shoulder to ensure that we are doing “the right thing.”
The public has bestowed upon the fire community the great gift of honor. Each of us carries the awesome responsibility and privilege of representing that through our actions.
Duty. Respect. Integrity.
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