Years ago when I was on a hotshot crew, we barely escaped being burned over by a fire in the Salmon River country of Idaho. We ran through a small gap in the flames, holding our breath, everything forgotten except escape. The break in the fire closed up behind us, trapping a crew that followed on our heels. We lost them in the smoke and heat.
We ran down the ridge and jumped in helicopters at the next opening in the trees. Safely on the beach, our superintendent tried to raise the other crew over and over again on the radio. There was nothing but silence. Then as we returned to the helispot to gather our gear, we heard the sound of rotors. The helicopters returned, carrying the lost crew.
Seeing their path blocked by flames, they had turned and raced up the ridge, luckily finding an old helispot near the top. The helicopters had been able to swoop in and pick them up.
Getting off the aircraft, the other crewmembers thought we were there to greet them and started hugging us. We were embarrassed. This just wasn't done, especially by hotshot crews. We were tough. We didn't show emotion. We were just there to pick up our gear.
That night we slept on the beach. Nobody talked about our close call, or the fact that we probably shouldn't have been where we were in the first place. We went back to work.
Two years later, the other crew tried to outrun a fast moving fire in Colorado. Almost half of them could not, and died there on the mountain.
Twenty-two years later, times have changed. On one assignment, my ignition specialist trainee burst into tears when our prescribed burn bumped the road, sending embers over our line. People ask for days off to go to weddings, family reunions, even Burning Man, something we would not have even thought to ask for back in the day. Fire assignments are 14 days instead of 21. There are showers, bottled water, and radio trailers on most incidents. The 36 and 24 hour shifts are mostly in the past. If people are forced to work that long on initial attack, they usually complain about it.
In training classes, we are encouraged to talk about our feelings. We are expected to counsel employees and try to understand why they aren't doing a good job, instead of just telling them to shape up. We have to be careful what we say, for fear of offending someone.
These aren't all bad changes. But sometimes it's been hard to get used to. As a firefighter, I had to hide the emotional, sensitive side of myself for so long that it's difficult, and uncomfortable, to let her out.
When I chose this life so many years ago, I became a part of a culture that weeded out the weak, the emotional, the needy. We, especially the women who had to prove they could work alongside the men, were encouraged to be strong, to stand alone, not to lean on others. Would I be a different person if I had chosen to be a nurse or a meteorologist?
Any thoughts? How has your career changed you? Are you encouraged to share your feelings? If you've been doing this job for awhile, has this changed over time? Is our society just more open now? Discuss!