Saturday, November 29, 2014

In which we all go back to middle school

When you see video and interviews with firefighters on TV during the summer, we all seem so serious.  After all, it's a job where a mistake can have grave consequences.  It would lead one to assume that we are always taciturn and unsmiling.

Um, not really.  When the situation calls for it, we are focused and decisive.  But when times are slow and we need comic relief, sometimes you'd think we were all 12 years old.  That's when the pranksters come out.

Mike, from a Wyoming helitack crew, was a pro at the hiding gear game, mostly because he had such a poker face.  The victim would rush to the van, having learned that a helicopter he was responsible for marshaling was headed back to the base.  "Where's my hard hat?" he would eventually ask as he gathered up his required personal protective equipment.  "I'm pretty sure you left it out at pad 10," Mike would say, naming the helipad that was the farthest away.  The crewmember would sigh and hurry out there; as he grew smaller in the distance Mike would smirk and pull the missing hard hat out from under a pile of gear.  He was so good at this that his crewmembers fell for it, every time.

Putting something unexpected in someone's pack is always good for a laugh.  While rocks are common, usually only discovered at a rest stop by the unfortunate rookie who wonders why his pack seems so heavy, we often resort to something less mature.  I confess to hiding a rubber snake in Chris's flight helmet bag, which was mean, since he was known to scream and run at the sight of a real one.  However, his lack of response upon finding it was disappointing; I should have spent more money and bought a more realistic one. 

Someone enterprising discovered this truly horrible photo of David Hasselhoff:


He made a photocopy and put it in Tom's rappel bag with a note saying, "Have a good fire assignment. Love, the Hof".  Somewhat chagrined, Tom returned and reported that he had opened his pack and revealed the picture with some strangers standing around.  This photo became a staple in fire gear for awhile.  However, it eventually backfired on us when we forgot to take down a copy that was hanging on Teagen's locker; it was spied by an eagle eyed fire management officer during an inspection and deemed inappropriate.  That pretty much marked the demise of the Hof love notes.

Decorations are easy and provide much amusement.  A crewmember perusing a newspaper found an adoption ad for a small, hyperactive dog named Bert that had housetraining problems; this was immediately posted at  the human Bert's desk.  Karl filled in with us so long that he took down MB's nametag above her locker while she was on assignment, hid her stuff, and posted his name above not only her locker but also the empty ones she was known to colonize for her overflow gear.  Articles about bear attacks and ads for electronic bear fences were taped to Dan's locker, as he was a known bear attractant.  Guy hated Texas for some unspecified reason, so Texas-related items often showed up on his desk.  We found a blow-up training dummy at a fire station where we were camped; we dressed it in fire clothes and a flight helmet and installed it in the front seat of the helicopter for the pilot to find in the morning.  Later it took up residence in a hotshot vehicle after we found their keys.

Our job is difficult, at times monotonous and at times scary, so I appreciate when I walk by the crew room and hear them giggling about something like a For Sale sign they put on Wendy's car or about the time they called someone on the radio and said their parole officer was on the phone.  It's good to know they can still have fun.  Even if some days you'd swear we were all sixth grade boys.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

In praise of living alone

On every fire crew, there is usually that one person who you can't send to sit up on a high point for the day and watch out for the rest of us.  It's not that this person is incapable of recording weather observations and reporting back to the crew on the fire status and any hazards they might see.  No, it's because they can't be by themselves that long.

These are the same people who think I'm crazy for wanting to work in a fire lookout.  "I could never do that!" they say.  "I'd get bored.  Wouldn't you get lonely?"

Here's the thing, people.  Alone is not a synonym for lonely!

I lived with other people for years, including an ex-husband for 14 years (some of which was spent in a 400 square foot apartment).  I had several roommates.  Some were great and some not so great (the one who got involuntarily committed to a psych ward, the one who stole from me, the couple who fought incessantly, driving me to put my tent up in the campground for the summer).  Now I live with a couple of cats, and I think it's the best thing ever.  Here's why:

I do whatever I want.  Eat the same thing every night for a week? No  problem.  Never ever have to watch football again? Check.  I can get up or go to sleep when I want without disturbing anyone.  My cats can hang out on the counter, and nobody gets upset. I put my stuff where it makes sense to me.  If I want excitement, I can go out and look for it, or invite it over.  If I want to stay home and eat cookies, that's ok too.

The bathroom.  It's all mine.  Need I say more?

Finances? Not sharing them.  That means I can buy this without consulting anyone:


I can make my own plans (or not).  I can get up and decide to go on a hike, or to Antarctica.  Or just stay home.

I have to be more self-sufficient.  Those nursery trees aren't going to plant themselves!  On the other hand, I've learned who I can count on when I need help with my cats or have a big hole in my roof during a rainstorm.  Those people aren't obligated to help; they want to.

For those of you reading who are saying, but I live with my husband/wife/significant other/friend and I can do all those things (because I know some of you are!), that's great.  That hasn't been my experience.

What living alone really means to me is that finally I have peace.  I might not have another human in my space, but I'm rarely lonely, and if I am,  my people are out there.  I get to be with them, and then go home to my refuge.  It's the best of both worlds.





Tuesday, November 18, 2014

more gym thoughts

There is an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry talks about the gym.  He says:

To me, going to the health club, you see all these people and they're
working out, and they're training and they're getting in shape but the
strange thing is nobody is really getting in shape for anything. The only
reason that you're getting in shape is that so you can get through the
workout. So we're working out, so that we'll be in shape, for when we have
to do our exercise. This is the whole thing.


Sometimes I think about this when I go to the gym.  All of us, running and biking and stair climbing to nowhere, and lifting heavy stuff so we'll be able to go back and lift more heavy stuff. (Disclaimer: I know some gym goers actually are training for something like a race or competition.  But most of us aren't).
Rule #1: Cardio
Still, the gym is a necessary evil, even for wildland firefighters, because unless we live someplace like Florida, most of us work at a desk all winter (unless we are laid off due to lack of work).  In the summer we usually work hard enough not to need it (and aren't home to go there anyway).  So once winter comes you'll find us there among the other zombies, attacking a machine or dumbbells, all of us working out so we can go back and work out again. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

there's no crying in firefighting...or is there?

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!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Oh the irony, and other Denver weirdness


I approached my gate with relief.  I had been at the Denver airport so long that I had started and almost finished a whole book.  However, an agent was muttering something into a microphone about a delay.  It appeared that the inbound plane, the one I was supposed to then board and head for home, had struck a bird, causing enough damage that the aircraft had to be taken out of service.

Isn't it ironic?  Why yes Alanis, it is.  The reason I had been in Denver was to attend an aircraft accident investigation class.  We learned how weather conditions, mechanical problems, or pilot error could contribute to accidents.  (And yes, birds).

Other random strangeness:

The weather!  No wonder all you people live here.  Three hundred days of sunshine a year?! Does everyone know this?  Oh wait, I guess they do, judging by all the traffic.  I felt like I was driving in southern California!

Monks.  I saw two of them in two days.  What's up with all the monks?

Six other people in the hotel workout room before 5:30 am.  EVERY DAY.  Usually the hotel workout room is a deserted wasteland I have all to myself.

I had dinner with my long lost friend K who lives in Denver. I hadn't seen him in 27 years!  Not only did he tell me real war stories about the combat zones he has been in, but we also figured out that we had lived in the same town and worked on the same military base for a five year period.  We probably passed each other on the road many times!

The birds decided to calm down for the night and the new plane made it home safely.  Now I'm qualified to be an accident investigator trainee, if an aircraft working for my agency is involved in an incident.  Years ago, I was involved in a helicopter crash; you can read about it here.

I hope we have no accidents.  However, I know how lucky I am to have survived, and if I do get to investigate one,  I'll use the knowledge I gain to possibly prevent similar accidents.  This will be my way of paying it forward.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Don't do this at the gym!

The other day I was at the gym, minding my own business, finishing up an exercise with dumbbells when I felt eyeballs on my back.  I turned around to find an older, chubby, neon-shirted man staring at me.

"Can I give you a pointer?" he asked.  "No thanks, I'm okay," I said nicely. 

He laughed condescendingly and somewhat derisively.  "I just wanted to give you a pointer," he said defensively.

I REALLY HATE THIS, even more than Competitive Man (gets on the treadmill next to you, looks to see how fast you're going, and turns his up faster), or Lonely Man (thinks the gym is Match.com and asks you out while you're trying to run). 

I started lifting weights in 1991.  No other women lifted at the tiny gym I joined; they did aerobics, bouncing around wearing thong leotards and tights, much to the delight of the guys in the weight room.  A competitive bodybuilder took an interest and taught me the core exercises I still do today.

Since then I've belonged to many gyms and lifted weights with a lot of people.  I worked with an athletic trainer for a year when I was in physical therapy.  I know what I'm doing.  The exercises I do help me carry heavy stuff up hills and dig fireline all day.  I'm well aware that there are many different ways to do most exercises, even simple biceps curls or tricep kickbacks, depending on which part of the muscle you want to target.

Just because he thought HIS way was right, doesn't mean it's right for me, just like the way he was doing lunges (extending his knee beyond his toes and letting dumbbells nearly touch the floor) might be right for him, but wouldn't work for me.

Obviously, if you see someone about to drop a bar on their head at the gym, feel free to jump in.  If you really must butt in to someone else's workout routine, talk to a trainer (they are all over my gym), and have them intercede.  If you MUST.

This man was not a trainer.  He was not fit.  I didn't even get a nice, friendly vibe from him, just a superior, creepy one.  I doubt he would have said anything to a man who was lifting.

Why do some guys think this is okay?


MEOW.