Monday, February 18, 2019

More than a ditch digger

Several years ago, the main office needed to replace their carpet.  This meant that everyone's chairs, desks, and other cubicle paraphernalia had to be moved into other rooms so the old carpet could be ripped out.  Who got the task of doing this? The fire crew.

None of us worked in that building, and it felt strange as we carried other people's stuff around.  A couple of them helped, but most just watched us.  I saw some of them at the gym later lifting weights.

There is an enduring perception that because much of our job involves manual labor, that's what we should do all the time.  The offices all have janitorial contracts; we clean our bathrooms.  If our buildings need paint, we do it ourselves.  The fire crew maintains the grounds on the compound in summer and winter; the other folks never need to pick up a shovel or a weedwhacker.

People have told me that they think fire crews should do these things because they don't have anything else to do.  Those are the same people who think that firefighters sit around a lot and collect a lot of money.  In a way, they can't be blamed too much.  The media either shows footage of firefighters digging in the dirt or sleeping after a long shift.  And it is true that given the choice of mowing the lawn or writing a prescribed fire aerial ignition plan, most crewmembers will leap for the riding mower.  But it's not the whole story.

The media, or the guy who drove by while we were waiting in a meadow for the helicopter to return from dropping water on a fire and yelled, "There's my tax dollars at work," don't get invited to planning meetings where firefighters make critical decisions on how to stop a raging wildfire.  They don't see us evaluating bids on a multi million dollar helicopter contract.  They aren't there when a hotshot superintendent or crew boss leads 20 people into an intense firefight, constantly evaluating the danger and keeping his or her crew safe.

This is the stereotype of a wildland firefighter: the strong, often hard-drinking "knuckle dragger," good for putting in miles of fireline but confused by computer programs.  You might be excused for believing this is a true characterization; after all, the first line in one of my position description once was "moves dirt."  But don't be fooled.

Not only do you have to be able to predict what a fire is going to do and make split second decisions, but you must also know your way around federal regulations, policy, and databases.  Poor spellers are looked down on, and pity the fool who hits "reply all" on an email by mistake.  You have to be able to write professional proposals and burn plans that would stand up in court, and administer contracts.  You have to teach new people how to interpret weather and fire behavior, and keep them out of helicopter tail rotors.  You have to learn to navigate the endless paper trail that is now necessary to do your job.

Sometimes it's exhausting to walk the line between a manual labor job and an office position.  One is physically tiring and the other mentally.  In a way though, it's the best of both worlds.  When the constant HR paperwork gets to me, I can go outside and weed the helitack garden.  When it's raining, I can complete the mandatory training of doom on the computer. No two days are ever the same.

Since I know my readers have all types of jobs, leave a comment: what is a common stereotype associated with your profession? How is it right and how is it wrong?



 

10 comments:

  1. And what you failed to say about your job...you are running straight toward a fire when everyone else is running away!

    When I worked as a bank teller people assumed I had lots of money...since I worked with it all day. Nope...low paying job....I handled money all day, but it wasn’t mine!!!

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    1. That's funny! Maybe they thought you could easily steal it!

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  2. That editors and proofreaders are prim and prissy people ("Grammar Nazis") who don't live in the real world and who don't know how "real people" speak.

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  3. I used to work for campus police, and we directed traffic for football games. What a lot of people saw before games was a lot of officers standing around on the side of the road, and there were always the idiots who yelled stuff out of car windows at us about being lazy and doing nothing. What they didn't see was all the planning ahead of time, figuring out traffic patterns, how to redirect, assigning people, making sure every intersection was covered. Or later, when the game was over, and we stood in the dark with traffic going both ways around us, nothing but a flare to light us up and keep us from getting hit, or everyone heading to the hospital even later because it wasn't enough, and someone almost always got hit or hurt. It's amazing what people pretend to know about a profession based on seeing exactly 3 seconds of it!

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    1. I know! People think that all the time when they see us sitting. In truth, a lazy firefighter would have been run off a long time ago.

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  4. That because I get to work at home, I have time to do laundry, make dinner, and clean the house, or that non-working friends can stop by at any time to chat.

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  5. That all engineers are nerds. Wait a minute, that's pretty much true. :)

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    1. I guess there's a little bit of truth in every stereotype!

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