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!


  1. A really thought-provoking post! It really had me thinking!

    I always thought it was admirable that you're in a job that saves lives, especially one that requires you to potentially risk your own. It must have its toll - both physically and emotionally - you're right though about having to compete against men. I think it's something amazing that you do and not everyone could do it.

    When I was younger, I always wanted to be a corporate lawyer. Then when I studied, I realised, while I loved learning the law, I didn't believe in the admin and bureaucracy that came with practising it. In the end, I was influenced by my teachers to study human rights, which I love.

    My problem was when I was bullied at work (in human rights research ironically - we preached about saving others but in reality we were working in 'sweatshop-like conditions) and from there, I quit my job to study for a doctorate. It went downhill, as I realised nepotism is rife in academia and I was told I was 'too dumb' and subsequently failed it. It took me over 6 months to pick up the pieces; it made me jaded, cynical and very wary of people. Afterwards, I was diagnosed with depression, and I was told not to discuss my mental health (supposedly because it was 'taboo') and to 'grow a thicker skin' instead of feeling upset about these conditions. I don't think society is more open; I think perhaps, that it's just more blasé about these things - a kinda, "get on and shut up"-type attitude, which I don't think is helpful, as people end up suffering alone...

    1. Sorry to hear about your hard times at work. That sounds rough.

  2. I'm a civil engineer and have worked in my career for over 25 years. Like you, I worked around a lot of men, and sharing your feelings was perceived as a sign of weakness. Early in my career, I had a boss that was a bully, and me his favorite target. It was tough....I admit there were tears shed in the bathroom many times. But finally I came to the realization that I couldn't change him, but I could change the way I dealt with him. It was hard, but I developed a mind set and didn't let him get to me. I think he sensed my attitude and began to leave me alone. I learned a valuable lesson on how to get along with difficult people one that has helped me since then - because in your career, there are always going to be a few unpleasant people you have to work with.

    It does seem as though workplaces have become more cognizant of people's emotions. When I first started at my job, the office was very much a "good old boys club" and the management thought nothing of using fear and threats to keep people in line. Now we are all required to take "harassment training" and encouraged to report any acts of bullying and retaliation. Good changes, for sure, but things I wish would've been in place 25 years ago.

    1. It sounds like our workplaces were really similar.

  3. Tired to put in a long (and of course, thoughtful !) comment but blog won't take my posts the first time....very thought-provoking. Yes, as a women with no possibility of entry into outdoor and resource positions when I was looking for a career, I am a different person than I would have been....though who knows. We take ourselves along. But those positions would have put me in closer contact with the wild. The professions I chose were more institutional, though I think worth while. The more open environment in your...and similar professions... does create problems for supervisors in managing all those conflicting "needs" on a crew, but probably are more healthy emotionally for those who enter them now. For those women who entered firefighting and similar professions "way back when" it sounds like a difficult terrain to travel....personally as well as professionally.

  4. I used to be like that when I fought fire. It was hard when I stopped to start letting people in, especially asking for help. I'm positive I wouldn't be married now to the sweet person I have if I hadn't left fire.


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