Monday, February 25, 2013

Wildland Firefighter Training

Training for becoming a wildland firefighter is fairly simple as long as you learn quickly, enjoy the outdoors, and have the right boots.

I was first hired as an AD firefighter and sent to a Wildfire Academy, which is basically a giant annual training session. I took the courses for becoming a type 2 firefighter (FFT2) which included:

I-100 Introduction to ICS
ICS is Incident Command System and is the structure for how all wildland fire resources operate. This system is also used for other emergency situations or natural disasters, and it's important to understand before jumping into the firefighting role.
Me at Wildland Firefighter Training

S-130 Firefighter Training
This class is the basics of all the practical things that you do as a firefighter. This course teaches everything from using basic firefighting tools to deploying in a fire shelter. It involves a lot of classroom time, but also includes a live fire experience (or at least a field day, if the actual fire isn't an option). In the field portion, you use a compass, calculate distances, light a fusee, and scratch line.

I was fortunate enough to have a live fire experience. We spent the night out in the wild a few miles from town (something fairly easy to come by when you live in Richfield, UT), ate our meals out of buckets (known as hot cans), and then the class instructors set a hill on fire for us to put out. It was fun, and that showed me that I was in the right place, even though I was one of three females, weighed about 110 pounds, and looked really goofy in the fire clothes (but who doesn't look goofy in yellow and green??). Look how clean my yellow was! In the fire world you don't want to be clean because that's the biggest indicator that you're a newby. I made special efforts to get my boots as dusty as they are in that picture...and you could still tell they were brand new.

L-180 Human Factors in the Wildland Fire Service
This is where you learn all about LCES--something I'll definitely address later, which stands for Lookout, Communication, Escape Route, and Safety. It involves all the human factors of firefighting--fatigue, stress, misunderstandings, etc., and it's absolutely critical to being safe on the fire line.

S-190 Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior
This class is so fascinating and I could take it over and over again just to be more acquainted with what I'm facing in my job, but also just because it's awesome stuff. In this class you learn all about the different cloud shapes and what they mean, along with the general characteristics that wildfires exhibit under certain circumstances. For instance, fire will move faster uphill than on flatlands. Another great class is S-290 Intermediate Wildland Fire Behavior which has more about clouds and storms and how to calculate and perceive what fires might do.

These are all just the basic classes. In addition, you have to pass the work capacity test of hiking 3 miles with a 45lb pack in 45 minutes or less, and the training you need for that is practice with speed walking and hiking.

One of the things I absolutely LOVE about being a wildland firefighter is that I get paid to learn. During the 40 hours of my initial training I got paid something like $11/hr to learn about wildfire behavior, how to start fires, the best way to suppress fires, how to use a compass and maps. I love this job. And I love every opportunity I get for new training.

Fire Away!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Safety First

The first thing I learned about wildland firefighting is the number one rule.
I learned this as a camp crew member when there were crazy winds blowing over our supply unit tent in the fire camp.

Throughout the week, the Supply Unit Leader had reminded us Safety First, telling us to be careful and to always make sure we allowed for safety before anything else.

During the wind storm, a lot of the crew members were worried about holding down the tent and they latched onto the poles to keep the tent in place. No one in our crew was hurt that I know of, but afterwards the Supply Unit Leader held a sort of debriefing meant to chide us for worrying about the tent fly rather than our own safety.

He started out the debriefing with the question: "What is the first rule for a firefighter on the line?"
Everyone stood there with blank faces wondering why he asked that question. We weren't firefighters--how would we know?!

I remembered the phrase he'd said to us during the week so I spoke up and said, "Safety First."
He pulled out a twenty dollar bill and handed it to me as a reward for listening and remembering the most important rule. Everyone kind of hated me after that--because they thought I was kiss-ass and because they were jealous of the extra cash I managed to score. But I doubt anybody from that circle ever forgot the number one rule for firefighters on the line.

Firefighting is a dangerous job--but you already knew that. The way we protect ourselves on the job is by following the rule of safety first. Before we hike up a mountain, before we step into the black, and even before we get into the fire engine we have to make sure we've accounted for our safety. There are a number of ways to account for safety and I'll address each of them in future posts. For now, here's a general list:

-Preventative Maintenance (PM)
-Physical Training (PT)
-Personal Protective Equipement (PPE)
-After Action Review (AAR)
-6 Minutes for Safety

Overall, the important thing to remember before doing any job is to ask yourself and your co-workers, "Is this safe?" If it's not then re-evaluate, refuse the job, or do whatever needs to be done in order to make the job safe.

What do you think about wildfire safety?

Fire Away!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Starting from the Bottom: Camp Crew

A lot of people ask me how they can get into wildland firefighting.
I tell them the usual thing: apply online.
They ask me how I got into firefighting--how did I know about it? And what interested me about it?

Not many people start out the way I did. I started on the very lowest rung of the ladder in the wildfire world: camp crew.

I loved camp crew. It was a summer job where I could make lots of money (for a 16-year-old $2,000 was "lots" of money). But it wasn't just the money that appealed to me. Camp crew meant getting a call at any time of the day or night and being ready to leave two hours later to any place in the country. It also meant camping in a tent for up to 14 days at a time (and getting paid for it!). It was my dream job.

The work was simple. Wake up in the morning and click a little counting device for every person that walks through the breakfast line. Then help unload a truck of ice into the refrigerator trailer. Hand out lunches, cases of water and gatorade, and other snacks to the firefighters. During the day I'd go around camp picking up trash, emptying garbage cans, stocking coolers with ice/water/gatorade. Sometimes we'd get special projects like building A-frame signs, filling in gopher holes, or even answering telephones and sharing information. Sometimes our camp crew would be in charge of the supply unit, so we'd unload shipments, organize all the supplies, keep inventory, and replace damaged supplies that the firefighters brought in. Other times we'd stretch out the tangled hoses that firefighters brought in, then we'd roll them up nice and tight (that was one of my favorite jobs--even though I hated doing it later as a firefighter).

 It was while I was on camp crew that I got to see the dirty, ash-covered, worn-out firefighters. I talked to a few of them, overheard conversations at dinnertime, and watched them as they came into camp at night and left in the morning.

At first I thought the firefighters were cool, but I didn't think I wanted to be one. Then I saw her. The one lady in what seemed to be hundreds of men. She was covered in black ash from head to boots. Her hair was tied back in a messy ponytail and sticking out in places. And her teeth were so white. I know because she was smiling. I never forgot about her, and ultimately, she inspired me to become a wildland firefighter. Seeing her in the fire camp encouraged me, and proved to me that it was possible for women to fight fires. I don't know that I ever consciously thought that it was a man-only job, but I'd also never really thought it could be a job for women.

Not only did camp crew earn me some cash for college, it led me to the ultimate dream job as a wildland firefighter.

Comments? Questions?

Fire Away!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Wildfire Lady: An Introduction

This blog will follow my journey as a wildland firefighter covering everything from the basics of wildland firefighting to the unique experiences as a lady firefighter. At present, I have worked on camp crews, hand crews, an engine crew, and fire prevention crews. The upcoming 2013 summer will bring a new experience as I join a wildland firefighter hotshot crew. Expect to see flames on this blog as I share my adventures on the fireline. I welcome any comments or suggestions on this blog. If you like what you see here, post a comment. If there's something you want to know more about/see more of then post a comment. Thanks for reading. Fire out!