Incorporating Psychological Safety into our Culture

I am a Hotshot. To the many Fire Service members, that title means something; sometimes good, sometimes bad. To me, it means that I have signed up to have a little bit extra asked of me and to say yes gladly – to stay on the line later, go out further, hike the heavier pack up the steeper hill.

It’s a title that, for many who are familiar with it, draws a dynamic image. An image that may be attractive to some and unfavorable/undesirable to others and that curiosity selects individuals who prefer to error on the side of risk, uncertainty, and service to others.

For myself and so many before me, it was the understanding of the elevated responsibilities that intrigued us.

We wanted to be wildland firefighters who looked more like loggers and Pinchot’s original Forest Rangers than the folks in red trucks down the street at the local fire department.

You learn quickly that the title and the image don’t mean much. What matters and has kept me coming back is the identity. No matter where my career takes me in title and task, my experience on a Hotshot crew will be a part of my identity forever. It will influence my behaviors, decisions, and demeanor for years to come. My hope is that influence will be a positive one. 

For all the glimpses you see of them, all the stories you hear of them, Hotshots spend countless hours far away from home, with only their crewmates for company.

In these hours, they are a group of people pushing themselves far past what they ever thought they were capable of physically, mentally, and emotionally within a furnace of non-ideal circumstances.

Starting the first shift of an assignment in a situation like that is attributed to their job title and image. Finishing the last shift in a situation like that is when it becomes about your identity, who you really are, even when no one is watching. If you work under the environments hotshots often do for long enough, your job title can’t help but be a part of you. Personally, earning that part of my character has been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I believe this to be the case for many others, and it is why those of us with that identity feel a strong bond with each other.

It’s impossible to fully articulate everything this identity entails, but you don’t have to spend very long in the fire service to hear about the wildfire-fighting efforts of Hotshots. There are plenty of other types of stories, though, of all the good and bad things a stereotypical Hotshot might do. People talk about us when we work hard, when we drink too much, when we stay on the line all night and work so others can go back to camp and rest, when we take all the chocolate milk and hot sauce at fire camp.

My least favorite story is that one most of the public is all too familiar with.

When we die.

The reality of death is something everyone in the fire service faces and accepts, an unfortunate consequence of working in close proximity to hazardous conditions. Hotshots might take on a little extra of that risk. We do our best to mitigate it with extra qualification and training but shrinking that risk to zero or even to an acceptable level to most others in the fire service is impossible. Because of that, the death stories are many. Because of that shared identity, those stories weigh heavy on our hearts.

I am proud and grateful to have started my career after a major shift in safety culture within the fire service that significantly reduced our physical risk. Since I began my career, it has become abundantly clear that physical harm due to operating on a fire line is not the only source of risk we face. What worries me more is the wildland firefighter deaths resulting from risks that this job poses to mental, emotional, and behavioral health.

Record-setting fire seasons and the enhanced physical risk they pose don’t scare me. The next time I hear a story of another Hotshot killed in the line of duty, I will go back to work with a heavy heart but no fear.

What does scare me? Firefighter suicide. Firefighter divorce. Firefighter addiction. This concern stems from the idea that non-line-of-duty consequences are often related to our career choices to be wildland firefighters.

A growing body of evidence shows the stress of our daily duties can easily influence our behaviors when at home.

It is for this reason that I am writing today. I believe it is our obligation as a community to come together and respond to these mental, emotional, and behavioral consequences like we did to the physical consequences of lacking operational safety decades ago. We can pat ourselves on the back for those accomplishments, but now it’s time to get back to work and address our psychological safety. I have been told that the fire service has a higher-than-average number of introverts. This is probably true, and I know that figuring out how other people think, and feel can be a challenge to introverted individuals. This might make the realm of psychology seem intimidating, especially to those of us whose expertise on the inner workings of a chainsaw is far superior to that of a human brain. That being said, I think you will find, as have I, that this topic comes very naturally to those of us in the fire service.

That shared identity is the groundwork for trust, which is the foundation of psychological safety.

The trust I have earned and given with my crewmates has resulted in countless conversations about difficult subjects. We didn’t have to do anything extra; there were no agency-mandated trainings, no forest meetings. We just worked hard together, fostered trust, psychological safety increased, and tough conversations happened. These tough conversations on the fire line mitigated impending consequences at home. That is the “why” behind the pursuit of increased psychological safety as a desired end state throughout the fire service. The national fire environment is demanding that we innovate and adapt quickly. This is going to require hard discussions. For those to happen, we all must feel safe having these critical conversations with fellow fire enthusiasts and experts both up and down the chain of command. To achieve the end state we need and deserve, psychological safety must be taken seriously, and trust must be built. The incredible growth I have witnessed among my own crew might be reflected in the whole fire service when that occurs. What makes me so sure? Because I’ve seen it play out within a group of Hotshots, and none of them had any kind of external motivation. They just wanted to be better at their jobs and take care of each other both on and off the line, so they worked to improve their team.

In the coming months and years, you will likely see more focus on this subject. I hope it inspires you to innovate and pursue a healthier work environment for yourself, peers, supervisors, and employees. Through innovation and adaptation, we have addressed safety concerns before and made great strides in changing our operational culture for the better. Now the fire environment is asking more of our people and their loved ones; we owe it to them to respond with effort and develop tools that allow us to respond in the new era of fire with resilience and strength at work and at home. My challenge to you, the readers of this issue, is to take an honest look at the psychological safety culture of the fire service and think seriously about how you might innovate, adapt, and improve within your sphere of influence.

Let’s work hard together, build trust, and give ourselves and our loved ones the freedom from avoidable adverse behavioral, emotional, and mental health outcomes. Let’s love our job again and not feel guilty about it.