"So what's a shrink looking at a fire job for? Are you doing a study on us or something?"
Transitioning from a female dominated profession (social work) to a male dominated profession (fire) is absolutely indescribable. In social work, you are trained to "meet people where they are". I successfully worked with various demographics and disadvantaged populations. The foundation of social work is empathy and respect. Working in fire I was surrounded by people saying "respect is not given. It's earned". This is the best I can do to illustrate the cultural shift of my workplace.
I was not prepared for my first season. How can you prepare for something you have never done? I thought I was prepared, but I was sorely mistaken. I did not excel; I survived the first season. I decided this job was way cooler than social work, and it paid better. I knew after the first season I was ready to accept the challenge and dedicate my life to fire. I am not an adrenaline junky. I am not mechanically inclined. I am technologically challenged. I had never changed a flat tire. I am not a badass. I literally love my job because of the people. Eclectic weirdos.
You have to be a little bit nuts to do the job. And I was all in.
Those first couple seasons were rad. When I got laid off, though.... Not so rad. I thought something was wrong with me. I thought I was the only one struggling with the transition. I tried to distract myself. Man did I party when I got the freedom of lay off.... Turns out, that shit didn't help either. After sticking around, I started hearing more and more stories about wildland firefighters dying by suicide. I've witnessed my coworkers learning of their best friends (wildland firefighters) dying by suicide. I've talked to old timer retirees who have expressed intense concern about the increase in suicide they have witnessed throughout their careers. I've watched the destructive exponential affects. And ya know what? Most of us who have been out here for a while have. It's heavier than my fucking line gear, I can tell you that much.
After a well known employee died by suicide in 2017, a jump base manager did something monumental. He sent out an email reporting the death as a suicide and proclaiming its time to break the silence. A regional office employee caught wind I was a social worker in my past life. I was asked to head a suicide prevention project for a regional office. I was told I'd be making some posters and doing some outreach. Seemed easy enough and it provided some winter work, so I accepted and entered the Regional Office (political) realm of the agency. My first day there, I got asked not to wear my Carhartt's and Birkenstocks I had showed up in. I knew I was in for a rude awakening.
I started digging and researching. I quickly realized this is far more than posters. I realized "posters" was a quick political answer to show the agency is doing something. Checking a box that we are doing something. And I let them know it. I was very vocal about my concerns and at times offensive with the language I used. I became so upset the more I learned. This problem is very deep rooted. And you know what? I learned I'm not crazy or weak. I am affected by the intense requirements and traumatic experiences I've had while doing a job I've committed to doing for years.... A job that I love. And I wasn't alone in the struggle.
Somehow, I was asked to come back the following year. I began leading a suicide prevention project. I was going big picture. I have sat through quick HR required suicide prevention trainings in past employment. I had to figure out something different... and I linked up with this gal on a shot crew who had also been a social worker in her past life. We met on a prepo in everyone's favorite staging area, Winnemucca, Nevada. When we got laid off that season, we traveled all over the country putting on a pretty progressive suicide prevention class. We talked with hundreds of people. The powerful part was when people approached us afterwards to... well, often times break down. This training was evidence based, and specifically tailored for the workplace. It was effective. It allowed people a space and about three hours to talk about something that is a social problem. It wasn't just talking at them. It was talking with them. One of the biggest milestones yet, was presenting at the 2020 Hot Shot Superintendent Conference in Phoenix. I hate public speaking- and these presentations are largely just facilitated conversation and very interactive. It was my biggest accomplishment because hot shot sups..... well, you know. It was intimidating to be in front of a hundred of them and a bunch of W.O. employees. I figured the participation would be limited. To my surprise, hands were going up when I proposed questions, folks were eager to participate- discussing aspects of our job that might increase risk factors. Let me be clear, there is a big difference between explaining behavior and justifying or blaming behavior. I have talked with a lot of people who seem to think this is an inappropriate topic at work. I have heard of decision makers proclaiming wildland firefighters aren't ready to talk about mental health at work. But we aren't just at work. We dedicate every aspect of our lives at least 6 months out of the year to do this job. Those people who followed me out to the parking lot... those people who shared some pretty powerful stories.... That's us. We are ready to talk about mental health.
Without us, the job will not get done. Invest in us. Invest in our mental health.
I have been studying social justice and social policy extensively in grad school. I can tell you, wildland firefighter suicide is a social justice issue. How many people is it going to take? I have done all of this work as a GS6 squad boss. Because I care. I am really tired of my friends offing themselves. A wildland firefighter is more likely to die by suicide than anything on the line... so they say. Unfortunately, policy makers and legislators need evidence. Many challenges exist in quantifying suicide as a problem in the wildland fire community (i.e. reporting is not required, life insurance motives, etc.). For things to change we need to PROVE it's a problem. This shit is complicated. I am not claiming to have all the answers. One of my mentors sums it up brilliantly "I am not claiming to have all the answers...but I certainly have some questions"....
The federal government employs "public servants" to keep the public safe right? That very government is obligated to work to keep its employees safe. Some employees are trying. They are taking on the fight, and I am inspired by so many of them. But they're tired. This season has kicked us in the face. I hope by the time I am done with school we have individuals with an expertise in comprehensive suicide prevention plan development and implementation calling the shots on what training we need and evaluating the efficacy of it, which involves our feedback. Also, I sure hope we, on the ground, get the products being developed. I hope our leadership's goal isn't checking a box. I hope we aren't questioning the cost, considering the amount of money I've seen spent on shitters at a fire camp in a single incident, or a sack lunch full of cliff bars and fruit snacks...
Some will say, "yea, well we have EAP". Ya know why people don't use EAP? Ask them. It's commonly a joke. One time I called EAP a while after one of my crew members had to be flown out for a terrifying medical incident. The clinician I talked to told me I should "do something special" for myself every day". I said, "like what? I have to go on another fire assignment..." she said "put your favorite candy bar in your pocket and eat it at the same time every day.... Boy was that helpful. EAP is a short-term care model. And I think some struggles accumulated when things go wrong out there are long term. We do not get specialty mental health services covered by EAP. The remote locations we call home subject us to the realities of rural mental health disparities. Fact. There are ways to fix it! I have sat around and complained about this stuff since I started the suicide prevention project. And I am sick of it. I know we need something different. And I am trying to be a part of the change and start looking at other ways to go about handling my gut-wrenching concern. I've been in the game long enough to realize the only way shit changes is when people have the balls to step up and speak up. Pretty rad we got a raise. Thanks to the folks who spoke up to the big dogs. Action speaks louder than words.
I have created some turmoil. People have called me out for being too aggressive. Too passionate. Too "unprofessional".
I am trying to disrupt the system on behalf of my brothers and sisters on the line. Change requires disruption. There is a problem. And the reality is, a squad boss with a bachelor's in social work doesn't carry enough credentials to be heard by the top dogs. And I am going for the top. I want to devote the rest of my working life to advocating for wildland firefighters. I want to become a clinician that gets it. I got in a bad ski wreck this winter and injured myself in a really bad way. Back injuries are no joke...
But I have other work to do. Y'all know how hard you work on the line. I have that drive in me... deep in my veins. And I am applying that to grad school. I am getting my master's in social work with an emphasis in trauma/disaster response. I'm ready to finish what I started with mental health advocacy and suicide prevention.
Thank you for your time. And the baller packs. Be well.