Here's a current hot topic.
A firestorm of a different sort erupted over the weekend when the Canadians asked for help from U.S. Forest Service Hotshot crews. Of course, the Canadians are our 51st state for all intents and purposes and so, of course, we will help them any way we can. It’s kind of like Israel; they call and we go and vice versa.
In this case, there is a problem. It turns out the Canadians have rules about who can enter their country and among those who can’t are anyone with a previous Driving While Intoxicated conviction. That’s a problem for most Hotshot crews.
Just like the Marine Corps, our firefighters are rough and tough, no shrinking violets. They are adventurous souls and not afraid of challenges. They learn the hard way and the lessons stick. Many fire crews have more than one crew member with a DWI conviction in the dim past. Canada has made it known that those crew members are not welcome.
Well, that’s a big problem for our organized crews. Unlike individual firefighters with no loyalty to a cohesive group of people who train, eat, sleep and work together, Hotshots build and maintain crew cohesion and crew integrity by being a team with a capital “T.” Nobody messes with crew cohesion and no crew leader would allow that to happen. The good of the whole crew comes before the good of any single crew member.
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Unless we’re taking about an assignment to Canada. It’s something that happens once in a lifetime, if at all, and it’s a big deal. Many Americans never get to travel outside the country. Fewer still get a chance to go somewhere as professionals and practice their trade with their counterparts. So, it’s exciting to go to Canada to fight fire. It’s rewarding, personally and professionally, and there’s money in it for our people and savings for the firefighting budget. Canada pays our regular wages and overtime and so on, and our local units don’t have to pay a dime: It’s a win-win.
One crew, for example, has six members out of 20 with distant DWIs, one when he was 17 years old and many years distant from the talented professional he is today. Another is a leader whose courage under fire, stamina, wonderful training ability, and value to overall crew safety is critical and tested, fire after fire. On this crew, two of the seven are squad bosses and three are senior firefighters.
Sure, we can find some fill-ins to bring the crew up to strength, but we can’t find anyone to replace the crew cohesion, crew integrity, and crew leadership that will be missing if that crew accepts the assignment without some of their best people. And we can’t repair the damage to crew morale.
One crew has simply decided not to accept Canadian assignments. It’s either all of them or none of them. For the Wyoming Hotshots, crew cohesion and the morale of every member is critically important to crew function. Other crews are sending pieces of their crews, leaving good people behind and filling in with people with untested qualifications, and who are unknown to the rest of the crew.
The Canadians have a process to waive the rule and allow our people to come as the integrated professionals they are. Forest Service leadership should sit down with the Canadians and require them to waive the DWI rule for Hotshot crews. There’s going to be a bad accident in Canada because our crews are being allowed to go there without full capabilities. Let’s get that fixed so we help with all hands.