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Monday, September 04, 2006

Firefigher Interview 3

Occupation: Professional Firefighter, Private

Monday May 31st at approximately 6:00 p.m.; Name and other identifying information confidential as stated below. For the purpose of this interview he will be referred to as firefighter (FF). This firefighter is in his mid-twenties and has been a firefighter for 7 years total. For the past four years he has owned a private wildfire fighting company…these are referred to as "engine contracts".

Perez: Formal opening statement as agreed.

P: Is the area you most commonly work urban, rural, or suburban?
FF: Rural, Wildfire firefighter. I fight wildfires. The only time we are near towns or suburbs is if a wildfire is threatening the area, otherwise I work in the forest area.

P: What is your job title?
FF: Engine Contractor for 4 years and FF for 7 total. I cover Region 6 which covers Washington and Oregon.

P: What is an engine contractor?
FF: I Provide engine and crews to the federal/state governments. The government doesn't want to keep a bunch of full time employees on payroll year round when there are no fires to fight. Basically here in the Washington/Oregon area we have a "fire season" when most of the fires occur. The rest of the year is much slower. To save money most government agencies like the BLM, USFS, NPS, WA DNR, ODF, and BIA (and basically any other letter combination you can think of [this was said in a joking manner]), contract with us when forest fires break out rather than keeping full time staff all year round.

P: You said you provide the engine and crews….?
FF: Yes, there must be three people per truck and at least two shifts per truck for a total of six persons for each truck. We provide our own engines, crew, trailers and tents, supplies,…you name it. It really depends on how big the fire is and how long it is supposed to last. Basically we get a call…it's almost always in the afternoon or in the evening…and depending on where it is we are packed and on site within 30 minutes to 24 hours if we have to go out of state. When we get there we set up base camp with the trailers and tents and all our gear and then get our logistics from the supervisor. Sometimes it may only take a few hours or sometimes it takes weeks. It depends on the fire and how many engines have been called out. We can be called in for cost, less expensive than what government can do.
P: So you work with the federal or state government employees?
FF: Yes ma'am, we practice alongside them and often know them personally. In wildfires you work with the same people a lot. The government agency, say the Bureau of Land Management will be in charge provides the logistics for all crews. If for some reason we disagree, I can call out my men at any time and there is a definite chain of command to follow. We can use our own discretion at any time. I'd get on the phone with his supervisor immediately if there was a problem because somebody like that wouldn't belong in the field anyway. But most of the time there is no problem at all like that.

P: Are private/contracted professional firefighters common?
FF: I don't remember the exact number of agencies but there's close to 300 in the Northwest. They're not very typical in say the south although we are working a lot closer with them since the last couple years fires.

P: What steps did you take to become a firefighter?
FF: First I attended the Oregon Institute of Technology and began working as a volunteer firefighter in summers to see if I really would like the profession. Then I took the S190 and the S290 as well as a lot of others including the NSWA training.
P: What is the NSWA?
FF: Oh, that's the National Wildlife Suppression Association. It is the governing body of private firefighter organizations. They're on the web (the Internet). I also took a lot of other government sponsored training but I can't remember all the names and numbers.

P: That's okay. Have you always worked in wildfires?
FF: No, after I volunteered I actually worked as a structural firefighter for awhile but it's way to competitive and I already knew I loved working the wildfires.

P: What do you mean to competitive?
FF: There might be one opening for a full time firefighter with hundreds of applicants applying from hundreds of miles away.

P: Many children say they want to be a firefighter when they grow up…What influenced your decision to become a professional firefighter?
FF: I had a lot of law enforcement background in the family plus two uncles, one on each side, that were firefighters. There are also a lot of military people in the family. I guess it just seemed natural growing up.
P: Now that you are in the career, how does it compare to the expectations you had of the job?
FF: Perfect. This job is perfect for me. I work for three to four months and then I'm off. I'm a family man and it gives me a lot more time to spend with my family. Not many firefighters can say that. I get to travel when I am working…I get to see some beautiful countryside. It's hard work during season but then my times my own. I usually work other jobs like construction or something during the rest of the year but so far I've been lucky because the job has proven very lucrative and I don’t really have to work the rest of the year. Still, I do so I can save for years when there may not be work and expand the business. It's either feast or famine in private contracting but at this point I plan on purchasing more equipment soon. I hope to add three more trucks with crews.

P: So you plan on staying a private contractor? Have you or would you consider working for a state or federal agency again?
FF: Not really. Not unless the right position opened and that would only be for the security. It would have to be some terrific position and the odds of that are low given the competition for jobs and the seniority required. I don't see me working for a regular agency especially structural fires. That doesn't interest me.

P: What aspects do you find most satisfying about your job?
FF: Putting fires out. That gives you a great deal of satisfaction. There is also a great deal of comradeship; you work with the same people and get to know them from one year to another. Sometimes it's like a family reunion. And also, it's lucrative. Private really is feast or famine….a real gamble…and I've been lucky.

P: What are the biggest drawbacks of your profession?
FF: The gamble. The government requires a lot of insurance on the truck, equipment, people, PIP,…there's at least 5-6 thousand dollars a year. We have to purchase enough insurance to cover what isn't covered by the government insurance. Then I have to advertise and hire a full crew…six people per truck…for the season. We have to be ready at a moments notice. Maintenance, travel, and upkeep…all that. Some years there may be few or no calls.

P: Where do you get your crew(s) from?
FF: I mostly get them from the local departments. There are a lot of part-timers who work with us. It's a bit of a conflict of interest but we don't get into all that. A lot of volunteers are actually firefighters waiting for a job so we use them too.

P: What credentials are required for the crew?
FF: They all have to have taken the same firefighter courses and be certified. Depending on the position more certification or courses have to be taken. It's the same as what's required by public firefighters. If they want to be engine boss they have to have been a firefighter for at least three years plus all the courses.

P: In what ways is your profession dangerous?
FF: Driving. The biggest hazard is driving to and from the fires. Most of the time we are in control of the fire and you know how to handle yourself but the driving is dangerous. We cover a lot of territory…all of Washington and Oregon…and sometimes the off road conditions are terrible. The terrain's can be very difficult and you never know what you're driving into. It's rarely the fires that are dangerous, it's the driving.

P: How would you like to see firefighting safety improved?
FF: There really needs to be more consistency between government agencies. Since I work with so many agencies we come under the jurisdiction or a lot of different regulations and some are much better than others. For example, in Washington State you can show up to fight a fire in a T-shirt and blue jeans if you want. They have no mandatory protective gear code, whereas the federal government requires head to toe protections. They require it all. You end up working with some agencies that are much better prepared. Plus not all private contractors will adopt something if it's not required so you might be working with others who are less prepared. Consistency between government standards would help.

P: What changes in technology have you seen in your job?
FF: A push for smaller engines and air-tankers. The smaller engines are a little faster and economical and of course the air tankers to drop water from above.

P: What changes would make your job easier?
FF: More equipment. Application foam equipment. Updated cab's…basically they are 40 year old cab…they are made the same way as they were in the 50's they're just more reliable. We really need some real improvement in safety and speed. Also, better use of computers in firefighting. I went to a trade show a few weeks back and you should see the technology that's out there. They were demonstrating the use of GIS, that global navigation software device. It's handheld and can map wildfires IN REAL TIME [he was very excited by this]. This wildfire mapping could really work in a wildfire situation because we'd be able to see from the ground in real time where the fire was moving…say, one in each strike team.

P: What is a 'strike team'?
FF: Oh, a strike team is a unit of five engines with crews that is sent out if a neighborhood or urban area is threatened or if the fire needs to be extinguished quickly. Even if there was only one GIS for each strike team that could really be an advantage.

P: I noticed you said you saw this at a trade show; is this how you stay current with new technology changes?
FF: Some of that but also I subscribe to the professional and trade magazines and do research on the web almost every night. That's something else that could really improve the job; better use of the web. I check the fire reports or weather patterns for about 10 minutes then log in and talk to others or see what's on the bulletin board or newsletters on-line. There is a lot of potential for communication which is really useful in wildfire fighting because we are at such a distance. Plus being private you need to keep up on what's happening even when you're not working. That's another thing that would make the job easier; better access to training. We take the same training as government firefighters and so most of it is during the middle of the week and may be a state away. Wildlife firefighting training is spread out all over the place. So you have to take time away from work and family to go to training, plus the cost and all. The government doesn't seem to care about sending workers off for a week or so at a time a few states away but it would help to have better access to training. But there are no government incentives for anything like this. That's another thing, some type of partnering with the government for the years when there are not fires or work. We have approached them and asked for some type of subsidy on years we don't work…helping with the controlled burnings or taking out trees…that type of thing, but right now there is still nothing. It's hard because you are dealing with so many different agencies. But that's good for us in the end because the government jobs are declining as they become more expensive. That balanced budget has really caused more agencies to hire private contractors so I expect to see a lot more switch to private jobs in the next few years.

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