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Monday, September 04, 2006

Firefighter - Interview 2

Occupation: Paid Firefighter

Saturday, June 5th, approximately 10 a.m.; Name and other identifying information confidential as stated below. For the purpose of this interview he will be referred to as FF. This firefighter is an (adorable) 52 years old male who has been working as a full time firefighter for 29 years with the State of Florida Division of Forestry. He looks much older than his age and speaks very slowly with a heavy southern draw. He pauses between words…and sentences…and chuckles fairly often.

P: Formal opening statement: Recording this interview is easier form me than trying to listen and take notes, but if at any time you would like me to turn off the tape, just let me know. Also, you don't have to answer any questions you don’t want to answer or that you are uncomfortable with. Do I have your permission to proceed?
FF: yes.

P: What is your job title?
FF: Senior Forest Ranger

P: Please explain in simple terms, what your job entails.
FF: Well, primarily [ he speaks very slowly and pauses between words] to detect fires and suppress. But we also do some land management and all the maintenance of the facilities but our primary duty is to detect and suppress. Typically, like yesterday, we had several lightening strikes so we have to take the equipment out, the tractors and all, to bulldoze lines around the fires. We clear a path to intersect the fire and use ground teams and air suppression. Forest fire control is the primary duty. We do most of our work close to subdivisions even though it is forest fires. Here in Florida there are people living in almost every area of the forest so we are usually fighting a fire adjacent to a subdivision. Once in awhile we are further. We do a lot of controlled burning as well. The controlled burning is important to the environment and to prevent serious forest fires. So, primarily, fire detection and suppression, protection and prevention, and controlled burn's.

P: What steps did you take to become a firefighter?
FF: [Chuckles] Back then, 29 years ago, you just had to show up. [Chuckles again….and keeps chuckling sporadically]. Wellllll [these are very drawn out 'wells'] come to think about it there was a two week training we had to attend but then the rest was on the job. That' really how most of it worked, on the job. They stressed on the job training back then. Now it's much more formal, especially for rookies. Not that there are many rookies. In the past 10-15 years we have had a very low turn-over in this station but that's not true of all of them. Some stations get a few rookies every year, some more than that. There's a lot more formal training required now but they still require a lot of on the job training too
[he says this as if the new requirements are 'okay' since the on the job is still required].

P: What type of schedule do you keep as a state firefighter?
FF: Generally this is a 5 day a week, 8 hour a day job. We stagger the days off so there is coverage on the weekends. But now, due to the current danger, we are working 7 days a week for 10 hours a day and staggering days off to once every 12-15 days.

P: I bet that's difficult.
FF: Well, my children are all grown and on their own, and after 29 years my wife is accustomed to it [chuckles], but the younger guys, well, it's much more demanding for them. Especially the ones who have young'ins at home.

P: What influenced your decision to become a professional firefighter?
FF: Wellll, I had a friend who was a firefighter and he got me into it. I had just gotten out of the Air Force and was looking for work, maybe something with a little excitement. This seemed to me like it would meet my aptitude, if you know what I mean. That's really what this job is about, aptitude. And it met mine fine, being outside, working with people, all that.

P: How has the career compared to your expectations?
FF: It's been a satisfying career. I'm looking forward to retiring but they take good care of you here. Like I said, it's all about aptitude, you either have an aptitude for it or you don't. Then you learn the rest as it goes. It fit my aptitude well and it's been satisfying.

P: What aspects do you find most satisfying?
FF: Welll, probably, well, hmm. [Silence while he thinks]. Well, probably, [chuckles] it's not the money that for sure! [Laughs] But as far as I'm concerned, firefighting and land management, its kind of an aptitude thing. You are out there accomplishing something. You can see the product of your work. It's satisfying.

P: What are the biggest drawbacks of your profession?
FF: Well, until recently it was probably the low starting salary although the benefits and compensation make up for it. It's gotten better in the past 4-5 years but it still could be better.

P: In what ways is your profession dangerous?
FF: Probably the most dangerous aspect is operating the heavy equipment in thick wooded areas. I'd say 2 out of 3 or even 3 out of 4 off all fire suppression problems are operating the heavy equipment. It's hard because of the smoke, the trees, it's thickly wooded anyway and then with a fire…well, it's just a problem. Like right now, we don't have enough of our own heavy equipment so we are using the contracts and the military…the national guard. Especially for the air control units.

P: So you work with the military and other units when there are larger fires?
FF: Correct. In the past year Florida has used a record number of contracts…not for individual firefighers much, mostly we use contracts for air units. It's a good thing we thought.

P: Do you use volunteers like many of the other agencies?
FF: no, we rarely use volunteers. Occasionally but very rarely.
P: How would you like to see firefighting safety improved?
FF: They've done this to some degree but the basic tool is the crawler tractor with dozer. Now, we need more environmentally controlled cans. If I were to say the one thing that would make the most difference it would be those controlled cans.

P: Can you explain what you mean by a 'controlled can".
FF: Well, it's the cab section. You see, on a tractor, we've mostly had to use the older ones but now days they have closed ones that are insulted and air conditioned and fire protected. It provides a great deal more safety, not just from the fire, but even more importantly from the dust and smoke and heat…all that. It reduces the operators fatigue level. It's the most promising safety equipment to come along in quite a while. Yep, I'd say that is the one thing that would make the most difference. Like I said, they've done some but we need a lot more of these environmentally sound can's.

P: What changes in technology have you seen in your job?
FF: [Chuckles]. Well, a lot in 29 years. Perhaps the biggest have been the use of helicopter suppression for the initial attack. Also the crawler tractors with the environmentally controlled cabs, and the fire behavior analysis and prediction has dramatically improved. Also, weather analysis has improved a lot. That’s important for us. Analysis and prediction has really improved.

P: What changes would make your job easier?
FF: Well, probably more detection systems and definitly more aire surveillance and suppression. We are still taking compass readings from fire towers but the man in the tower only see's the smoke. He can only give location readings. He can't tell from the tower the size or type or what type of fire it is. He can't even always see which direction until it's grown large enough.

P: How does that work at night?
FF: [Chuckles] Well, we don't keep a man there at night. That's another thing, we've done away with many of the towers…even for day…and not really increased air surveillance enough to make up for it. But now, the air surveillance units can detect a fire when it's really small. They can tell us the type of fire it's made of, the size, the speed it's traveling, and even what' it's made of. We need to know that, so when we get there we are prepared. Plus it's always easier to suppress a smaller fire. It's quicker. At one acre we can take a helicopter unit then follow up with ground crew very quickly…but at say 50 to 100 acres it's more dangerous, more costly, more time consuming. Air detection isn't deterred by visibility problems like tower surveillance. Visibility makes a big difference.

P: How do you stay current with new technological changes?
FF: Well, mostly seminars, school, we get vendors that put on demonstrations…and we do our own training too.

Wrap up: Time is up and wanted to keep it exactly as scheduled due to current fire schedule etc.


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