Breaking the mold

Working in wildand fire can be difficult at times, and not for the reasons one would think. I recently read the Summer edition of Two More Chains, a product of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, and I had a few thoughts on the subject of our culture as firefighters, and how it can have a darker side to it, in the shape of the heavy drinking, partying, functioning-alcoholic aspect of the culture that’s widely accepted.

Ever since I started in fire I’ve been a bit of an outsider because I’m not much of a drinker, or partier. I seem to have a physiological makeup that isn’t very conducive to being a heavy drinker – after a beer or two I get very sleepy, and I really don’t experience that “buzz” that many people do. So for me, drinking is something I do in moderation not because of any moral or religious reason, but because it just doesn’t affect me the way it does most people. I have two or three beers and all I want to do is go to bed. It’s great for relaxation after a long day, but terrible for socializing. I do enjoy a beer with friends, but I very rarely have more than a few drinks, and never drink to excess. That puts me at odds with a large unspoken component of the fire culture, which is the party hard, work hard mentality. I’ve nothing against it per se, but all too frequently there is enormous peer pressure to join in and get smashed every night, and the ramifications of that behavior often bleed over to the work environment. We’ve all seen it… the crewmembers that come in to work hung over and spend the morning sleeping it off, or worse, and we’ve all seen it accepted by our leadership.

To me that’s not acceptable behavior, but it’s frequently the modus operandi of many fire crews. Being a functioning alcoholic is often a badge of honor, a status symbol of sorts, and sadly, not being “one of the guys” can have negative impacts on crew cohesion.

To me, the issue is multi-faceted. It’s not just the inter-crew cohesion issue, it also extends into our professional lives, and our personal relationships outside of fire. To me, fostering this culture of acceptance of alcoholism is a mistake of gargantuan proportions. All too often I’ve seen others look the other way as FMO’s, AFMO’s, Station Managers and Engine Captains get DUIs, be suspended from work, and then come back as if nothing happened. It’s not professional, it sets a terrible example for our young leaders, and it perpetuates the image of wildland fire as a less than professional field.

It also impacts our personal lives… how many of us over the years have been less than perfect fathers, husbands, mothers, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends, because of this culture of irresponsible behavior? How many relationships have you seen fall apart from a combination of crazy work schedule and alcoholism?

It’s not all bad, don’t get me wrong. I think there’s great value in having after work BS sessions over a beer or two. Organizational barriers are lowered, and lots of discussions that just couldn’t happen at work take place around a bonfire. There are bonding moments that happen when a crew gets together after work and socializes.

So here’s my take on it. Just like anything else, drink and party in moderation. Think about the professional image you want to project as a firefighter, and think about the impacts it may have on your personal life. Take care to not shun or ostracize those who don’t drink as much, or leave early at crew parties. As leaders, and followers, think of ways to set the tone without being harsh. Try to change the culture one action at a time. Be understanding when your fellows head out to blow off steam, but know that you don’t have to participate to the degree that others do. Know that just because “everyone else” is getting hammered, you don’t need to.

As for me, I’ll keep having a drink or two with the folks when I feel like it, and I’ll be fine heading home early when I’ve had enough. I’m too old to be out living the night life every day, and I’m fine with that. I’ll keep feeling the pressure to go out with the guys, but it’s no big deal to say no.

Until next time…

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About Justin Vernon

Fire and Aviation Specialist (aka jack of all trades) for the US Forest Service, based in Boise, Idaho. I'm also an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest. All opinions voiced are mine alone and do not represent those of the US Forest Service.
This entry was posted in Introvert, Leadership, Personal, Wildland Fire. Bookmark the permalink.

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