Friday, December 19, 2014

The Jig

Woodworking jig
(Photo credit: Mike's Woodworking)

The Jig
by Jay C Stalnacker

I’ve been working with my hands my entire life. As a young boy, I learned how to tinker with cars, shape wood, weld and bend metal in my grandfather's workshop. I began to design and build furniture in my early teens and would eventually work through college and into early adulthood working for or owning my own cabinet and furniture shop.

I found building something with my hands by beginning with a thought in my head and ending with a functional or artistic purpose was very gratifying. It was and still is amazing to watch a piece of wood or block of metal transform into something beautiful and useful. Early I considered my skills more a necessity than anything as it paid many bills and enabled me to fight fire seasonally. Later I would humbly realize it as a gift.

I have built and designed just about everything you can imagine: cars, motorcycles, tables, chairs, sculptures and homes. Many times after I’ve completed a project, I would wake up in the middle of the night and walk out to the shop and just stare in wonder as I proudly admired the finished work. Even after the many hours of designing, molding, shaping, repairing and sanding, I still found it unbelievable that I had built this with my own hands. I think of all the furniture, sculptures and many other project and wonder if the client still has it or if it’s in one piece. I would tell a customer this is something for you now but will be a memory for your children later.

Of course there were many bad designs and mistakes. Many started projects that ended crushed with a hammer or placed on a shelf in the corner. I was either not happy with where it was headed or unsure how to finish it. I’ve never designed and built from blueprints; and when I had to, it was painful. I found the exact numbers and formulas only created restrictions and limitations. I believe more in creative freedom and artistic vision.

No matter the project, there was always an opportunity to make a template. My grandfather and many other great artists I’ve worked for and with would always say the template is the hardest to make. A template in this world is oftentimes referred to as a “jig.” The jig was always the most time consuming and difficult to make. It required and artist's eye and an engineer's calculations. As much as I hated blueprints, I cherished the time making a template. It was a way for me to take all of my lessons learned, tricks and ideas and make something sturdy that would be used time after time for a more efficient, safe and effective piece of the project. The jig was the key to one locked door; and as you worked through a design making jig after jig, you would eventually end up with a finished piece of art. Jigs were as simple as a piece of wood and two clamps or complicated as a engineered machine. In any case, the jig, once completed, allowed for precision and efficiency. It was a way to ensure every table had the same tapered legs or each door had the exact hinge location.

As I am now many lifetimes away from those long days in the workshop, I realize more than ever the connection between creating art and leadership. As a artist, you find it difficult to be creative with the constraints of blueprints and exact numbers. A good leader also struggles with the constraints of the textbook world of checklists and formulas for success. Leaders and artist are more successful with creative freedom. Judging each cut, chisel and stroke by the material we are dealing with. Just like wood requires different methods and tools than metal, we must look at each of our followers as different materials. We can shape and mold them; but recognizing the differences, will make the effort much easier and more lasting when done.

As artists and leaders, we make mistakes. There are many designs best left unfinished and many followers who will never make it as far as we hope. It’s the great leader who recognizes the follower's limitations and leads them towards a successful future. An artist and a leader understand both the value in creativity and also consistency. Just as the artist knows the value in a good jig,a great leader spends time building templates to make the effort easier as we develop followers of differing skills and abilities. They both understand that there is never just one way to make something; having a consistent template ensures the basics will not be missed and more time can be spent on the challenges.

This week step outside your blueprint. Begin to work with your children, spouse and followers with a artistic touch. Understand each is a different material; and although our “go-to” tools and templates will work sometimes, a creative vision will result in a completed project that you will be proud to look at as they move towards success.

Jay C Stalnacker

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Food for Thought - Optimism

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence. –Helen Keller
Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence. ~ Helen Keller
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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Followership is Leadership - 2015 Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge

Followership is Leadership Banner

The theme for the 2015 challenge is Followership to Leadership. The Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program recognizes "followership" as the first level of leadership. Leaders cannot lead without good followers. Good followers provide a foundation upon which better leaders of people, leaders of leaders, and leaders of organizations is built.


Provide an opportunity for personnel at the local level—whether collectively or through self-development—to focus leadership development activities relating to the national challenge theme: Followership is Leadership.

Purpose:ignite the spark for leadership button
  • To foster a cohesive effort to promote leadership development across disciplines.
  • To provide a template that can be used to encourage leadership development at the local unit level.
  • To provide a mechanism to collect innovative leadership development efforts and share across disciplines.
End State:

Creation of a culture that willingly shares innovative leadership development efforts in order to maintain superior interdisciplinary leadership.

Join the movement today by downloading your copy of the Followership to Leadership: Wildland Fire Leadership Reference Guide.

Answering the Call Without Risking Your Life Risk

Poster: Because duty can take our people into dangerous situations, fire leaders reciprocarte their loyalty by looking out for their safety and well-being in all circumstances.

Risk: The possibility that something unpleasant or dangerous might happen
By Tom L. Thompson, Retired U. S. Forest Service

Watching the memorial for the Granite Mountain Hotshots last week, all I could do was again wish it weren’t so. Another 19 firefighters lost almost exactly 19 years after the pain and sadness that was experienced in 1994 when 14 firefighters were lost at South Canyon in Colorado. My mind revisited past discussions about why this happened, what went wrong, and how this could have happened. Then that word, “risk” came to mind.

In his remarks at the Prescott memorial, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden acknowledged that we should be thankful for firefighters, their lives for their neighbors and those who are endangered. He said, “They were risking laying down their lives every single time they answered a call.” I paused and thought about those words. Is this really our expectation and the message that we want to intend?” I think not. I hope not!

From what I understand, representatives from every hotshot crew in the country were at the memorial and I hope those folks did not take the message back to their crews that they are expected to take risks and we are proud of them because they do. I know that Vice-President Biden was probably very the wildland firefighter, but I hope we have enough confidence in our ability to fight fire safely that we do not have the expectation or send the message to our fire crews that they will be “risking laying down their lives every single time they answer a call.”

But if we do not have that expectation, it is still difficult to not consider to what degree taking unnecessary risk played in the South Canyon (1994), 30 Mile (2001), Cramer (2003), and Yarnell (2013) fire fatalities, each of these incidents and certainly others that have occurred. We understand the different views of risk. One is to take risk and one is to avoid risk. In wildland firefighting, the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders, the 18 Watchout Situations, the policies, the procedures, the safety equipment, the extensive training, and our many years of experience and entire safety system are
there to eliminate risk.

Admittedly, there is always risk to some degree. Driving the car, riding in an airplane, hiking, golfing, biking, boating, cooking, sky diving and virtually everything we do throughout our lives potentially involves some risk. But we manage that risk by wearing our seatbelt, driving defensively, taking cover in bad weather, wearing a life jacket, using care with sharp knives, using safety gear and virtually hundreds upon hundreds things that we do every single day.

We learn not to take risks as kids and try to teach our children about the risk of burns, falls, lightning and crossing the street. In the Forest Service, virtually every fire training course’s main focus is either about reducing risk or focuses on it to a large degree.

We learn from those who are more experienced. We learn about fire weather. We learn how to properly use equipment. We learn how to work together with others and how fire incidents are managed safely. We learn about personal responsibility and fire leadership. I was never in a fire session or briefing where anyone ever taught me how to take risks. Everything I learned in my 37 years with the Forest Service was focused on not taking risks.

Going the other way, however, is what appears to be an ever increasing tendency today in our society to get excited about taking risk. The X Games, NASCAR racing, walking on a cable across the Grand
Canyon, riding bulls, running with the bulls, skiing down from the summit of the Grand Teton, skateboarding, chasing tornadoes and the list goes on and on.

In reviewing the accident investigation reports for most of the fire fatalities mentioned above, a pattern is fairly clear on common factors that increased risk significantly and likely ultimately played
a part in the cause of the fatalities. The following are cited over and over again:
  • Key policies and procedures were not followed, i.e. 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and 18 Watchout Situations;
  • Failure to recognize or react to changing conditions (situational awareness);
  • Changing conditions were principally caused by approaching weather in mid to late afternoon;
  • Safety zones were either non-existent or too far or too difficult to get to; and
  • Command and control of the incidents were compromised because of leadership issues or communication failure.
In short, unnecessary risks were taken by not following direction and failing to recognize what was happening.

Reflecting back 19 years, the issue of risk was not directly spoken to in the South Canyon Investigative report, but the can-do spirit was discussed and identified as significant causal factor. The can-do spirit issue was perhaps another way of saying that we can do it in spite of the risks. The
South Canyon Report described it in just a couple of sentences:

Page 28, Attitudes (significantly contributed):
  • The can-do attitude of the smokejumpers and hotshots compromised the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and the 18 Watchout Situations.
  • Despite the fact that they recognized that the situation was dangerous, the firefighters who had concerns about building the west flank questioned the jumper in charge but chose to continue construction.
On the day of the Yarnell Fire in fall 2013, fire officials received word at 3:26 p.m. that heavy winds from a thunderstorm were moving into the area. At 4:47 p.m., the Granite Mountain Hotshots were trapped and deploying shelters as a last resort. What happened in that hour exactly will likely never be known, but we do know that as conditions changed they were too late in responding and the safety zone was too far away.

We have had many discussions about taking risk and how we project the concept to our fire fighters, especially those who are new and perhaps less experienced. As leaders, words and actions are very important. It is important that we make it very clear that we do everything we possibly can to eliminate risk to firefighters and to the public. Again, we have long tested equipment, procedures, policies and standard orders.

We train our folks to know how to use equipment safely, and understand basic procedures, policies and orders. We insist that people understand the standard fire orders and watchout situations. All of these are designed to reduce and eliminate risk. We follow these procedures, understand specific fire orders and use protective equipment because they have proven to reduce our risk. We evacuate, we curtail air operations and we withdraw or pull back. We do these things because the situation changes and to be safe we respond.

In 2005, Kelly R. Close from the Poudre Fire Authority in Fort Collins, CO, spoke at the 8th Annual Wildland Fire Safety Summit in Missoula, MT. His words capture the essence of our challenge. He described the situation we find ourselves in all too often.
 “We often tend to define success as the accomplishment of some pre-determined objective.
“We contain and control the fire as expected, accomplish the objectives as set forth in the incident action plan, and as usual, as expected, no one gets hurt. But sometimes success can just as readily be defined by one’s persistence in expecting the unexpected, anticipating failure, updating this continuous process of maintaining mindfulness with new information and ultimately preventing a serious accident when things don’t go as expected (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001).

“On fires such as Cramer or South Canyon, the fire environment dictated the fire intensity and growth. Sometimes Mother Nature has the upper hand, and ‘success’ might be simply recognizing this and getting out of the way.”

It is of utmost importance to make certain that the folks on the ground know that they are not to take risks, that they do not feel they are expected to take risks and that they do not have license to take risks. The job they do carries with it inherent risk but if they follow procedures, use good judgment and stay alert, they will be safe.

We expect them to make sound, conservative decisions, adjust accordingly and certainly not choose the path that has signs indicating increased risk posted every place you look. I hope and pray that they will not have the idea that they will be risking laying down their lives every single time they answer a call.

This view may not be shared by some folks in the fire organization and perhaps oversimplifies the situation, but as a line officer in the Forest Service for most of my over 37 years, I believe we need to be very clear about what we expect. Answer the call without risking your life!

This article ran in  the National Wildfire Suppression Association's Fireline magazine, Winter 2014 and is reprinted with permission from Fireline and author Tom Thompson.

Tom L. Thompson retired in 2005 as Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service after a 37 year career that included assignments in Alaska, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, D.C.  He spent over 26 years of that time as a District Ranger, Forest Supervisor, Deputy Regional Forester, and Deputy Chief.  As Deputy Chief for the National Forest System he had overall responsibility for the all management programs on 151 National Forests and 22 National Grasslands.  For a number of years he was Chair of the agency’s fire Line Officers Team (LOT), a leadership presenter at Fire Management Leadership training in Marana, and a team leader on a number of national fire accident investigations and reviews. He also was co-team leader of the interagency Cerro Grande investigation in New Mexico in 2000. The views expressed are those of the author.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Food for Thought - Motivation

Leaders understand that people derive motivation from individual values and needs; others cannot force a person to be motivated any more than one person can force another to change. –Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 46
Leaders understand that people derive motivation from individual values and needs; others cannot force a person to be motivated any more than one person can force another to change. –Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 46
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Friday, December 12, 2014

Hangry AARs?

After action review
(Photo credit: Springs Fire - 2012; Kari Greer/USFS)
Hangry AARs?
by Travis Dotson

Richard Sinkovitz of the Arrowhead Hotshots brought this subject to my attention and inspired this piece; his original thoughts close it out.

When do we conduct AAR’s? After shift right? If it was a “good” shift, you know, slamming line, chasing spots, putting fire down and pushing 16 to turn the corner...everyone is tired. Everyone’s blood sugar is low. Then we circle up to talk.

Check this out. Research conducted at Ohio State University showed that lower levels of blood sugar were a reliable predictor of how angry and aggressive one would act towards their spouse.

“The study shows how one simple, often overlooked factor–hunger caused by low levels of blood glucose–may play a role in marital arguments, confrontations and possibly even some domestic violence,” said Brad Bushman, lead author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University.

Our fellow crewmembers may not be our “spouses” (although there is plenty of fireline romance leading to spousedom), but we do call these folks our brothers and sisters for a reason. We love to wax poetic about how much like family a crew becomes through shared hardship and plain old hours logged in close proximity. All I’m saying is I feel the comparison is applicable. In fact, I know plenty of spouses who would argue that their significant other is also married to fire and/or “the crew”; and during the season, that marriage gets way more attention than the actual spouse does!

“At the end of the 21 days, people who had generally lower levels of glucose were willing to blast their spouses with unpleasant noises at a higher volume and for a longer time than those who had higher glucose levels.” At the end of a long shift, roll, or season for that matter,the likelihood of insults and Gatorade bottles being hurled in the back of the buggy increases, right? We all know we get testy when were tired; but add hungry, and it’s a double whammy.

“People can relate to this idea that when they get hungry, they get cranky,” Bushman said.

We know this. We call it getting “Hangry.” (For those of you not down with the latest street jive, Hungry + Angry = Hangry.)

Under what conditions do we conduct AARs?


Sure, it’s not every shift we do AARs in hangry mode. Half the time the mopup shift was so boring, we started sport eating around 0900. We may not be as blood sugar-challenged for those particular end-of-shift, show-and-tell sessions; but there’s often not much action to review on those days. The shifts full of action are the ones packed with potential learning. These are shifts most likely to benefit future operations if we dig deep with the review and discussion…but we’re tired and hungry after those shifts.

“Even those who reported they had good relationships with their spouses were more likely to express anger if their blood glucose levels were lower.”

Of course not every bust-ass shift with lots of learning potential is going to result in harsh words and a crew brawl because there was nothing left in the proverbial gas tank. Often those shifts go very well, and there is not much resentment or hostility to kick start the anger. But every so often there is a shift or series of shifts rife with opposing views and high stakes – perfect ingredients for a juicy AAR. It’s in those instances, we might want to take this research into account.

“Bushman said that glucose is fuel for the brain. The self-control needed to deal with anger and aggressive impulses takes energy, and that energy is provided in part by glucose.”

“Even though the brain is only 2 percent of our body weight, it consumes about 20 percent of our calories. It is a very demanding organ when it comes to energy,” he said.

Pretty simple. We fuel ourselves for demanding physical labor; let’s also fuel ourselves for demanding conversations.

Remember this whole idea came from a Captain on Arrowhead Hotshots – he sums it up perfectly:
Hey Travis
I was thinking about all of the well-intended AARs that have either been less than effective or poorly timed for whatever reason. It reminded me of a study I was reading about how couples tend to fight more often, have more aggressive feelings, and lack self-control when their blood sugar is low. It got me to thinking about how much more attentive I would have been in general at many AARs in my career if someone had managed the minutes before the AAR a little better. I feel like this might be something worth mentioning somewhere. I know it might be impractical to have a case of candy bars on reserve for every AAR but we often know beforehand when we might be in for a contentious one. Maybe getting some sugar in people’s bellies a few minutes before we start might lead to some more meaningful discussion.

You now have the information. Use it. Lead with compassion. Feed your folks the fuel they need to be productive.

Thanks to regular blog contributor Travis Dotson, Analyst for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center and member of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee, for this blog. All expressions are those of the author.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Food for Thought - Duty

We serve our people, our communities, and our nation. – Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 25
We serve our people, our communities, and our nation. – Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, page 25
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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Gender and Wildfire

YouTube video description: "Dr Christine Eriksen from the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (AUSCCER) discusses her new book "Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty". The book examines bushfire awareness and preparedness amongst women, men, households, communities and agencies at the interface between city and beyond. It does so through an examination of two regions where bushfires are common and disastrous: southeast Australia and the west coast United States. Christine follows women's and men's stories of surviving, fighting, evacuating, living and working with bushfire to reveal the intimate inner workings of bushfire response -- and especially the culturally and historically distinct gender relations that underpin bushfire resilience."

 Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper
  • In a small group, discuss Dr. Eriksen's research. 
    • Do men and women handle risk differently?
    • Beyond asset defense, how does information transfer to  the fireline? Do male and female wildland firefighters approach risk management differently?
    • Discuss Ericksen's contention that people in the U.S. are "seen as a liability and want them out."
    • The feelings of competence and confidence are predominately personal in nature. What can be done to help team members build competency and confidence?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Food for Thought - Opportunity

We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations. – Charles Swindoll
We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations. – Charles Swindoll
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Friday, December 5, 2014

Why Leadership?

Mountain photo by Justin Vernon

Why Leadership?
by Justin Vernon

As the year winds and grinds to a close, and I take the time to reflect on what has happened in my life these past 12 months, I thought it would be a good idea to explain a bit why leadership is important to me. This won’t be a long post, and it won’t devolve into the typical ramblings about place, culture, and my latest musings.

To me, leadership is more than a job related responsibility – it’s also part of being a better person in my personal life, away from the job. The skills that are required for “leadership” in my workplace are quite often skills that go hand in hand with being a good human being in general. Things like evaluating arguments for validity while keeping an open mind are great to use away from work. Good communication and listening skills are good to have regardless of the situation. Working well with others just makes sense in our personal lives. Respect for others? Yup. Integrity? Of course that’s important away from the office. Being aware of your actions and their consequences? Indeed, it’s part of it as well.

Giving your best in all that you do. Knowing when to walk away or give in because it’s not your way or nothing… The art of compromise. Valuing relationships over things, even if they are imperfect. Taking the good and bad in stride. Striving for the best while recognizing that failure is a part of life… Treating failure as another chance to learn how to succeed. These are all components of leadership that are essential to success and happiness on and off the job.

In my attempts to become a better person, to better understand the how and why of who I am, I keep coming back to these nearly-universal concepts. Leadership skills are more than just something we do at work, or for work – they are life skills. It should be something that is a part of who we are no matter what the situation. I’m hoping that we all want to be better people, and the skills we use to be better leaders are transferable to our lives outside of our official “leadership” duties.

In my mind, it doesn’t matter if I’m a leader or not – I’m going to try and become a better person by practicing the skills I listed above, and more. It’s not easy, it takes time and commitment, but the benefits extend far beyond the workplace. I hope more people in wildland fire and aviation will understand that the qualities and skills that make a good leader also make us better humans, and that’s every bit as important as being a leader.

Until next time…

Justin Vernon is a regular guest contributor on our blog. Justin works for the United States Forest Service and is a member of Sparks for Professional Reading Program Change. Check out his Chasing Fire blog. All expressions are those of the author.