Safety is first priority
Published: Thursday, August 9th, 2012
Firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service spend anywhere from hundreds to thousands of hours suppressing and controlling wildfires in national parks, forests and public lands. Whether it be working on hand crews or jumping into fires as a smoke jumper, Forest Service firefighters — and firefighters in general — risk their lives in difficult conditions to save natural resources and homes.
“The reason we’re so successful as an organization is because of the hardworking crews,” said Gwen Lipp, fire management officer (FMO) for the Southern Hill portion of the Black Hills National Forest. “They go into fires without blinking. There are not a lot of people who can go into a fire like the ones we’ve had this summer and have composure to do what they need to do. It’s their professionalism, knowledge and abilities to respond to a fire that make them so successful.”
The fire world is a dangerous place to make a career. Not only do firefighters risk their lives in a toxic environment where hazardous materials like carbon monoxide, benzene, hydrogen chloride and hydrogen cyanide affect their bodies, causing respiratory problems, but theyhave a higher risk of developing cancer. According to a Harvard University study, they are also 300 times more likely to suffer from a heart attack than any other profession.
While conditions are rough and dangerous for firefighters, safety is the Forest Service’s number one priority. Preparation for fire season is non-stop.
“Training and preparation starts months in advance with fire training and physical training,” Lipp said. “We never know when a fire is going to happen or what the cause of it may be so we always need to be prepared.”
Firefighters go through an extensive physical fitness program year-round in order to prepare them psychically and mentally for fire season.
“They need to be prepared in both areas so they can stand up and meet the challenge ahead,” Lipp said.
Once fire season in the Black Hills starts, the work really begins. Firefighters and management teams stagger days off so there is always a crew available. While crews normally work 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., hours during fire season can run from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. or later.
“When conditions are higher for fires we extend our hours,” Lipp said. “We need to keep people available to help.”
Every day begins the same for firefighters with a morning briefing, where firefighters, FMO and assistant fire management officers (AFMO) go over weather conditions, both nationally and locally, discuss ongoing fires or previous night’s storms, figure out staffing for the day and talk about what the day may bring.
“We do all of this to get an idea of what is going on not only in our area, but also the state and nation,” Lipp said. “This gives us an idea of what resources are available.”
Lipp oversees a staff of nearly 65 people, seasonal and permanent, in the Hell Canyon District and Newcastle, Wyo., who call in for daily briefings. Lipp keeps track of her employees with maps and a large whiteboard.
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