Years ago, I was speaking at a national wildland fire conference. My topic dealt with how we prioritize incidents at a regional level in order to appropriately allocate limited resources. When resources are in short supply, someone has to decide which fire gets the few available engines, crews and helicopters. And that was the topic of my discussion that day.
After my presentation and discussion there were a few folks waiting to talk to me. A state forester from a particular western state didn’t like what I had to say. So I had to smile and nod while I listened to his complaints about there not being enough resources for “his” fires. Others waited around because they wanted to ask specific questions about the details of decision making at a Geographic Area Coordinating Center.
One of the men waiting for me had something really important to talk about, and he opted to wait until all the others had finished their questions or comments. When it was finally his turn, he excitedly told me about a time we had both worked together on a large southern California mega-fire. But I didn’t remember him.
“What, don’t you remember me? I was on your Division on the Pine Fire.” (not the real fire name) He reminded me of how he had been on the fireline for days as they lost thousands of homes and over a dozen lives before our IMT finally showed up to take over the incident. I was the DIV Sup assigned to the area he had been working non-stop for days. He recounted how I eventually took him to our team Training Officer and got him signed up as a trainee. Apparently that training assignment led to his future redcard qualifications and eventual promotions. It was a very big deal to him. He attributed that fire and his training opportunity as a significant event in his career. Yet, I didn’t even remember it. But he did because he had been watching.
Later that evening as I walked around the vendor booths while chatting with some work acquaintances and sipping on a beer, I noticed a chief officer from a southern California department looking at me. He was a tall man with a shaved bald head and a sizable mustache. You know the look. He seemed like a tough character and looked intimidating to me. After a few minutes of him staring at me, I wasn’t sure if he either wanted to talk to me or fight. I was hoping for the first. Finally, I stopped avoiding his gaze and made eye contact with him. He walked over to me and in a gruff voice asked, “You were on the French Fire, weren’t you?” (not the real fire name). I remembered that fire. It had taken place twelve years before and held many significant events for me. But I wasn’t too quick to answer his question. I was being cautious. I still wasn’t sure if he was a threat.
“The French Fire… yea I think I was there.” His demeaner immediately changed. He started talking about an incident that had occurred on the fire while working for me.
“You were my Division Sup” he said. “I was a Strike Team Leader working for you and one day you assigned another strike team of engines a task that they didn’t want to do. You wanted them to get off their engines and hike up a ways to pick up some hot spots near the line but away from the road. Their Strike Team Leader said they couldn’t do it. They didn’t want to leave their engines.”
I vaguely remembered the incident he was telling me about, but not many of the details. He then described how he watched me to see how I would handle the Strike Team Leader from a municipal department refusing an assignment. Not refusing it for safety reasons but refusing it because they “didn’t want to get off their engines.” My new, large, bald friend with the big mustache had been watching me to see how I would handle the situation all those years ago.
I handled it like I always handled similar situations. I called the ICP and had them demobed because they were unable or unwilling to do their job. Pretty simple really. But to my new friend, it made an impact. Twelve years later he remembered watching a female federal Division Supervisor demob a whole strike team of municipal engines for being unwilling to get off their engines, hike up a hill and put out a hotspot. I only had a vague recollection but he had been watching.
Fast forward to a couple years ago, I was enjoying the sunshine and a beer at a spring training baseball game in Arizona. The sun was shining, the grass was green and I was with friends. It was such a nice day and I was having fun. So I took a few pictures of the field and the stadium and posted them on Facebook. Within a couple minutes, one of my old Battalion Chiefs from my old days on the fire department responded saying he was at the same game. Wow, what a coincidence. We hadn’t seen each other in 25 years.
“Where are you sitting?” he asks. “Let’s meet behind the bleachers” I said. We both walked from our seats through the Arizona sunshine and found each other next to the beer and hotdog stand. We were both much older. He had lost a lot of his hair, and I’d found a lot of weight. But we hugged and with big smiles we begin telling stories about the good old days.
The first thing he tells me, the number one thing he remembers about me is how I always stood up for myself. He recalls a time when the Fire Chief was yelling at me about something. I certainly remember that the old Chief didn’t like me much. But what my friend the Battalion Chief remembered was me standing up for myself and not letting the Chief push me around. I really have no recollection of the specific event, but the Battalion Chief recalled how I was standing in front of the Chief’s desk while being yelled at. Apparently I remained calm and asserted myself and didn’t allow the Chief to bully me. That was the first thing he remembered about me. He had been watching too.
One of my favorite stories about something I did that I had absolutely no memory of dates back to a significant wildland fire where multiple firefighters were killed. I had been intimately involved with the crew who was burned over and led a rescue of one of the firefighters who had survived. Eleven years later, I was on a large type 1 fire as a Division Sup and a firefighter came up to me after my morning division breakout briefing. He said to me, “Bobbie, I’m Jim Smith (not his real name), don’t you remember me?” I felt bad because he was obviously feeling emotional about something but I didn’t know who he was. He reminded me of the fire we had been on. I obviously remembered the fire, but not him. On that fire, I was a Strike Team Leader and he was one of the Engine Captains.
He proceeded to tell me about him and his engine crew before and during the blow-up. As he relates the story, as I was driving by his crew, I stopped and told him that if things go gunny sack on us and since we had no good safety zone or escape route, an option is for him is to take his heavy canvas salvage covers, his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs) and get his crew into the decent sized culvert where our water fill sight was. I told him they could ride out a burn over inside the culvert. As he’s telling me this story, I was thinking he was crazy. I have no memory of this at all. Even crazier though, the fire did blow up, and that’s where they rode it out. Inside a culvert, under the road with their SCBAs on covered up with salvage covers. This was a huge event for him and his crew. No memory of any of this for me, but he had been listening and watching.
Over the years, I’ve been told many stories about me from past co-workers. Some of those stories I’m not too proud of. Some of them are funny and I should probably be embarrassed by them. But mostly the stories are positive. I think I have a good memory and remember many stories. Some of the events end up in one of my podcasts. Obviously some important events never imprinted on my memory but they have on others. That’s the point. Those around us watch us, listen to us and think about what we’re doing. Even if we don’t think it’s a big deal and no one cares, people are paying attention to us.
But there’s a point to this story beyond my fond recollections. The point is that whether you’re a supervisor or not, people are watching you. Your supervisor is watching and getting a feel for how you deal with your firefighters. Your peers watch you too because we learn from each other. Maybe you’re an example for them to follow. Hopefully they’re not watching you to learn what not to do. But they are watching.
You already know that the folks you supervise are watching you. They’re watching you as an example. It’s how we inspire our folks. Hopefully you are someone they want to emulate.
Your supervisor’s supervisor is also watching you. They’re looking for future leaders and managers. It shouldn’t be a big surprise. I mean, you’re always watching your crew members, other officers and chiefs. It’s what we do. But when we think of ourselves, we often forget that people are paying attention to us too. But they are. They do and they will.
Realizing the impact we’re having on those around us is a leadership moment. We influence by everything we say and do. Being aware that we’re always being observed should make us stand straighter. I haven’t always behaved like I should have. I could write volumes on what not to do. It has taken me years to learn this simple idea. But hopefully you’re much smarter than I am and have already figured this out. The sooner we realize that our co-workers, friends and bosses are always watching us, the sooner we gain awareness of how we influence others. Be genuine and be the leader we all want to be around no matter your job or position.
A version of this story can be listened to at, http://bobbieonfire.com/2021/04/02/69-if-you-think-people-might-be-watching-you-they-are/
Both Sides of the Fire Line is Bobbie Scopa’s uplifting memoir of bravely facing the heat of fierce challenges, professionally and personally. It’s due out in September and available for preorder now.Order from Amazon Order from Barnes & Noble