Veterans Service as Wildland Firefighters

Veterans Service as Wildland Firefighters

04 October 2013

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USA — Dust and smoke billow around five figures — uniformed, heavily laden with backpacks and gear, carrying tools in their arms. They are attentive to the hazards that surround them. The lead is scanning ahead, looking for hot spots for the team to address. From the way they move as a unit, it is clear this is a trained team — familiar with each other through hours of training and service together.

This scene is easily imagined by anyone familiar with wildland fire. The scene is also reminiscent of one faced regularly by young men and women deployed to the other side of the globe, fighting as members of the U.S. armed forces. The tools may be very different, but the environment, dedicated training, exposure to regular hazards and reliance upon other team members all are seen on the fireline.

Upon their return from Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military veterans face new battles to reintegrate into civilian life. One of the most significant issues for the newly returned is unemployment. While the long-term unemployment of veterans actually trends lower than the national average, in 2012 the average unemployment rate for veterans age 18-24 was a startling 20.0%.1

For all post-9/11 veterans, the unemployment rate in June of 2013 was 7.2%. Women veterans have an even higher rate for the same month, 8.9%.2

There is little data that pinpoints the cause of this lack of employment for young, recently returned individuals. However, common-sense analysis concludes that these veterans are attempting to enter the work force without the benefit of non-military job experience. The skills gained in military service may not directly translate into civilian employment opportunities.

The Student Conservation Association (SCA), in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and other conservation organizations, has developed a program to provide technical training and field experience to help address this skills gap — the Veterans Fire Corps (VFC). A national, non-profit organization, SCA has been protecting and restoring national parks, forests, marine sanctuaries, cultural landmarks and community green spaces throughout the United States since 1957. The SCA’s mission is to build the next generation of conservation leaders and inspire lifelong stewardship of our environment and communities by engaging young people in hands-on service to the land.

A Pathway to Employment

Veterans identify this program as a valuable training opportunity and pathway to post-service employment. A summer 2013 participant in the SCA VFC program named Richard stated in his biography:

“I joined the U.S. Army at the age of 18, and spent 6 years and 10 months as an Infantryman. I joined the SCA because nowhere else would hire me because I lacked ‘job experience.’”

Thirty-four veterans completed the SCA VFC program in 2011 and 2012, while another 40 served this summer and fall. Results of those first two years are impressive: 76% of the graduates continued their education in natural resources/wildland fire, moved directly into positions with federal land management agencies or returned to the program as leaders. The ongoing success of participants supports the model and underscores the positive effects of SCA and USFS training.

SCA’s Conservation Corps Teams work together as a team of five Corps Members and one Project Leader for 12 weeks. The leader is most often a graduate of a prior VFC program who has proven to be a capable firefighter, manager and logistician.

Early on, the leaders were a mix of post-9/11 veterans and civilians with extensive leadership experience. One significant, early lesson learned was that participants consistently valued veteran leaders over their civilian counterparts, regardless of experience. The military experience of leaders enables them to relate more directly to members — both in subtle ways such as the understanding of rank and service occupation, and more overtly, as in communication styles and discipline. As a result, and in keeping with SCA’s mission, members are encouraged to move on to a leadership role.

The training provided to participants has three components: training as an SCA Corps member, USFS fire training and field-based practical experience. Each component builds on the prior training, not only focusing on technical aspects but also softer skills such as leadership, group dynamics and conflict management.

Groups of both VFC and other SCA teams begin their service in a central location for five to six days of training. The primary purpose is to introduce participants to the SCA and build a cohort of corps members from a variety of backgrounds and experience.

All members receive certification in Wilderness First Aid, an advanced first-aid course that includes skills needed in the field. In-depth discussions and scenarios involving heat illness, personal care and treatment of injuries in a wilderness setting are particularly applicable to wildland firefighting. Most importantly, this course begins the focus on critical thinking and situational awareness.

After the SCA training week, teams move on to their fire and chainsaw programs. Trainings are provided either at Colorado Firecamp in Salida, Colo., or USFS Guard School. Both programs offer unique experiences to the participants with the same goal — to provide all members with the training to be Red-Card-eligible.

Colorado Firecamp courses work with the SCA teams training as a unit. They participate in a mix of classroom and online instruction plus field work for chainsaw, fuels mitigation, fire line and mop-up training.

SCA teams often are able to align their training with their host forests’ Guard School. They train alongside both new and experienced Forest Service staff. Members value the high level of integration with these agency staff. Hearing stories and receiving feedback from career firefighters provides insights into the “real world” of wildland fire that cannot be found in the classroom.

Project Leader Tim Gurnett described the training: “On Tuesday, all five VFCs reported into guard school, which is basically a Wildland Firefighter academy conducted as closely as possible to what a real incident would be. We camped out in tents and were issued line packs, if we didn’t already have them, as well as Nomex and tools. The crews were also separated and mixed with other agencies’ workers…Every small group was assigned a squad boss, who was a seasoned firefighter and directly responsible for (our team)…We camped with our new squads, walked in line everywhere we went carrying all of our line gear.”

After completing formalized training, each team packs up, moving onto their respective assignments. It is on these assignments that members coalesce into a unit, apply their training and gain real-world experience.

Expediting Experience

The SCA Project Leader works with the agency contacts to develop work plans and schedules for the balance of the team’s season. Much of the work that teams perform focuses on fuels mitigation with some fuels monitoring, if needed. This work can include stand thinning operations, controlled burn preparation and, when conditions allow, participation in controlled burning exercises.

The Forest Service also has worked to enroll members as Administratively Determined (AD) Personnel. Due to restrictions on volunteers, workers’ insurance coverage and pay, members are not able to actively fight fire during their term of service with the SCA. By pre-enrolling as AD, participants are able to be “called up” to join in fire suppression activities, either as a team or individually, and to serve as an employee of the federal agency for the assignment period. This is important to members who crave the experience to help them find employment, as shown by a 2012 member, who notes, “Morale is high as ever due to the fact that today we finally received our Red Cards and got clear(ed) to work as Administratively Determined Personnel on the fire line by our partnering agency.”

Participants who have gone on AD assignments have supported relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy, served on engine crews and taken the place of an injured hotshot crew member. Members who are able to serve on detail receive real, significant resume-building experience.

Lessons Learned

One lesson learned by the SCA over the past few seasons is that some members are interested in work outside of fire. With the help and support of agency staff, members have been able to investigate other federal career oppor-tunities. The most meaningful are job-shadowing opportunities, in which a member spends one-on-one time with agency staff, often for several days. Members have done ride-alongs with law enforcement personnel, surveys with archeological staff and spent time with biologists in the field.

Creating this program has required learning and expanding for the organization. SCA has primarily worked with non-veteran young adult and youth members during its 56 years. The stereotypes associated with the military and veteran issues weighed on program design and implementation. It forced the SCA to test assumptions about programming and how best to serve veterans.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was a very early concern in developing the program. SCA’s risk management and medical staffs were able to research and revise the process to evaluate applicants. While PTSD has impacted the military community overall, it has not significantly impacted SCA’s programming. SCA has learned that the building blocks of a strong youth program — communication, clear expectations, appropriate leadership and room for self-discovery — all work to support a positive veteran program with only minor modification.

Many veterans who have had difficulty transitioning into civilian life adopt negative coping mechanisms such as alcohol, drugs and risky behaviors. The consequences of these behaviors often appear in the background screening process as DUIs and other offenses. Working with the individuals and understanding the context of the offense has led SCA to evaluate how staff interprets background checks. SCA can often still provide the VFC opportunity to veterans who are looking to break free of these behaviors.

The power of the outdoors, participation on a cohesive team and engagement in meaningful work have paid off for participants. After 12 weeks, SCA VFC members emerge as experienced recruits for land management agencies, with the same dedication and commit-ment they brought to their military careers. Each member leaves the program with new perspectives, new skills and for many, a new career.

“This past week, Engine 711 (Type 6) from the Williams Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest hired me. Another Fire Corps member recently got hired onto a Minnesota crew. Without my experience with SCA, this possibly may never have happened. The VFC was the catalyst that helped both of us get jobs.”

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