For 15 seasons, I have been a dispatcher. My "vision" of the fire situation was very different from that of you on the fire ground. I experienced the course of events more like reading a book, while those on the front line watched the film. Much of my experience has been composed (rightly or wrongly) in my mind. Plots included things like plane crashes with bodies still in the cockpit, fires threatening homes and communities, a corpse in a garbage bag found on a dirt road in the middle of the desert, and the scanner communications with agents practicing for future operations (possibly even Ruby Ridge). Each time, I invented imagery. Whoever says that sending is easy has never done it.
I am not diminishing the life at stake. I emphasize the fact that dispatching is not part of the fire suppression operations which must be taken lightly. There are reasons why air traffic controllers retire at age 55 and first responders dispatchers (including forest fire dispatchers) tend to burn out and move on to other occupations .
The breakdown of costs on me will only be known in the summer of 2001 (two years after leaving two weeks in the season due to a dispute with a supervisor). It will be this summer that I realized that I have PTSD and will never be transporting again.
When I quit smoking in 1999, I thought fire was part of my past. When fires raged in the West and presidential visits were the norm in 2000, I asked my former FMO to say a good word to me at NIFC. I had the opportunity to work in the returns warehouse. When the time came for me to introduce myself, I suffered panic attacks and I refused work. It was too early.
Later that year, I applied for a job in BLM Fire Training and became a staff member. It was not a fire job per se, but I still had some anxiety that I dismissed as problems with a co-worker. It was part of the problem, but there was something more.
After six months of work on the aircraft dispatcher course, I contacted the Boise district BLM and asked them if they needed help. They knew me and told me my story and put me on the phone. Easy pease, right? No! They broke up a Type 2 team and threw me into a wider spread. They knew that I was a good dispatcher with extensive qualifications. I did a shift.
Later that summer, the deputy director of the BLM center at the National Center for Interagency Coordination (NICC) convinced me to try a change. He was the subject matter expert of the aircraft dispatcher course, knew my job as a dispatcher and would be there to help. The stress was so great that I developed tennis and the golfer's elbow on the same arm. I left my laspe qualifications, handed my red card and I never worked again.
I don't tell my story out of pity. I'm telling my story because post-tramatic stress disorder (PTSD) is real. Firefighters and wilderness supporters live many small events and a few large events that multiply. We are the first responders. The accumulated stress manifests itself unexpectedly. I'm here to say, "I'm fine." We are human and experience "tricks".
Please take the time to take care of yourself and consult with the team members. Make sure you don't ignore the effects of the things you are going through. It's good to take a break, get away if you have to.
I miss the adenaline of the expedition and the help with fire suppression operations. Fortunately, I never gave up my career in the fire. I'm arriving for my 19th birthday at NIFC. I have found a way to contribute and make a difference in the lives of those who are online. My time with BLM Fire Training and the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program changed my life and flourished.
Here are a few more years of our time together! We can make a difference together, whether on or off the line of fire.
Pam McDonald is a writer and editor for BLM Wildland Fire Training and Workforce Development and a member of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee. The expressions are those of the author.