About a year and a half ago, when I moved from Davis to Winters, CA, I decided to apply to become a volunteer firefighter with the Winters Fire Department. I thought it would be a relatively simple process: you fill out an application and they accept you. After all, you are a “volunteer”, not getting paid, and dedicating your own time to helping out, right? I couldn’t have been more wrong! I did fill out an application, then had to show up in person for a pretty strenuous physical test that involved completing different tasks within a certain amount of time…in full turnout gear. After passing that, I had a fairly formal interview with two of the captains, then had to schedule a comprehensive medical exam, get fingerprinted at the Police Department, attend a volunteer orientation, take an oath, and then, and only then, was I “accepted”.
Then the real work began: getting all my gear (and there is a lot!), getting fit-tested for the face piece of the SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus, sort of like a SCUBA tank and regulator but for above water), and attending the twice month Wednesday evening trainings. This was right around the time that COVID began, so attendance to trainings involved several modifications to insure that we were all protecting ourselves and others as much as possible from COVID exposure.
Trainings at the fire station have included skill-building exercises, such as learning how to put on and operate the SCBA, hose layouts, swiftwater rescue, victim search and rescue at night, learning how to drive and operate the various fire engines, etc. And that is just the training piece. There is also on-the-job training that happens when you are at the fire station, with never-ending tasks in between calls. It has been a steep learning curve, and continues to be, although my time at the fire department (mostly on weekends or days off) has been incredible.
I have only been a volunteer firefighter for a year, and yet I have learned so much during that time. So, what does firefighting have to do with oil spill response, you might ask? The answer is that there is a lot in common between the two, when you think about it (and I have thought a lot about it during the past year). Some of the similarities that stand out for me are the following (and this is by no means an exhaustive list).
Incident Command System (ICS for short)
Firefighting and spill response both operate under this system. The ICS is an organizational management structure that originated for response to fire incidents and has since been adapted for many other emergencies such as spills, floods, missing persons, storms, etc. The ICS has many uses and many benefits, including being able to expand or contract depending on the magnitude and evolution of the particular emergency. The other significant benefit of ICS is the use of common terminology, which helps make responding to an emergency much more efficient and organized, since everyone is using the common language.
PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)
Prior to 2020 most people did not know what “PPE” stood for, yet this acronym was being thrown around in media outlets left and right. COVID-19 has certainly changed that! PPE is meant to protect from many things (depending on the type of PPE), such as viruses, oil, hazardous chemicals, fire, etc. Most people now know that PPE refers to supplies that help protect you, and PPE can refer to anything from masks, gloves, to goggles, hard hats, face shields, etc. As an oiled wildlife spill responder, you certainly learn about different types of PPE and which ones you are required to wear either in the field capturing an animal or at a facility while washing oil off an animal. As a firefighter you also learn about PPE – not only the medical type used to help protect first responders from viruses, bacteria, blood borne pathogens and such, but also the type of PPE that helps protect from heat (turnouts and boots), smoke (SCBA), and physical impacts (helmets, goggles, gloves).
The effectiveness and success of a response system, whether that be firefighting or spill response, is highly dependent on ensuring that the personnel responding to an emergency have the proper training. Training not only builds capacity and skill, but it also builds confidence as well as less tangible outcomes such as interpersonal relationships and trust-building within a team. These are just as important as learning skills, since teammates that trust each other and have good working relationships (that can only be achieved prior to an emergency), are usually more efficient than teams that have never worked together or have not had the time or opportunity to build trust with each other. Just as training is an important component of firefighting, the OWCN training program is a huge component of our overall program and as such, the OWCN Management Team dedicates a significant portion of our time on planning, preparing, and delivering different trainings throughout the state (or virtually). We consider these trainings to be so important for keeping our responders up to date on protocols, procedures, and skills. Finally, because oil spills that impact wildlife don’t happen every day in California (thankfully!), we often participate or conduct oil spill drills or exercises to help prepare for the real thing.
This is the reason for our existence! When we are called upon during an emergency, such as to help someone that is in cardiac arrest, to put out a fire in a chimney, or to rescue wildlife that is covered in oil, we are there! Our goal is to be quick to respond, and fully armed with the necessary tools and skills to help out when and where we are needed.
Animals rescued during the Cuyama River Incident in 2020
Passion for Helping
Finally, firefighters and oiled wildlife responders are passionate about helping alleviate suffering and lending a hand where needed. That is why we make the decision to do what we do. No regrets, no apologies. A simple passion for making the world a better place. And that alone is a worthy goal.