Ensuring the safety of those who fight forest fires

July 3, 2012

As a wildfire picked up steam during the middle of the night in the Prescott National Forest in Arizona in May, 10 firefighters fled to the top of a ridge to escape the flames tearing through the trees.

Those firefighters survived the near miss, but soon after the incident, Becqui Livingston was called in to analyze what happened and publish any lessons the team learned to help inform other firefighters.

Livingston, who works for the U.S. Forest Service, uses her 18 years of experience to make sure that firefighters are physically capable to do their jobs. If there are mishaps or fatalities, she sets in motion a process for bringing together an accident investigation team of experts and peers to review the circumstances and extract important information.

“My passion is to make sure firefighters first and foremost are healthy and fit,” said Livingston, a Fire Operations Health and Safety Specialist with the U.S. Forest Service in the Southwestern Regional Office.

“Firefighting is a physically and mentally challenging job, much like being in combat,” she said. “It’s one of the closest things to being a soldier, with the camaraderie and the elements.”

( Becqui Livingston)

Many aspects are involved in firefighter safety, Livingston said, from making sure firefighters are using the correct safety equipment to getting the proper nutrition and hydration and keeping in shape during the off-season.

“Her biggest asset is she is so caring,” said Jerome Macdonald, deputy incident commander on the Southwest Area Incident Management Team and Livingston’s former supervisor. “She is the kind of person who will fight for the underdog.”

In addition to traveling to big fires to address health and safety issues, she gathers information from interagency partners at the state, local and federal levels, and disseminates information to keep firefighter aware and educated on wellness issues.

Livingston, who also is a personal fitness trainer, helped develop an interagency firefighter fitness program called “Firefit” that is geared toward those who fight wildfires.

At 4 feet 9 inches tall, about 102 pounds and female, Livingston is not what most people picture as a typical firefighter. But she proved herself over her nearly two decades of carrying up to 70 pounds of equipment on the job, camping for days or weeks near raging wildfires and eventually joining the Smokey Bear Hotshot firefighting crew in Ruidoso, New Mexico.

As a part of a hotshot crew, Livingston was a full-time firefighter with special training, working with the same crew of 20 firefighters season after season, unlike “smoke jumpers” or others, who are brought in from all over to fight smaller fires.

“When you’re fighting a fire, you want a hotshot crew because of their level of training and experience,” Macdonald said. “She was well respected because of the energy level she brings.”

Often, those hotshots are in such remote locations that they live in a big tent city with food brought in via helicopter or pack mules. She met her future husband when he helicoptered in to drop off supplies near a fire she was fighting in Colorado.

As a youngster, Livingston spent time at a summer cabin in the woods. In high school, she was drawn to firefighting, despite an associate principal trying to talk her out of it. She then applied to join the Young Adult Conservation Corps’ fire crew in the Smokey Bear Ranger District in New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest.

Due to unusual first name, Livingston was accepted under the assumption she was a male like most other applicants in the late 1970s, and became one of the pioneer women in firefighting on wild lands. She soon became a seasonal firefighter and in the late 1980s became one of the first women to join her district’s hotshot crew.

Although Livingston mostly works on the health and safety of other firefighters now, the job is still tough. Fires continue to burn hotter and bigger, due to record-breaking temperatures and forest conditions.

“Because of all those accumulated fuels and health conditions, forests are burning with intense velocity and there’s nothing we can do,” Livingston said. It’s a tough environment, she added, and dwindling resources make it even tougher.

“People are continually in harm’s way,” Livingston said. “We do everything we can to keep people safe and healthy. All I want is for firefighters to come home safe every night.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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