Sunday, November 11, 2007

"On the Fireline"

Matthew Desmond worked four seasons as a wildland firefighter in Arizona and is the author of On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, recently published by the University of Chicago Press.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new book and reported the following:
From On the Fireline, p. 69:

“But not everyone wants to put their life on the line just for a paycheck,” Diego tells me.

Economic incentives help to draw Diego (and many others) to the profession of wildland firefighting; but economic incentives are not the only motivation, nor are they the strongest.

Diego’s economic interests would be better served if he remained in a permanent position in the labor market, where he could take advantage of the benefits that come with full-time employment. Crewmembers who are temporarily employed receive no benefits and no health insurance. And since they are seasonal workers in the summer, they are also seasonal workers in the winter, which means they lose out on benefits from their off-season jobs as well. Because wildland firefighters consistently return to the Forest Service each summer, they forfeit opportunities offered by other employers such as pay increases, promotions, and benefit packages. In addition, they have no guarantee as to how long their position will last. They could be let go after two months, for instance, if the monsoons come early and the forest does not ignite. If firefighters were only in it for the money, they would secure permanent positions in the labor market that offer better chances of long-term economic advancement. And since firefighting is one of the most popular blue-collar professions in America, often garnering hundreds of applications for a handful of open positions, it is safe to assume that a job as a clerk, a mechanic, or a salesperson would be significantly easier to attain than a sought-after spot on a firecrew.

Although wildland firefighting does not provide my crewmembers with the most profitable means of earning a living, Elk River [Fire Station] does give them something they regard as very precious. It offers them a place of their own, a place where they can carve their names into the sidewalk, an isolated piece of the world where they feel they belong. In their eyes, Elk River is their cleft in the rock, their refuge — from supervision and laws, and from women and city boys and their suffocating civilization.

The page 69 test works! Indeed, I would be hard pressed to select a better passage from On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters. Here, the reader finds me wrapping up a conversation with Diego, a quick-witted twenty-year-old wildland firefighter, who drives home the point that, by and large, the promise of a big paycheck is not the reason why firefighters sign up for a job that could kill them. Nor, I go on to argue, are firefighters primarily enticed summer after summer by thrill lust, adventure, or a quest for masculine honor, as is often thought. Rather, they gravitate toward the profession because it offers them an outlet for the reaffirmation and reconstitution of their most deep-seated dispositions, dispositions cultivated within the contexts of their working-class rural upbringing. The process of becoming a firefighter begins long before young people join firecrews; it begins during their childhoods with thousands of experiences specific to their upbringing. In this way, firefighters acquire many of the skills and attitudes needed to chase smoke long before they step onto the fireline. Their supporting organizations — including the United States Forest Service, the organization featured in this book — know this. In fact, they depend on it when sculpting the ready and willing firefighter, who charges headlong into the clutches of danger when the alarm sounds.

On the Fireline, an immersion into a Northern Arizona firecrew on which I served for four seasons, is my attempt to understand how organizations that demand much from their workers — indeed, sometimes their very lives — tap into and rely upon America’s economic inequalities, how individuals’ classed lifestyles and backgrounds influence their decision to volunteer for hazardous jobs, and how individuals’ social positions, personal histories, and specific paths through life predispose them to the rigors of risky work. While writing this book, I discovered that, when we ask ourselves, “Why do firefighters seek out such a dangerous occupation?,” we find that the answer reveals just as much about us — and the social order we uphold — as it does about them.
Read an excerpt from On the Fireline and learn more about the book at the University of Chicago Press website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue