Controversy over sending U.S. crews to Canada

A guest post by:

Frank Carroll

A firestorm of a different sort erupted over the weekend when the Canadians asked for help from US Forest Service Hotshot crews. Of course, the Canadians are our 51st state for all intents and purposes and so we will help them any way we can. It’s kind of like Israel; they call and we go and vice versa.

In this case, there is a problem. It turns out the Canadians have rules about who can enter their country and among those who can’t are anyone with a previous Driving While Intoxicated conviction. That’s a problem for most Hotshot crews.

Just like the Marine Corps, our firefighters are rough and tough, no shrinking violets. They are adventurous souls and not afraid of challenges. They learn the hard way and the lessons stick. Many fire crews have more than one crew member with a DWI conviction in the dim past. Canada has made it known that those crew members are not welcome.

Well, that’s a big problem for our organized crews. Unlike individual firefighters with no loyalty to a cohesive group of people who train, eat, sleep, and work together, Hotshots build and maintain crew cohesion and crew integrity by being a team with a capital “T.” Nobody messes with crew cohesion and no crew leader would allow that to happen. The good of the whole crew comes before the good of any single crew member.

Unless we’re taking about an assignment to Canada. It’s something that happens once in a lifetime, if at all, and it’s a big deal. Many Americans never get to travel outside the country. Fewer still get a chance to go somewhere as professionals and practice their trade with their counterparts. So, it’s exciting to go to Canada to fight fire. It’s rewarding, personally and professionally, and there’s money in it for our people and savings for the firefighting budget. Canada pays our regular wages and overtime and so on, and our local units don’t have to pay a dime: It’s a win-win.

One large contingent of Hotshot crews in the West has pushed back on the Administratively Determined (AD) Operations Officer at Boise, home of the National Interagency Fire Center and the person who decides who goes. “Our crews didn’t go (two years ago) if they couldn’t take the whole crew, especially if they had leadership that couldn’t go. I think it’s dumb, they either want our help or they don’t,” said one senior official.

Sure, we can find some fill-ins to bring the crew up to strength, but we can’t find anyone to replace the crew cohesion, crew integrity, and crew leadership that will be missing if that crew accepts the assignment without some of their best people. And we can’t repair the damage to crew morale.

One crew has simply decided not to accept Canadian assignments. It’s either all of them or none of them. For the Wyoming Hotshots, crew cohesion and the morale of every member is critically important to crew function. Other crews are sending pieces of their crews, leaving good people behind and filling in with people with untested qualifications, and who are unknown to the rest of the crew.

The Canadians have a process to waive the rule and allow our people to come as the integrated professionals they are. Forest Service leadership should sit down with the Canadians and require them to waive the DWI rule for Hotshot crews. Let’s get that fixed so we help with all hands.

During Frank Carrol’s 31-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, he served as a hotshot squad boss, assistant fire management officer, strategic planner, public affairs officer, and command staff officer on national fire teams. Currently he is a Managing Partner at
Professional Forest Management, LLC.

30 thoughts on “Controversy over sending U.S. crews to Canada”

  1. Frank, the argument I hear you making is that anyone who works on a Hotshot crew has probably learned whatever lesson they needed to from a past DWI conviction, and Canadian authorities should be prepared to waive the rule. Unless a conviction was recent or a person’s alcohol problem was ongoing, I’m guessing any community facing down some of the massive wildfires we’ve been seeing on our side of the border would be grateful for the additional support from a crew that was willing to make the trip.
    (Rule of thumb: If a crew member is a risk to the public, they’re also a risk to the rest of the crew. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that tells me that if they’re out there, they almost certainly won’t be driving or working while impaired.)
    But please, please…don’t fall into thinking of us as a 51st state. We’re not, very few if any of us see ourselves that way, and that assumption is probably a surer way than a long-ago DWI conviction to get the welcome mat yanked out from beneath your feet! (Even if we’re still too grateful and possibly too “nice”, quotation marks intended, to say so.)

    1. It is a ridiculous law about the DUI restrictions put on fire fighters who may have had a DUI in the past. Over the years I have had several employees go thru the judicial system due to a DUI conviction. In all cases once was enough. These folks are still good employees and firefighters. Any good module leader, crew boss, superintendent, Battalion chief, division chief are quite capable of vetting members of their crew/organization for being fit for duty. This is really a form of discrimination. Does Canada prevent Canadian fire fighters from entering the US if they have had a conviction for DUI?
      I applaud the crews who value crew cohesion being more important than a trip to Canada.
      Our national fire and aviation leadership needs to help our Canadian comrades fix this situation.

      Thanks Bill for sharing these issues.

      1. KP: “Does Canada prevent Canadian firefighters from entering the US if they have had a conviction for DUI?”
        No, Kenneth, but the U.S. does. See earlier link.

      2. What an incredibly arrogant op-ed. Leaving aside the 51st state comment, how entitled are these crews for demanding a receiving agency capitulate to the crew? Obviously, like any fire assignment, just turn it down if it doesn’t fit- but then to light up social media with this?! I’m embarrassed for Wyoming to be even mentioned in this piece. Fire crews (especially type 1) are all about eating the shit sandwich one bite at a time and not complaining, what a buncha whiners for griping about taking a few detailers. Or maybe just be happy you’re not going up to ‘skeg land- really guys, it’s not like you’re missing an opportunity to go to BC or something- norther Alberta sucks). And to lay this on Canadian fire agencies is so misguided. FYI, if there are convicted criminals on their crews , they don’t get to come down here. God, our staff are getting soft.

      3. Haha, what a terrible article on so many levels, 51st state? I think not. Frank your view point epitomize the stereotype of arrogant, swallow, narrow minded, all balls and brone american attitude and oh yes, the mighty US wants to fix another countries problem…..shocker. Frank and Kenneth take a few minutes to do at least a little bit of research before you spew your drivel. For the record, being convicted of DUI (as you refer it it) is considered a criminal offence (in both countries) which absolutely impacts one’s ability to cross borders. And by the way Kenneth, Canada doesn’t prevent Canadian fire fighters with impaired driving charges from entering the US BUT THE US SURE THE HELL DOES PREVENT IT. If fire crews don’t want to break up the crew for a deployment then quite simply don’t, stay home then that is their choice.

    2. If they were a risk to the crew they wouldn’t be allowed to go on fires with the crew here in the states. The way I took that comment is that we would let our crew members be unsafe here in the US but Canada won’t let that happen? We have fairly high standards and if we are good enough to fight our own fires and acquire that risk then if Canada wants OUR help there shouldn’t be a different standard. There I’m sure is other instances where Canadian fire officials would tell us to go off of our rules or standards when it comes to firefighting. So why can’t we go off of our standards as to who we choose to fight our fires.

  2. This goes both ways. The very few times Canadians have been asked down we have to manage our crews as well. No one with DUI can go south either. Now that the shoe is on the other foot it don’t fit so well does it.
    Don’t like being called the 51st state either.

    1. Perhaps another solution is, don’t get caught! How many people reading this post have knowingly driven “under the influence” let alone, unwittingly? It was a pretty regular thing for me and many of my fellow crew members to drive off the mountain following a week of regular work to imbibe and have fun at the local watering hole. How many have taken a fall for a “wobbler” DUI? DUI is serendipitous to a degree, at the will of the enforcement gods so to speak. Hey! DUI convicts shouldn’t be permitted to vote. Oops. That won’t work for current potus. Anyway …. “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” LR

      1. This type of thought process is exactly why DUI accidents take over 10k lives a year in the US. A “just don’t get caught” attitude shows a big lack of personal integrity.

        1. Right!? FYI- Blood Alcohol Content in most of Canada is 0.05 (as compared to 0.08 in most of the states), so that means one beer MAX. What that translates to is Dont Drink and Drive! Pretty strong social pressures up there to not do so.

  3. I’m sure that things have changed since I took five Southwest Area hotshot crews to Canada in the ’90s. There were a total of twenty five crews in all from the U.S. At that time, as I recall, the restrictions were, no convicted felons, no AD employees and must have a government ID. That proved to be problem later on when we discovered that on BIA sponsored crew was made up of mostly ADs. There were some other problems with that crew, but I won’t go into that. They were sent home.

  4. They are asking for help from a Hot Shot “Crew”. When I took crews, I didn’t ask for a background check, it was up to leadership to police the crew. Crew leaders were informed when they arrived, if they screwed up in anyway, (i.e. drinking in camp, bringing girls into camp, etc.) the “crew” was taken off the line and sent home, never to come back.

    The last time I checked, crews going to Canada are flown in, not driving.

  5. It’s a well known fact that Canada has laws about who can and can’t come into their country. One of those laws states that if you have a DUI, you can’t come across the border.

    Full Stop

    Just because you are on a shot crew doesn’t make you invincible to the laws of the land.

    Pretty simple, like another post said, Don’t drink and drive….

  6. I’m with the Wyoming Hotshots. All or none.
    It appears to me that this is a relatively easy fix for “Gubmint’s” on both sides of the border. Put some heads together. Spell it out clearly. Get it done, and get on with the mission. jw

  7. How bad are the crews really needed? If Canada 🇨🇦 is not will to waive the rule I suspect they don’t really need them.

  8. The hotshot crews shouldn’t have people with a arrest record……I have always been told the decisions you make everyday affect your life there after good or bad ….sometimes sorry is not good enough…..there are plenty of people that are qualified to be on a hotshot crew without a criminal record…..Hotshots should be held to a higher standard especially if they are traveling out of the country.

    1. Bar for life employment for anyone who has been convicted of anything. In otherwords, an individual citizen can decide on their own to extend the state’s punishment to be a life condemnation. Such a Christian sentiment.

  9. Frank,

    It seems you are fighting the wrong battle. All of us as Americans need to get better at accepting consequences of our actions— all of them. This is a reprucussion of bad behavior. And by the way, Not all hotshots (or crews) have had DUI/DWI arrests and frankly it is not a skill set I would be proud of.

    You seem indignant. Get over it. Let’s focus on all the good men and women who are able to help Canada. Let’s respect those crews who choose to stay together. Let’s not normalize drinking and driving (which by the way is often the source of death and serious injury).


    1. See my reply to the comment above. And being convicted of DWI is not “normalizing” it. Isn’t that evidence that the state clearly was doing the opposite?

  10. Pretty arrogant/misinformed to call Canada the 51st state. Imagine a Canadian referring to the USA as the 11th province or 4th territory. Sounds dumb that way, doesn’t it? One of the best/favorite assignments of my Type 1 crew days was in Canada. Nothing but respect for Canadian wildland firefighters and citizens. We were treated better up there than a lot of fires here in the States.

  11. I wonder if Canada waives this requirement for MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL players who travel there to play games and have convictions of DUI? They must or a lot of players get to sit home.

  12. It is really unfortunate that Mr Carroll chose to focus his post on Hotshot crews.
    “Regular” crews, Smokejumpers, engine crews and overhead have all been dispatched to fire assignments in Canada and all have been subject to the same Canadian policies regarding who they will allow in country.
    As Tom Holly noted above, this has been a known issue since the 1990’s, and why this has not been resolved in over 20 years is unacceptable.
    This also brings up questions as to what is a Hotshot crew? Is it a superintendent + 19 with a Hotshot crew name? How many “fill-ins” are acceptable?
    Good on the Wyoming Hotshots, and any other crews who by saying no maintained the integrity of their crew and also the legacy of the hotshot crew concept.

  13. I think Frank’s guest column is very disrespectful to Canada and Canadians. Their rules, folks. Just as we have ours for who comes into our country. Also, to refer to them as our “51st state” is an insult. The Canadian national and provincial governments have been very good to us in America when we’ve needed the help, and this is how we thank them?

    I have full faith in the Superintendent of the hotshot crew on my forest to make this decision (either way) for his crew. And he did. And we supported it. I also have full faith in other Supes I know and respect to make their own decision. And I’m not going to question or judge it no matter which decision they make. Mr. Carroll initially posted his opinions all over Facebook, saying no way our IHCs that went to Canada could meet the crew cohesion requirements because no way were they able to carry their full crews with this requirement. He accused federal units of somehow “covering up” their crew members DUI records. And then went on to have the gall to insult those who disagreed with him. And his post was eventually removed by the page Admin.

    I’m super disappointed in WFT they even gave him this platform. Ridiculous.

    I also want to take offense with the attitude that most of our hotshot crews have a bunch of crew members with DUI convictions. My experience is the limiting issue is that folks don’t have passports. Again, Mr. Carroll’s accusations are unfounded and irresponsible.

    Riva Duncan
    Fire Staff Officer
    Umpqua NF

  14. It has nothing to do with the fire agencies, it’s the border agencies. Can’t cross the line as a civilian with a DUI either. My crew was stopped from crossing headed south a few years ago so it goes both ways. But don’t point the finger at the fire agencies, it’s out of their control.

    And thanks but no thanks to the 51st state. We’re good.

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