A trailblazing firefighter provides training for women

Above: the USFS engine crew at Descanso, California in 1990. In the front row, L to R., Bequi Livingston, Maureen, Chris Anderson, Bill Gabbert.

Today I ran across an article that initially got my attention because it mentioned a firefighter I worked with who had an unusual name: Bequi Livingston. I worked with Bequi in 1990 on the U.S. Forest Service engine crew at Descanso, California. Already having a great deal of experience, she came to that position through the apprenticeship program, a way to get her permanent appointment, and it was obvious that she was destined for something greater.

The article below, reprinted with permission, was written by Zöe Rom for the December 20, 2017 edition of REI Co-op Journal.

Bequi Livingston is an old-school badass. She spent her career fighting fires alongside the most respected crews in the West. Today, she’s dedicated to training more women in backcountry firefighting.

She began working with the U.S. Forest Service in 1979 in New Mexico’s Smokey Bear Ranger District. After serving on the Young Adult Conservation Corps, she became a seasonal firefighter, eventually working her way up through fire engines, helitack crews, hotshot crews, fire prevention and fire lookout. Livingston went on to become an assistant fire management officer and later, a prescribed fire operations specialist. She was one of the first women to ever serve on the Sandia Helitack crew, and one of the first two women to ever serve on the prestigious Smokey Bear Hotshot Crew. In 2008, Livingston earned the Paul Gleason Award for her service in the wildland firefighting community.

After retiring, she started the Women In Wildland Fire Boot Camp in 2004, a program still running today in the USFS Southwestern Region (and modeled by other agencies throughout the West) to recruit and train women for success as backcountry firefighters.

She lives in Albuquerque with her husband, competes with the New Mexico Track Club and recently qualified for the National Senior Olympic Games.

Did you dream of being a backcountry firefighter when you were a little girl?

I was lucky to spend all my childhood summers at a remote family cabin in New Mexico where I learned to love nature and the woods. I loved to hike and fish and just spend time in nature. I was also an elite athlete and loved outdoor physical activities. When I was a senior in high school (in El Paso, Texas), I knew that I wanted to be a firefighter but only knew about the city structural firefighters and didn’t even know that wildland firefighters existed.

The vice principal at school would do everything to talk me out of it, saying you are too smallyou’re a woman in a men’s profession and it’s too dangerous. He even lent me library books about catastrophic firefighting events. It only fueled my interest more. Then I went to college on an athletic scholarship, and my boyfriend worked as a wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. That’s the first I even knew about the job. That really sparked my interest because he loved it so much.

What is the job actually like? Can you describe a typical day (if such a thing exists)?

Although wildland firefighting has changed a lot, one typical day on a large fire with a crew would be like this: Wake up about 4am to get dressed and eat chow before attending briefing for the day’s assignment. Depending on the assignment that day for your crew, you will be transported (bus, van, helicopter or walking) to your division with specific instructions for your crew’s 12-hour shift. Duties vary according to the fire’s progression and objectives and, of course, safety. You are typically working with a variety of other fire crews and resources which are very specific and tactical in nature. Most often, you will take a short lunch break at some point and continue working, depending on the current situation as it continually changes. If all goes well during the work shift, you will typically leave the fireline in order to complete your shift by 6pm. Then, you head back to fire camp, eat dinner, shower if showers are available, have a little down time and bed down in your crew tents. But it all depends, and it can all change in the blink of an eye.

What’s it like being a woman in this male-dominated field?

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A grass roots effort begins to increase the number of women in fire

Women in Fire Bootcamp
The twelve participants of the Phoenix 2014 Women in Fire Bootcamp pose for a group shot during the Women in Fire Bootcamp Field Day September 13th, 2014. Photo by Tom Story.

The representation of women in the wildland fire business is currently somewhere around 10%, but some women have set out to increase that number.  One of their methods that seems to be working is the Women in Fire Bootcamp that took place in Albuquerque and Phoenix over two weekends in September as part of a Forest Service outreach program in Region Three (Arizona and New Mexico).

Founder Bequi Livingston of the Forest Service’s Regional Office in Albuquerque describes the origins in an email: “about ten years ago, I started talking the idea of a “Wildland Firefighter Boot Camp” here in the Region and there was not much interest at the time. As we continued struggling with recruitment and retention of women in wildland firefighting, especially here in Region 3, the idea came about to host a “Women In Wildland Fire Boot Camp” to target our female audience. Luckily, our FAM (Fire and Aviation Management) staff liked the idea and were willing to help fund our first Boot Camp back in March 2011. Our first Boot Camp in March 2011 was great and we had 20 candidates here in New Mexico and I believe, 14 in Arizona. We then hosted the Boot Camp again in March 2012 with not quite as many applicants and did not have a 2013 Boot Camp due to lack of funding. Last fall, I developed and submitted a proposal to the Forest Service FAM Diversity Program to receive funding and support to keep the efforts going. This was with much help from Helen Graham (Assistant Fire Management Officer-Tonto National Forest) in AZ and Linda Wadleigh (Mogollon Rim District Ranger-Coconino National Forest). Luckily we received special project funding through our Washington Office FAM to help fund and support the Boot Camp for the next three years.”

Women in Fire Bootcamp
The driving force in the Women in Fire Bootcamp, Bequi Livingston (center) addresses bootcamp participants during the first weekend of the event in Albuquerque, NM. September 7, 2014. PHOTO BY KRISTEN HONIG

Ms. Livingston continued: “Part of this history includes my personal story and challenges as one of the first women in wildland fire and also my experience in Region 5 with the horrid Consent Decree. One of my intentions is to provide a safe and trusting environment for these candidates with great instructors (men and women) to ensure that we set them up for success rather than failure.”

“Although the program’s intent is to recruit and train women as its target audience, we are very inclusive in that we accept and consider ALL (her emphasis) applicants equally, including males. In fact, we have our first male in our current New Mexico session and he’s been great. We did not get enough applicants to fill all our slots for the New Mexico Boot Camp and had several female applicants pull out, which left us with additional open slots. Josh turned in a good application, is very interested in the program and is in one of those slots. Although our primary intention is to recruit and train women as the target audience, we consider all applicants equally”, Ms. Livingston added.

Jeb Koons, a Fire Management Officer from the Coconino National Forest and one of the Arizona Bootcamp’s instructors summed it up this way: “the program is to recruit women, but once they are here, they are all firefighters”.

Jesse Causer  of the Coconino National Forest begins the classroom work at Women in Fire Bootcamp at Phoenix Interagency Fire Center @ Gateway on September 7th, 2014. Photo by Tom Story.
Jesse Causer of the Coconino National Forest begins the classroom work at Women in Fire Bootcamp at Phoenix Interagency Fire Center @ Gateway on September 7th, 2014. Photo by Tom Story.

So it was all classroom the first weekend, with more classroom work the second weekend with a field day hosted at the Tonto National Forest’s Goldfield Admin Site on the Mesa Ranger District. There the lectures were put into practice with hands on experience digging line, water handling, mop up, tool sharpening and fire shelter practice along with familiarization with firing devices, pumps, engines and getting used to working together as a crew.

Women in Fire Bootcamp
Bootcamp alumnus Katie Markey and Kaly Spinler, now both on the Coronado National Forest’s Engine 552 and this years bootcamp participants watch a small brush pile burn during the Women in Fire Bootcamp Field Day September 13th, 2014. Photo by Tom Story.

Continue reading “A grass roots effort begins to increase the number of women in fire”

Are you FireFit?

By Bequi Livingston

Fitness is defined as, “the body’s ability to perform physical activity without distress or injury”. Although most people rarely engage in arduous physical activity as part of their daily jobs, wildland firefighters know that physical fitness plays an important role in our personal wellness and job performance. It’s a proven fact that by incorporating a balanced fitness program into our daily work life, we enhance our health and safety, while mitigating our risk of injury and illness and increasing our ability to do work safely.

Having said that, fitness continues to be one of the most important components of a balanced wellness program. Like it’s counterparts which include nutrition and stress management, fitness has a life of its own especially when if comes to the job performance of wildland firefighters. According to Dr. Brian Sharkey in his book, “Fitness and Work Capacity 2nd edition”, “for prolonged arduous work, fitness is the most important determinant of work capacity (the ability to accomplish production goals without undue fatigue, and without becoming a hazard to oneself or coworkers)”.

FireFit, an interagency wildland firefighter fitness program, was created with the intent to provide the interagency wildland fire community with a comprehensive, easy-to-follow, fitness program with the ultimate goal of improving firefighter safety and health and reducing injuries. This unique program provides a basic format for a well balanced fitness program that can be augmented as local levels see fit. Program success will rely on management support at every level as well as individual’s motivation and participation.

The FireFit task group includes representation from the major Federal wildland fire agencies combined with each primary wildland firefighting resource (hotshots, smokejumpers, helitack, engines); as well as subject matter experts (e.g., exercise physiologist and fitness specialist). Due to the efforts of this task group, and support provided through FFAST; the task group was able to develop a successful program and a website to provide the program information:

FireFit incorporates three specific modules that address pre-season, fire-season, and post-season fitness. Each module is unique as it provides a basic fitness program ‘framework’, specific for each season that will enable the wildland firefighter to develop a balanced and consistent fitness program while incorporating all the essential components of fitness. The modules can easily augment existing fitness programs to encourage consistency and safety and encourages year-round fitness, injury mitigation, and promotes wellness.

FireFit continues to lead the way when it comes to wildland firefighter fitness while addressing other issues including: mental fitness, team building, injury prevention, core stability and developing a mental checklist. The FireFit task group corresponds regularly to provide updates to the website including the most current and relevant information for the wildland fire community. We invite you to visit our website and welcome comments and questions.

Bequi is the Regional Fire Operations Health and Safety Specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The photo of Bequi was taken by Bill Gabbert at the IAWF Safety Summit in Pasadena, California in April, 2006.

Antibiotic resistant staph infection found among fire crewmembers

News is circulating about an antibiotic resistant staph infection that has affected several members of a hot shot crew in the Southwest Geographic Area and is “running rampant” in California. A portion of the Safety Alert is below, but HERE is the complete version.

During the past week, one of our Region 3 Interagency Hotshot crews returned from a fire assignment in Northern California after having confirmed three (3) cases of MRSA (Staph Infection) on their crew over the course of separate assignments. It has now been confirmed that the initial case was contracted at a previous fire assignment but was not confirmed as MRSA at that time, even after initial and follow-up medical attention and the crew returning home from that first assignment. After being hospitalized, the crew member was still not diagnosed with MRSA and the remaining crew was dispatched to another fire assignment in Northern California.

After a MRSA diagnosis was confirmed in the initial crewmember, another crewmember noticed a similar occurrence and taken to a nearby hospital (near the fire incident) where MRSA was also confirmed. The patient was released to duty and provided topical ointment and told to keep it clean. At the time, the doctors in the emergency room at the hospital confirmed that MRSA was “running rampant” in California.

After cleaning and disinfecting all vehicles and equipment, the crew returned to work on the fireline only to have the crewmember experience worse symptoms and taken back to the hospital with a diagnosis of MRSA and later released from the incident and sent home. The crew remained at the incident only to have a third individual with a ‘bee sting’ that developed MRSA. The individual was taken to the hospital where MRSA was confirmed. After much debate, the crew made the proactive decision to ask to be sent home to provide recuperation time for the crew and affected crewmembers.

Thanks to Bequi Livingston (USFS) and FireNet for the information.