Have you ever wondered what the difference is between different kinds of firefighters? News media will often refer to Hotshots, Helitack, Smokejumpers, fire suppression crews, engine crews or just use the terms “wildland firefighter” or “firefighter”.
Each of these titles refers to differences in either training, the type of fires they fight, or in some cases, the location of the fire.
Hotshots are elite firefighters composed of twenty people. Although they are stationed in various National Forests around the country, their job is to fight fires wherever they are needed. They also are not relegated to just fighting forest fires in National Forests. As an interagency team, they may find themselves on state or other Federal lands, such as those belonging to the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service. Native American tribes also may call on Hotshots to help with fires on their land.
Helitack crews are specially trained for initial attack (first on the scene) in remote areas not easily accessed either by vehicle or on foot. They fly via helicopter, and are usually dropped off near the fire. Rarely do they repel from a hovering chopper.
Many people assume all wildland firefighters are Smokejumpers. This is not the case. Smokejumpers are specially trained to initial attack very remote fires that even a helicopter can’t safely access, parachuting from an airplane. This dangerous job has unique training all its own.
Fire suppression crews are usually composed of only ten people. They are stationed on a particular National Forest at the District level, and will only go to fires outside of their jurisdiction if the need arises.
The term Engine crew can refer to wildland firefighters or structural firefighters, both of who use water to extinguish flames. However, structural firefighters have completely different training than those who fight wildland fires. The training is not only different because structural fires involve using ladders, but fire behaves very differently in each case. Burning buildings have the potential to collapse on firefighters at any minute, and have the dangerous backdraft phenomenon. Fire also uses up all the oxygen inside, and creates toxic fumes, requiring them to wear Scott Air Packs. In contrast, forest fires create their own severe weather, adding dangerous winds to the mix. Also, while structure fires are usually confined to a few hours, many forest fires can go on for days or weeks.
What all of these positions share is they are dangerous occupations. Why do men and women choose these careers? Most love the excitement, prestige and glamour. Risky jobs, yes. However, they are full of rewards both in a job well done, and earning the respect from people who appreciate their hard work.