Archive for the ‘Community’ Category

If you’re in the Phoenix area on the evening of June 7th, come out to the City of Gilbert’s Riparian Institute and enjoy a nature walk through the 110-acre preserve and listen to music by several members of the Mesa Symphony and yours truly. I’ll be playing harp and classical guitar near where the walk ends, but close enough to the parking area that you can simply walk over and sit down on one of the provided seats or settle in on the grass and have a listen if you don’t feel like taking the tour.

The nature walk starts at 7:00 p.m. at the east end of the public library. Check the Riparian Institute’s website for more information. There is a suggested donation of two dollars. I will be playing from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. I hope to see you there!
Ariel Laurel Strong With Pedal Harp

Photo by David Weingarten, Goldeneye Photography.


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A couple of things happened this last week that prompted me to look back into the past with renewed interest. Friend 1 sent me a book of devotionals in an apparent “coincidence” (she had no knowledge of the role those specific devotionals once played in my life) and in my blog reading, one of my regular stops had a post about the seeming incongruity of the writer’s journey from paganism to Roman Catholicism.

The book was the same one we used to read at every lunch in the religious order I was once a part of. It brought back fond memories and resurrected lingering questions about the long, strange journey I have been on. The blog post, likewise caused me to reflect on that same time period, my choices, and where I am today, having traveled from heathen to Episcopalian to “Jubuan.”

Many years ago, in my early twenties, I was a postulant in an Anglican religious order. I loved it – the life, the work, the prayers, the people. I can still remember it like it was only yesterday. As I write this I can smell the incense, hear the singing, feel the joy I felt in taking my temporary vows, all excited to wear my habit, which as part of an active order was reserved for special occasions. I believed in the work we did and that the most important thing in life was to know and serve God.

The long line of tradition meant a lot to me, and I, in my innocence, believed that it was more than sturdy enough to hold up to scrutiny. In my thirst to know and understand, I delighted in learning more and asking questions. But I asked “too many questions,” and it would have been much easier on all concerned if those pesky little visions and psychic occurrences that have been with me all my life had simply ceased.

I still miss it sometimes, just like I miss firefighting and EMTing. It’s funny, though, the things that I miss are 1) the people, and 2) the tools. The people part is pretty self-explanatory, I think, but the other seems a little odd to me. I’ve always taken a lot of pleasure in the outer tools of my trade, whatever that happened to be at the time. I still miss my prayer book and rosary, just as I miss my fire trucks, the ambulance, my badge and blues. These days, I thoroughly enjoy my guitar and my laptop. But as much as I like the outer trappings, most of all it is the inner life that the trappings feed, support, and point towards and beyond, that I love. That has remained, despite the outward changes.

That said, I guess I’m still most comfortable in a “uniform,” even though I know that is only symbolic of how I gravitate towards collective efforts. Yet I always seem to run into trouble because of my need to speak my mind in a personal war against groupthink and narrowness. I wasted a lot of time figuring that it was my problem, that somehow there was something wrong with me because of that. I still distance myself off from groups because I do not want any more fights or disappointments. Whether or not that will always be the case, I don’t know. It’s undoubtedly one of the reasons I read about others’ winding journeys with such fascination. (I can still hope, can’t I?)

Once again I find myself on the lonesome trail, wandering and wondering. I sometimes question whether the extreme outer-directedness and the concreteness of fire service culture was not an attempt on my part to leave all the inner questions behind in a flurry of action. If it was, it certainly didn’t work. But when I really think about it, I know that it was not about leaving the questions behind as much as an effort to express my inward experiences in some outward form. And, just as in the religious order, it was a defined opportunity to serve as part of a group.

For now, the way is long hours of solitary struggle, doing art, music, writing, webwork (of both kinds!) in an attempt to put what I have seen and done and experienced, in both the outer and inner realms, into forms that can be shared with others. Agonizing. Ecstatic. Daunting, exhilarating, scary, and fun, all at the same time. Once again, my favorite Ed Abbey quote from Desert Solitaire comes to mind. “May all your trails be winding, crooked, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” Ah yes, they have been and they have…

I find myself standing on a rocky outcrop, footsore and weary, gazing with awe and amazement, back at the trail behind, ahead to a wreath of clouds that crowns jagged, snowy peaks beyond. The trail climbs ahead higher, further, and is just as rugged, if not more so, than that which came before. Sigh. Smile. I may seem to be hoofing it alone, but I am accompanied by all of those, past, present, future, on similar journeys on similar paths, whether in a recognizable “uniform,” or just in raggedy, old, patched together traveling clothes like me. See you out there.

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I got a phone call from my mom this afternoon and when she warned me that I’d better sit down, that the news was bad, I did. She’d been down to get her mail and learned that last night a fellow firefighter and friend of mine from the old days on the department had been in an auto accident out-of-state. Three of V’s four daughters were killed in the crash and she, the other daughter, and a niece had been treated for minor injuries and released. Minor physical injuries, anyway.

My heart just ached as I hung up the phone. Two things kept running through my mind – the thought, “How will V ever cope?” and an image of the oldest girl’s face. The eldest of the sisters had been a fire cadet, one of the kids that I helped train. I cried and then paced around the house, until I forced myself to sit down and pray. Even then I had to knit to be able to sit still.

This afternoon has been a lengthy meditation on impermanence and the fragility of life. I think back to the times I spent training the department’s cadets, three bright, excited, and happy teenagers eager to learn and test themselves. I remember feeling so proud and protective of them, and wondering what they would do, who they would become, with their whole lives ahead of them. And now, at just eighteen, one of them is gone.

V will have the support of the department and the community. It may be a tiny little town, but when someone has real trouble, people go out of their way to help. I pray for the three girls as they embark on the next phase of their journey. I hope and pray that my friend’s faith and her family’s will be enough to sustain them all through this.

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An undisturbed pool of gasoline, like ignorance, sits and placidly gives off fumes; it isn’t until a source of ignition is introduced that it transforms into an inferno.

What an unhappy state of affairs exists in my old fire department! I am deeply saddened by it, but I can’t say that I am surprised. The gasoline has been there; the matches of arrogance were sitting nearby. It only took an out-of-control Deputy Fire Chief to light one.

Note: This post is split into three pieces. The main part, with background and a supporting email below that.

I ran into one of the local Sheriff’s volunteers at the local Post Office on Friday. He wanted to know if I was still affiliated with the department. I said that no, I had had a parting of the ways with the current leadership. He wanted to know if I had heard what happened at the last District Board meeting. I told him that I kind of stayed away from all of that these days. He said how disappointed he was in the character and conduct of the department, that members were not living up to being examples to the community. With that I certainly agreed. Then he told me that the Deputy Chief had gotten physically rough with a citizen at the last District Board meeting.

What! I was appalled. I know both of the men involved and the citizen, Mr. R, is an older gentleman who I would guess to be in his late seventies and looks as if a strong wind might blow him away. The Deputy Chief, on the other hand, is a strapping man in his late forties who stands several inches over six feet tall. It blew my mind.

I’ve heard of mounting pressures on the current department power structure, questions over finances and budgets, how a variety of matters have been poorly handled. Consistently, the Chief and Deputy Chief have met any and all attempts by the community to create change with contempt and manipulation. The details get pretty sordid, suffice to say that I have personally witnessed outright lying to the Board and the public and I have seen citizens being verbally abused. I know when bullies run out of other options, they will resort to force. I am just so disgusted by the whole thing. In my definition of leadership, there is no excuse for such behavior.

I did a little checking into the facts, both to verify the events to my own satisfaction and to find out if the man who was assaulted was OK. The facts were correct and, thankfully, Mr. R is alright. It remains to be seen what will happen from all of it. I don’t know if Mr. R will press charges or if the Board will force change. I hope that what has happened will be a catalyst for change; I fear that nothing will happen and it will just continue to be business as usual.

I am surprised at the depth to which this has affected me. The last two weeks of blogging has brought firefighting back into the forefront of my consciousness, and I realize just how much I miss it. The day before I found out about all of this I had started writing about the backdraft training incident mentioned in the “Background” section of today’s post. I have even been toying with the idea of going back into it, with another department. At two years post-surgery the nerves in my legs have finally healed enough that I could lift heavy weights again and really get back into shape. I’ve been losing weight and working out. Then reality hits and I think of what starting over again at my age would actually mean. Probably not.

It has taken me a long time to work through my anger over what happened a year ago. I had some concerns that when the day finally came that the chickens started to come home to roost for the Chief and his Deputy, that I might feel smug or take pleasure in it. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened.

Instead, I find I am left with this sick, hollow feeling. It took me a little while to realize what it was. It’s shame. I find that I am still carrying a deep attachment to and identification with the department, much more than I had realized. I feel ashamed of the department, for the department, ashamed that I was affiliated with it, and shame that, ultimately, what I tried to do to improve it failed. I didn’t make a difference. It’s a defeat that I have not come to terms with.

Now you know what I have been grappling with the last few days. The one hopeful note I find amidst all the community cacophony is that maybe now something really will change. I have been afraid for the last couple of years that the only thing that might shake things up enough to make a difference would be a firefighter dying for the leadership’s unchecked arrogance and willful ignorance. There hasn’t been a day go by since I left that I have not prayed for the safety of old comrades. Now, I am hopeful that the Universe has found a way to use the cleansing, purging power of fire to renew and restore balance. Tikkun.




A little less than two years ago I was on light duty, recuperating from two surgeries and doing a lot of physical therapy for the nerve damage in my legs. I didn’t know if I would be able to return to active duty firefighting and EMTing, so in the meantime I was writing grants, doing fire investigations, and conducting public education programs and firefighter trainings. My chief encouraged this and hinted that there might be a combination fire inspection/investigation/public education position being created in the department in the near future. (It’s a very small town.) So, I had hopes that, even if the PT didn’t get me to the point of being back on the line, there would still be a place for me in the department.

There were frictions and political tensions aplenty over the summer. I had been walking a fine line in gently agitating for higher training standards and encouraging officers in higher positions (I was only a lieutenant, but I was the department’s training officer) to keep improving their own training. We had officers that, by their training records, wouldn’t have been employable as basic firefighters in a lot of districts. (This included our Fire Chief.)

It didn’t help matters any when the Chief asked me to sign his Wildland Fire Incident Qualifications (his “Red Card” in firefighter lingo) that he was an Engine Boss, though he was in no way qualified at that level. I refused. He then ordered me to sign it. I still refused. To sign would have been to go against everything I had been trying to build since the fire I described in the Initiation post. He still went on out-of-district wildland assignments, but he went without a Engine Boss card from me. To this day, I don’t know who signed him off, though I have my suspicions. Whoever did it had to falsify not only the Chief’s credentials, but their own as well, as I was the only Training Specialist.

I had been asked, then ordered, to do something that was not only dishonest, but potentially quite dangerous. Managers of large incidents have to know the certifications and training levels of far-flung and diverse incoming units to properly assign duties and maintain safety. They may be putting a hand crew from Florida together with an engine crew from Washington state to accomplish a task. The only way they know what unknown crews are capable of is by people like me maintaining the integrity of the system.

I took a lot of verbal abuse for my stance, but we seemed to reach a truce. I had worked too long and too hard to make things better to let it go easily. I loved the work. I cared about my comrades. I believed that I could still cause change for the better. So, I hung in there, conducting trainings on leadership, communication skills, and safety, believing that eventually reason would prevail. That is, until the night of the backdraft training.

Backdraft is a condition where fire has consumed most of the available oxygen in an enclosed environment and then lies there smoldering, hungering for more air. If the buildup of potentially explosive gases is not vented up and out of the building, and air is suddenly introduced, an explosion results. Firefighter protective gear can stand a lot of abuses, but an explosion, with its concussive force, gaseous fireball, and pieces of a building turned into projectiles, is not one of them. Improperly managed backdraft conditions have been deathtraps for too many firefighters.

Firefighters, cadets, officers, everyone assembled in the training area upstairs. Information on backdraft was presented. I told them the proper way to use vertical ventilation to release the trapped gases. And then the Deputy Chief said that he would not get up on a roof to ventilate a structure that was a potential backdraft. (Vertical ventilation is the universally accepted best practice.) What would he do? He would throw a rock through the window! No, I am not kidding.

I stated that that was not standard practice and that it was dangerous. Didn’t matter. The Chief backed him up, one of the engineers backed him up. The two captains in the room never said a word. (Captain/Friend Two was not there that night, which is a whole other story…but I just wanted to be clear on that point.) The other Lieutenant was silent. Firefighters who later told me (privately) that they knew I was right never said a word. I may have been right, but I was left hanging out there alone, slowly twisting in the wind.

I went home and stewed. I turned it all over and over in my mind. There is a protocol in the Fire Service, where if a dangerous condition is detected during an incident, the Safety Officer has the right, indeed the obligation, to stop the Incident Commander from staying the course. I couldn’t count the number of times I had intoned the officially endorsed mantra of “We Are All Safety Officers” to the newbies.

At that point, whether my legs ever healed or not became irrelevant. I had pledged to protect the public, and, I viewed being an officer as a position of service and responsibility where I had the duty to protect each of those that sat in that room. At any time we could have a fire where backdraft conditions were present, and now I knew there would be people on the fireground that might order a window broken out, or (heavens forbid!) throw a rock. People could die simply because of one person’s ignorance and arrogance.

I wrote the email below. (I have to admit the end of paragraph three is pretty smart-ass and I probably overdid the quotes and citations. I was angry. But, my main point remains.) Predictably, I got called in to meet with the Chief and Deputy Chief. They said they were terminating me for insubordination. They settled for putting me on a three month probation after verbally slapping me around and me groveling a bit. (Gads, that hurt my pride! But I knew of rumblings in the community about other fire department matters and I still had the vain hope that something might change.)

The three months wore on and I saw how I was being marginalized and rendered ineffective. One by one, every one of my duties was taken away from me and given to…the Deputy Chief. I realized there was nothing more that I would be able to accomplish there. I look back now, and I know given the same circumstances, I would write the email again. My essential values and ideals remain unchanged. With the benefit of hindsight, however, I would not have groveled and I would have taken an advocate with me into that meeting with the Chief and Deputy Chief.

I have stayed far away from the fire department for the last year. There was nothing I could do, and quite frankly, it hurt too much. I still heard rumors of things that disturbed me, but I saw a few signs that the person who had moved into my position was involved in some good community education efforts. I got shunned by some, applauded by a few, but by and large most people didn’t know or didn’t care what was going on. I found work as an instrument tech on a survey crew, then later as a web designer. My legs kept slowly healing. I dealt with separation and divorce. Life moved on, or so I thought.

Dangerous Email


This email went out to all personnel, paid and volunteer, and to the Board with the subject line “We Are All Safety Officers.” Here is the text of the offending email, names removed:

Hi Everyone –

From the time I joined this department I have been told, and taken to heart, that we are all safety officers with the responsibility to look out for each other. On an incident, the safety officer can override the IC and bring operations to a standstill if an unsafe condition or action is found. Given the importance of proper training to safe incident operations, I don’t see why training should be any different. So, I am putting on the Safety Officer hat and correcting last Wednesday night’s training:

In situations where there is a risk of backdraft, you must use vertical ventilation to release the trapped flammable gases. Opening a window or door for horizontal ventilation will expose firefighters to a sudden explosive combustion of superheated gases. Given sufficient manpower (2 in, 2 out, 2 on the roof, an engineer and an IC), the proper way to handle such a situation is to get up on the roof and open it up. If you don’t have that many people available, then you better stand back and wait for it to self-ventilate. To tell firefighters to take an axe to a window–or, more amazing yet, throw a rock through it because you are not comfortable getting up on the roof–is foolish and irresponsible.

I’m sorry I didn’t pursue it further at the time, but I had already made the vertical ventilation point earlier in the training and, quite frankly, I was dumbfounded by ***’s remarks. If there is a more unsafe act on the fireground than throwing a rock through the window of a building with signs of imminent backdraft, I can’t think of one. Well, going solo into a heavily involved structure, without SCBA and a handline, when the walls are bulging might qualify. Either way you’re just as dead.

The more I have thought about it, the more incredible it seems that 5 officers can sit at a training, supposedly responsible for the lives and safety of all those present, and allow such a dangerous view to go unchallenged. It leaves me with the uncomfortable question of “Do we not care or do we not know?”


“Firefighting today is a science that requires a vast amount of knowledge and training…Experience alone will not give this knowledge, a greater part comes from training and systematic schooling. The battles of our wars are successful only because they have been trained for and planned for long in advance. Large fires, like battles, do not occur that often to give the knowledge from experience alone.”
Fire Department Basic Training Manual, New Jersey State Fire College

“…officers should neither expect nor allow their firefighters to sacrifice themselves by taking unnecessary risks on the fireground.”
Fire Department Company Officer, IFSTA

“Backdraft occurs when air is introduced into an oxygen-starved fire. This situation creates an instant ignition and free-burning state.”
Fire Department Safety Officer, IFSTA

“…should be vented at the uppermost point first. At this point oxygen-starved, but superheated gases are banked up, with very little flame evident. When an opening is made at the top, these gases rush out and at times ignite with blow-torch effect at a point a few feet beyond the opening. This is because of the fact that until they reached sufficient oxygen they were too lean to react…If ventilation is directed at ground level and ordinary air, containing oxygen, is admitted below the fire, the gases flash and expand explosively. This phenomenon, known as backdraft, can be expected where a fire has apparently been smoldering for some time, or where there appears to be pent-up, pulsating heat. It can be caused by the untimely opening of a door or window on the fire floor, or can be self-initiated by a window blowing out due to the heat and admitting air to the pent-up gases.”
Fire Department Basic Training Manual, New Jersey State Fire College

Signs of conditions leading to backdraft include:
“Smoke-stained windows
Smoke puffing at intervals from the building (appearance of breathing)
Pressurized smoke coming from small cracks
Little visible flame from exterior of the building
Black smoke becoming dense gray yellow
Confinement and excessive heat”
Essentials of Firefighting, IFSTA

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