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Meeting of the Unicorns

Late March 2022 was a momentous time for many in the wildland community. The 2022 IAFC Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) conference was the first time that many had been able to get together in person to share ideas, see old friends and make new connections. Most significantly, it was also the first meeting of the FDX Alumni.

The idea for the Fire Department Exchange (FDX) was first developed in 2015 with an exchange between the Austin (Texas) Fire Department and Boise (Idaho) Fire Department. Since that time more than 20 departments have had the opportunity to participate in peer-to-peer exchanges. Each exchange is structured to pair 5-7 fire departments together in structured conversations about wildfire preparedness, mitigation, and response. While this structure is great to develop lasting bonds between participating departments, it has created silos of expertise which is not shared among the broader community of participants.

To break the walls of these cylinders of excellence it was decided that a meeting of all FDX participants was in order. The IAFC WUI conference has long been a place for learning, sharing and professional growth. This event was also tagged as an excellent opportunity to bring the FDX community together in an event of networking, sharing and communal learning.

As all FDXs begin, the first event of the FDX Alumni event was an evening meet and greet with all participants, steering group members and IAFC staff. This critical gathering allowed participants to reconnect with peer departments from each exchange as well as meet other departments that had participated in other exchanges. FDX conversation began quickly. Stories were shared, common experiences were discovered, and hours moved by like seconds. Despite the fact that most people had not had previous formal interactions it was immediately apparent that all shared a common bond.

Monday morning began the official FDX event. The morning began with some introductions to the days event and some hopes from the participants. Out of the gate came one of the most impactful statements and a common theme of the day. Fire departments from across the country are waking up to the risk that wildfire poses to their community. These wake-up moments come in many forms, but they all have a common theme, the recognition that something must be done. Each department tackles this challenge in different ways, but it usually falls on the shoulders of a few brave individuals. These unicorns of the fire department see things differently than most of their peers. They may have experience on wildfires in other jurisdictions, maybe they have experience from a past life, maybe they were hired to “fix” the problem, but they all understand what is at stake for their community.

These unicorns know things that others within their departments and often their communities don’t. They also possess the passion and tenacity to confront the many “no answers’” that they face on a daily basis. We don’t have wildfires here, it’s someone else’s problem, that only happens in “those” communities and a million other excuses why their community won’t be impacted by wildland fire. Unicorns navigate these misguided perceptions with grace, education, community outreach and a good bit of old-fashioned salesmanship to both their department and community.

It can often feel lonely as a unicorn, especially knowing the gravity of the knowledge you possess. The first meeting of the FDX Alumni was a time for these unicorns to gather, share and learn. Each participant was at a different point in their community work, and each had different experiences to share. What all participants gained from the experience was another unicorn that they could reach out to for support.

As we move into what is looking like will be another active wildfire year, each of us does not know if the next fire will be our fire. The unicorns of the fire department are working tirelessly to ensure that their department and community are prepared for what they know is coming. While this work is hard and sometimes thankless us unicorns know the value of the work that they do. I can’t wait to see you all again in 2023 for the next meeting. Shine on unicorns.

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