By Deborah Richie
Jumping from a plane into the choking smoke of a wildland fire takes utter mental focus.
Anxiety about what might go wrong can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For most of the decade (1995-2005) that Charles Palmer served as a Missoula-based smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service, he kept that mental clarity. Twice he did not. Once he broke a leg and several ribs. He’ll never forget the emergency evacuation flight out at 1 a.m.
“That’s all because of bad mental decisions,” the UM associate professor says. “You’re not on you’re A-game that day.”
Now in his sixth year teaching in UM’s Department of Health and Human Performance, Palmer maintains a keen interest in what makes wildland firefighters tick. Even in an office setting, the former smokejumper exudes an informal athleticism, and he goes by Charlie, not Charles. However, when it comes to the psychology of high-risk professions, he speaks with the authority of academic study combined with personal experience. Between fire seasons starting in 1989, Palmer earned all of his degrees at UM. His doctoral dissertation focused on the relationship between student-athletes and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
As he learned more about ADHD, Palmer wondered if some qualities that serve wildland firefighters well — such as a high comfort level with risk — also might indicate a prevalence of ADHD in the profession.
“Intuitively, it doesn’t make sense that people who are distractible would thrive in an environment where you have to pay attention to be safe, but they do,” says Palmer.
He found his chance to test the ADHD theory in the summer of 2009, while visiting fire camps for other funded research. Palmer often teams with fellow professors in his department who study ways to help the nation’s 30,000 wildland firefighters succeed in demanding settings.
UM has a 45-year relationship with the Forest Service and its Missoula Technology and Development Center to collaborate on wildland-firefighting research. Most studies are geared toward improving nutrition and exercise. Palmer’s expertise is delving into the human factors that affect decision-making, team-building and mental response to stress. (His background also includes a stint with the New York Giants, conducting psychological testing and profiling of NFL football players.)
With the help of three UM students, Palmer surveyed 302 firefighters on three separate wildland fires. They recruited subjects by word of mouth and via posted fliers. Each volunteer took an 18-question survey called the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale, proven to be a highly reliable test. Participants included firefighters serving on hand crews, working on engines, as timber fallers, helicopter crewmembers and in the top positions of incident command.
Every day, Palmer and the students scored and analyzed the incoming data in field trailers, marveling at what they discovered.
“We kept double-checking and triple-checking the results, and asking, ‘Really?’” Palmer recalls. “It was so interesting to see the hunch that I had was playing out in the research.”
The survey showed nearly 20 percent of the firefighters reached or surpassed a clinically significant cutoff score, which could suggest the presence of ADHD. Compare that to the 4 percent of adults in the general population with ADHD, and it’s possible that four to five times as many wildland firefighters may have the disorder.
Palmer published the findings with co-authors Steven Gaskill of UM, Joe Domitrovich of the Missoula Technology and Development Center, and UM students Marcy McNamara, Brian Knutson and Alysha Spear. The paper appeared in the “Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Human Dimensions of Wildland Fire (2010).”
“Like any research, it posed a lot more questions than it answered,” Palmer says. “The first is: Why is it so high?”
He is pursuing funding for more extensive surveys to validate the initial figures and to investigate personal histories that would shed insights to the experience of being a firefighter with ADHD.
In addition to embracing risk, people with ADHD tend to be highly active, distractible and impulsive. Those characteristics can be positive and negative, Palmer points out. On the plus side, firefighting is hard physical work. For people who have a difficult time sitting still, it’s a great profession.
Distractible? That may not be the best quality in a classroom when a lawn mower revs up outside the window, and the student stops listening to the teacher to ponder the make of the mower, says Palmer. But distractibility is critical for noticing shifting winds or flying embers overhead that signal danger. On the flip side, distraction in the field can lead to forgetting tasks and being waylaid on the way to meet another firefighter or deliver a key piece of equipment.
“Smokejumpers have a joke that they tell their buddies,” Palmer says. “‘Sorry, I saw this shiny object,’ and they all know what that means.”
Impulsiveness may contribute to ease in a high-risk environment, but it can lead to poor judgment, such as lighting and tossing an old fusee (a torch used for backfires) to see if it still works and without thinking of where it might land, he says. Impulsive ADHD behaviors often are linked to heavy drinking, drug use and spending the hard-earned overtime paycheck in one spree.
The more managers know about wildland firefighters’ personalities and capabilities, the better, Palmer believes. With the knowledge that ADHD may be prevalent, they can take special measures to assure effective training, better team dynamics and improved communication and safety measures.
“If figures are that high, are we training in the most effective way?” Palmer asks. “Training often means you’re reading a book, someone is lecturing or you’re taking a test.”
That kind of learning experience is the antithesis of how people with ADHD learn, he says. Studies show experiential, hands-on learning in dynamic environments works best. When written materials are important, the more photographs and captions the better. People with ADHD often excel with interactive technology that involves fast clicks of the computer mouse and moving from subject to subject.
“It’s important to find out where people thrive and don’t thrive in high-risk professions,” says Palmer, who sees potential research into ADHD among law enforcement officers, steelworkers and others. “We want the people who are comfortable with risk, but there’s a cost, too.
“Not every day is a fire,” he says. “You’re not jumping out of an airplane, but you are in an office trying to compile reports, and that’s just not a strength for a lot of firefighters.”
The growing force of wildland firefighters makes it even more important to study and apply what’s learned about ADHD in the profession, Palmer points out. The 30,000-firefighter figure is expected to expand in an era of climate-change predictions for more frequent and intense fires, as well as an increasing number of homes in the urban-wildland fire interface.
The allure of fires will never leave Palmer — especially during summer, when his thoughts drift from academics to the fire line.
“I’m thinking about my fellow firefighters working away in the heat, chinking away at the next big or small fire,” he says.
Fortunately, his research often takes him right back to the fire camp. Palmer sees his faculty position at UM — a leading institution for wildland firefighting research — as an ideal fit. In addition to UM’s Department of Health and Human Performance, the College of Forestry and Conservation offers a fire science minor degree specifically to prepare students for careers in wildland fire management.
The setting alone couldn’t be better. Millions of acres of wildlands lie within striking distance of UM, including the historic Big Burn of 1910. The Southwest Montana Wildland Fire Training Center offers a full curriculum on campus. The Forest Service in Missoula houses the Fire Sciences Lab, the Missoula Technology and Development Center, the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute and, of course, the Missoula Smokejumper Base.
For Palmer, smokejumping always will be close to his heart. He’s proud of serving in what he’s careful not to call an elite force, despite only 435 jumpers in the country. He’ll never forget the first time he saw the parachutists floating down into a fire in Montana, where Palmer first discovered firefighting in 1989. Before they got there, the advancing fire overwhelmed the crews. That changed with the arrival of the smokejumpers.
“It was a great moment,” he recalls. “I had clarity and knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Palmer applied six years in a row at every base in the country before he was selected to be a Missoula smokejumper. He left a steady job as a school psychologist in Colstrip for the lower-paying, seasonal job.
“I didn’t think twice about that choice,” Palmer says, with a bit of a wistful smile as he leans back in his office chair. “But it takes a certain temperament and mentality.”
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