Paul Kavavu (left) points out Seeley Lake while collegue Christopher Kasayi points out the Working on Fire Training Academy in Nelspruit, South Africa. Photo taken at Seeley Lake Elementary School by Andi Bourne.

May 30, 2013 Pathfinder

International Exchange Imparts Knowledge
by Andi Bourne

“Wow, I’m going to the greatest county the world has ever had,” thought Christopher Kasayi, a Health and Safety Officer and Instructor with the Working on Fire (WoF) Program in South Africa (SA), when he was chosen to come to the United States.

Kasayi and Paul Kavavu, Instructor with WoF, are participants in the international exchange program between SA and the United States (SAUSA). They have been training at the Condon Work Center with the Great Northern Fire Crew for the past two weeks.

The SAUSA Program started in 2004. A total of 26 South Africans have participated in nine exchanges with the US Forest Service, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the New York City Fire Department. This is the fourth time the Great Northern has hosted SA trainers.

“A quarter of the world’s wildfires are in SA,” says Tim Murphy, Deputy Operations Specialist with Region 1 Fire and Aviation at the Missoula Smokejumper Base. “The main goal of the [exchange] program is to take lessons learned back to SA and incorporate them into the SA program [WoF].”

WoF started in 2003 after 20 firefighters lost their lives in a grass (veld) fire in Kruger National Park. WoF has two main purposes: poverty relief and fire management including wildland and structural. WoF currently employs 5,000 personnel and has a rigorous training program from which Kasayi and Kavavu are a part of.

“This has been the most powerful training that you can have with theory and practical [application] by the way they do things,” says Kasayi of the Great Northern training. “There is very powerful communication. Good communication makes a team and no one is left behind.”

Kasayi is from Jansenville, Eastern Cape in SA. With the program since its inception, he started out as a firefighter and worked his way up into his current position.

Kavavu is originally from Angola and currently lives in Kathu, Northern Cape in SA. He started with WoF as a sub-contract instructor and was hired as a WoF instructor in 2005.

“The priorities are very straight forward here,” says Kasayi. “The safety aspect is more important than anything else.”

Kasayi notes the difference in leadership styles. “There is more open leadership, it is more friendly here,” he says. “In SA ours [our leadership] is more military based. Firefighters are more afraid of their leaders. This [open leadership style] allows crew to be more adaptable to issues and more flexible.”

Kavavu also recognizes the distance between leaders and followers in SA and wants to change this distance especially with himself.

“I am the oldest instructor,” says Kavavu. “They [firefighters] see me like a lion. They still have a fear of me. I want to make them free to me. Crew leaders and crew members must be approachable. There is individual leadership in America. Team members look after themselves and are self-motivated.” Kavavu goes on to explain how in SA crew members follow their crew leaders, waiting to act until they are directed.

Kasayi is impressed with the Great Northern physical training (PT) program and how they use it primarily as a team building exercise, not punishment. “The trainers here implement what they teach,” says Kasayi. “They do everything the crew does.”

Kavavu adds, “In SA instructors don’t do [work with the crew]. As instructors we must be willing to do PT with the crew.”

Kavavu is interested in how the USA instructors train, in particular the women instructors. The SA culture is still male-dominated. Part of the requirements for SA government grants and funding includes a certain percentage of females in the work force.

Kavavu struggles with his female instructors to get them to actively engage with the crew and to motivate them. “In the USA the female instructors are proud by themselves to do what they know and share it,” says Kavavu. “They share by doing, they don’t just tell but do.”

Carrie Johnson, Superintendent of the Great Northern Crew, enjoys hosting SA leaders in the exchange program. “They offer a different mind set on fire,” says Johnson.

Kasayi and Kavavu gave a presentation on the nine different SA cultures, the firefighting culture, training structure and how they do things in SA. Communication and team cohesion are huge challenges.

“It was really cool,” says Charlie Palermo, second-year crew member with the Great Northern. “They have adapted really well.”

“In their talk about culture, they emphasized the struggles in their program,” says Johnson. “They pointed out how quickly we come together as a team.”

Along with imparting their knowledge about cultural differences in the SA fire culture, Kasayi and Kavavu hope to leave the Great Northern Crew with a few of their own leadership successes.

“I want to bring music into their lives,” says Kasayi. “It encourages the team and teamwork.” South Africans sing while they work and sing while they run.

“I want to teach them drilling,” says Kasayi. “Drilling is a part of discipline teaching crew members to take orders from supervisors.” Drilling is a daily activity in the SA fire culture that is practiced, rehearsed and teams will even compete in.

Although Kasayi and Kavavu spent most of their time in the USA training, they had a few days off to enjoy the area. They have been able to go fishing, explore Glacier National Park, lead worship at Faith Chapel in Seeley Lake, and experienced their first snow.

Johnson is impressed and values the exchange of knowledge the program offers. “Their enthusiasm for everything, the snow, learning, it’s been great,” says Johnson.

“All one needs to do to appreciate the program and what we have in the USA is to look into the visitors eyes and smiles and wonder what they cover,” says Murphy. “This has been a very rewarding program to both SA and the USA, as we take much more away in knowing and working with the SA folks.”

“[This exchange] will allow me to expand more into the safety practical,” says Kasayi. “I can develop a good integration that will work [in SA].”

Paul Kavavu (left) points out Seeley Lake while collegue Christopher Kasayi points out the Working on Fire Training Academy in Nelspruit, South Africa. Photo taken at Seeley Lake Elementary School by Andi Bourne.

Paul Kavavu training with the Great Northern Crew prepping line for a prescribe burn. Photo courtesy of Kavavu.

Paul Kavavu (left) and Christopher Kasayi enjoying the first snow they have ever seen. Photo courtesy of Kavavu.

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