Life as a Rappeller

There is a certain kind of person that is willing to work hard to avoid being ordinary. In the Forest Service, those people often become hotshots, smokejumpers or rappellers. Some like working mostly as a close-knit team, while others prefer frequent independent work. And then there are those who like a bit of both, and they often choose to become rappellers. Rappelers are firefighters who rappel out of helicopters to the ground to fight fire; the Siskiyou Rappellers use a Bell 205 for this purpose.

Siskiyou Rap CrewMatt Schutty, age 41, is the Superintendent of the Siskiyou Rappellers and in his 12th year rappelling. They are a crew of 21 this season; some rookies, and some seasoned seniors, all based out of the Grants Pass Municipal Airport. The number on the crew varies each season.

“We try to have about 21 rappellers available for the season,” Schutty says, “but it depends on the number of applicants and the number accepted.  Our minimum daily staffing is eight rappelers and a spotter to staff a helicopter 7 days a week.” 

Schutty points out that rappellers are a national resource which means they aren’t “owned” by the Pacific Northwest but can be called anywhere in the country at any time. “We need to have that many crewmen in order to cover days off. We also have boosters to send to other bases as needed.”

 A “load” of rappellers is four. The priority geographic area of response is the Pacific Northwest. As fire activity ramps up across the country, each geographic area favors its “own” people due to their familiarity the terrain and the ecology. But, said Schutty with a shrug, You order what you need, and you get what is available.”

There is a common motivation among his crew, Schutty says, to be part of an elite team. Rappellers tend to be those that like working with a familiar “family” of firefighters but also appreciate being challenged to provide leadership. “Personally, I like the camaraderie of being part of a small effective group,” he says, “but I also like to be independent and have a chance to be the decision maker. So rappelling works for me.”

Three people on the crew work year-round. The season for the other 12 permanent-seasonal rappellers begins by the start of March. Things are quiet then; administrative jobs get completed and hiring for the next season ramps up. In addition to the permanent and part-time members, four rookies were brought on this year – they can each work 1,039 hours before they are done.

“The numbers have to reach a sweet spot each year,” Schutty says, “and it’s not a set number. This year we had 23 hired initially, but 2 took other jobs before the season started so we have 21.”

Rappelling seems like a natural fit for veterans who rappelled as part of their military career, but Schutty says they don’t have that many on the crew.

“We usually have between one and three vets on the crew who may not even have done things similar to rappelling in the military.  But vets definitely have skills that transfer to fire.”

The start of the season often means heading to the South to conduct prescribed (Rx) burning which begins earlier in the South; there are a lot of acres to burn in a very short timeframe.  Near the end of April,Rappellers preparing to descend during training the rookies begin to arrive to get paperwork done and begin physical training twice a day. Days are also filled with things like learning the equipment they’ll be using, getting drivers’ training and taking leadership classes.

Schutty says, if someone takes the job expecting to be a hero, they’ll quickly find out that’s not what it about.

“We do this job without much fanfare – we are certainly not in it for public recognition; most people don’t even know we’re there. It IS exciting to be a firefighter and rappel from a helicopter, but after you hit the ground, its just really hard work!” 

Schutty says most rappellers would probably do it forever, but life demands other choices.

“Many go on to become Forest Aviation Officers or Fire Management Officers because of demands in their personal lives.  At least half of our senior rappelers are married with kids and at some point, you need to think about medical benefits and retirement!  Also, the work is hard and bodies only hold up so long.” 

He says the youngest crew member is in their early 20’s while five are in their 40’s.  Most live in the Pacific Northwest and many live locally in Grants Pass, Merlin or Rogue River.

It’s a great job and very busy, Schutty says.

“We were busy last year and we expect a busy season again this year.  Oregon Department of Forestry declared the official start of fire season in southwest Oregon on May 12th this year when normally, it’s around June 1. We’ll be ready.”