“See Something, Say Something” – Why That Advice Doesn’t Always Work and How to Make it Work for Your Crew


This is the second of a three-part blog series by Jody Jahn, PhD, that addresses how we learn about complex hazards. Each of the three posts focus on a different facet of learning. The third post will be featured next Tuesday (Aug. 25). (To see the already published first post: How “Oh Sh*t” Moments Can Make You a Better Firefighter.)

Jody Jahn, PhD, is an organizational communication and behavior researcher and professor at University of Colorado at Boulder. She was a wildland firefighter for eight seasons, working on engines, hand crews, and heli-rappel.

“See Something, Say Something” – Why That Advice Doesn’t Always Work and How to Make it Work for Your Crew

By Jody Jahn, PhD


Jody Jahn

If you see something, say something.

How many times have you heard some version of that advice? A hundred times? A million?

And how many times have you found yourself in a dicey situation thinking, I should say something…but then you didn’t?

What stopped you from speaking up?

Things will probably turn out fine.

What if I look like a rookie?

My supervisor never listens to me anyway.

I don’t want to look like I can’t handle this.

These people have more experience–I’ll follow their lead.

It seems silly to think reasons like those would have the power to squelch someone’s voice when they feel unsafe. But we know it’s more complicated than that.

When my Colorado University Boulder students first learn about voice, they tend to think of NOT speaking up as being a matter of peer pressure or being self-conscious. My students are so confident that they would have no problem voicing their concerns. Nobody wants to look like they can’t overcome a little peer pressure.

But a classroom is different than a crew. There is nothing about my class of 25 people that makes us a cohesive group with a specific shared identity or purpose.

And that is the kicker when it comes to speaking up. Once you add in a group identity, then all of a sudden you’ve got clear expectations to meet and a crew reputation to uphold.

On a crew, you have a good idea about how your fellow crew members will judge you if you don’t measure up. (But you’d judge them too. Fair’s fair.).

A crew isn’t simply a collection of free-floating, fully independent people. Instead, it’s its own social system guided by a cohesive logic about what the crew is (and is not), what it does, and how it does it.

For example: this crew is a bunch of badasses (not slackers), that does what: delivers a great product, and how: by working super hard.

In one research project, I studied two heli-rappel crews whose members might have described their crews as follows:

Crew 1 (We’ll call them the “Learning Crew”):

  • This crew is… students of fire.
    • We do NOT… make people fend for themselves.
  • We are really good at…developing our people into smart firefighters.
  • And we are good at that because…we have designed all our crew routines to promote as much learning as possible from our everyday experiences.

And, Crew 2 (We’ll call them the “Veteran Crew”):

  • This crew is… experienced firefighters and independent thinkers.
    • We are NOT… people that need much guidance from others.
  • We are really good at… handling tough firefighting situations and challenging authority when we need to.
  • And we are good at that because… we push our people to trust their experiences and stand up for what they believe.

Take a second to imagine yourself inside that moment when you know you should say something, but must decide whether to voice or stay quiet. Do you think you’d be more likely to speak up on one of these two crews than the other? Do you think you would use a different approach to speaking up on each crew?

Here’s what I found.

The Learning Crew had several apprentice firefighters rotating through every season. The annual turnover combined with the learning focus of the apprentice program made it necessary to have crew habits around learning-oriented conversations: lots of informal briefings, debriefings, teaching opportunities, and dialogue about operational decisions. Here, all members contributing to the dialogue was welcomed and expected as the “normal” thing to do.

As a comparison, the Veteran Crew had mostly highly-experienced firefighters, and many had worked together for several seasons. These conditions made it necessary to have crew habits around preparing their folks for higher leadership roles and thinking independently. Being assertive was welcomed and expected on this crew because it showed that people were stepping out of their comfort zones and working on advancing their fire leadership skills.

So, speaking up was likely on both of the crews, but it also looked different on each one.

If one person from each of those crews traded places with each other, they might find that being assertive on the Learning Crew might make them seem like they aren’t committed to the dialogue-based learning process. Likewise, the other person might find that taking a dialogue-based approach on the Veteran Crew, where assertiveness is expected, might make them seem like they are unsure of themselves. (Read: not yet ready to advance their fire leadership skills.)

Neither of those crews is better or more “right” than the other. They just have different sets of collective developmental needs, which inform the crew habits they value and maintain.

On a crew, when it comes to “saying something,” it’s not about your personal approach to raising concerns or questions, it’s more about your crew’s habits for approaching these things.

What Are Your Crew’s Habits?

Did you ever see the graduation speech by U.S. Navy Admiral (and former SEAL) William McRaven where he says, “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed”?

Making your bed is just the first of 10 excellent lessons he offers, the idea being that your habits—even the most boring, mundane things you do every day—are what make you successful.

Just like you and I have our own personal habits, teams or crews have habits, too, in the form of routines or practices. You might make your own bed every morning. What does your crew do every morning together: morning briefing, JHA, Sit Report, 6 Minutes for Safety, Safenets/Safecoms, a tough PT?

What “see something, say something” looks like on your crew will depend on what your crew habits are. Here are a few things to consider about that:

1. Voice will feel normal for you if it’s normal for your crew.

Don’t feel right saying something? Maybe it’s not just you. One compelling reason that voice can feel so uncomfortable on some crews is because it deviates from what is considered “normal” for that crew.

In order for people to feel like they can voice questions or concerns, they have to know that others genuinely want to hear what they have to say. The act of saying something needs to be both expected and respected.

This is why regular routines make such a big difference—especially the really mundane ones like morning briefings, end of day casual debriefings, etc. When people know that conversation is going to happen, they want to be ready to contribute to it.

2. Leaders (at all levels) set expectations for voice and model what it looks like for your crew.

When it comes to keeping up a crew’s habits, the ball is in the leaders’ court. It’s the crew leaders who get to decide which practices their crew will be diligent about, and which ones will fall by the wayside.

Making a habit of certain conversations can be beneficial because it sets the expectation that the crew will have that conversation later, and that people need to be ready to contribute something to it. If the crew doesn’t stick to the practice, then members stop looking for things to bring up, and can get in the habit of not contributing.

Ultimately, it’s on crew leaders to keep these expectations active by holding themselves and their members accountable to crew habits.

3. Crew logistics make a difference in what voice looks like.

Whether your crew works as a single unit (such as hotshots) most of the time or splits into smaller modules (such as helitack) makes a difference in whether crew habits will be maintained throughout the season.

If the same people work together the entire time, it’s easier to maintain crew habits. If a crew is rotating through several modules or lots of folks are going out as single resources, it’s tougher to keep consistent habits that promote voice.

If you are a crew leader, it might take some extra diligence on your part to keep the crew habits alive.

Now your turn. What is your crew about?

  • My crew is…
    • We are definitely NOT…
  • We are really good at…
  • And we are good at that because…

And what are your crew’s habits for voice? Think about how your crew’s habits fit together with your crew values, and talk with each other about what you’re seeing. Maybe your crew is doing great. Or, maybe your crew could use a new habit.

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