What is “Normal Work”? Getting the Most from Accident Reports



Jody Jahn

This is the third of a three-part blog series by Jody Jahn, PhD, that addresses how we learn about complex hazards. Each of these three posts focus on a different facet of learning. (To see the first post:  How “Oh Sh*t” Moments Can Make You a Better Firefighter ; and second post: “See Something, Say Something” – Why That Advice Doesn’t Always Work and How to Make it Work for Your Crew”.)

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.

What is “Normal Work”? Getting the Most from Accident Reports

By Jody Jahn, PhD

JODY J_GRANITE MNT PHOTO FOR 3RD COLUMNRemember this photo? Kind of hard to forget, right?

It’s frustrating to see this image of the Granite Mountain Hotshots while they were up on the ridge in the black watching the fire burning through the valley below. This kind of moment is a perk of the job: Watching intense fire behavior from a safe spot.

Ever had a conversation about this photo?

I have, and the question that always comes up is: Why did they leave the black?

We will never know the whole answer to that question. But we still need to learn from the experience. So, we try to learn about information they may or may not have had on hand: Did they copy the weather report?

And we make our best guesses about professional motivations or pressures they might have felt: Were they trying to save the ranch they were hiking toward when the fire hit them? Were they trying to locate themselves in a better tactical position so they could have a more active role on the fire?

The fact that we don’t have a clear answer as to why they left the black is frustrating. But it also is really valuable: It forces us to talk about the pressures and undercurrents that shape what we consider “normal” firefighting work—both across the profession and on your individual crew.

What is “Normal Work”?

Normal work is something you don’t really notice until someone does it wrong.

Then, all the sudden, there it is: The wrong way of doing things.

The thing is, there are as many versions of “normal” work as there are firefighting crews. Sure, there are common professional standards and shared understandings about “what right looks like” when making firefighting decisions.

But we cannot assume that every crew will approach decision points using the same logic, prioritizing the same things, or acting out the same set of values.

Understanding “normal” work in firefighting is really about understanding firefighting culture—both the aspects of it people share across the profession, and unique things that set one crew apart from the next.

That’s what accident reports work to unearth. Read the front section of an FLA or Learning Review and you’ll see language about trying to gain an understanding of “normal” work, and of piecing together the “system” of actions and decisions at play in an incident.

Any accident report is going to talk about (or at least speculate on) the information people had on hand. For example, there will usually be reporting on radio transmissions, updates on fire spread, weather, plans from the IAP, maps showing fire spread and progression, and photos.

It’s important to know what information likely influenced people’s decisions in the middle of an incident. But pieces of information by themselves don’t tell us much about the string of logic they fit into, or how.

That’s what culture can tell us.

Culture helps us understand the values that guide our actions. In other words, values give us a logic to follow. “What right looks like” is just another way of referring to the logic of your actions that stems from the profession’s and/or your crew’s values.

One way to think about how values provide a logic for action is to ask yourself a few of these questions:

  • What is your crew’s reputation in the fire community?
  • What about your crew makes you and your fellow crew members proud to be part of it?
  • When you’re out on a single-resource assignment away from the rest of your crew, what is the crew image you need to uphold to represent your crew well?

If you’ve been around a few seasons working on different crews, you might have noticed that the ways you prove your worth, dedication, and trustworthiness on one crew maybe didn’t work as well on another crew. Maybe you had to tweak your approach a bit to show you belonged there.

I’m sure you’ve thought about the Granite Mountain case quite a bit—maybe that specific moment in the photo. Maybe you talked about it in refresher, or know someone (or someone who knows someone) who was on the Yarnell Hill Fire that day. You probably discussed the information they had on hand, and you probably also tried to speculate about their logic for leaving the black. What about that situation made leaving the black the logical choice—or the “normal” thing to do?

Finding “Normal” Work in Accident Reports

The variety of accident reports—FLAs, Learning Reviews, Rapid Lessons Sharing—aim to give you a tour inside the circumstances firefighters were encountering in the moment.

Once inside that slide, you can have a look around, and try to walk in the shoes of those who were there. This gives you a chance to imagine how you personally might handle the situation as the key decision maker.

But don’t stop there.

Take some time to reflect on a few basic questions as you tour around within the slide. Remember, as you do this, your concern is not only about what you personally would do. It’s also about trying to see the situation from that crew’s perspective—not just by reflecting on pressures most encounter in this line of work, but also trying to understand the pressures that might have been unique to a crew.

As you read a burnover or deployment FLA, LR, or RLS ask yourself the following questions to try to see the situation as though you were there:

  1. What professional firefighting pressures do we take for granted as being relevant in this situation? This can tell us about what’s “normal” in the profession as a whole.
  2. Were there pressures that appeared to guide decision making that are baffling as to where they came from, or strange that they seemed to have so much influence on decisions in that moment? This can tell us about a specific crew’s version of “normal.”
  3. How did the involved crew’s/firefighter’s actions respond to those pressures? This can tell us how strong a set of values might have been to those involved.
  4. What professional pressures might have been influential in how your crew would handle a similar situation? What might your crew have done similarly or differently?

Has your crew ever had an honest conversation about what sets it apart from other crews, or the image you uphold? If not, maybe it’s time to talk about those underlying values you take pride in and how they inform your firefighting.

Talking about values is the easy part though. We can defend them because we are proud of them. It’s the flip side that’s more difficult to pinpoint—the unintended consequences of those values.

For example, how might an ethic of hard work also mean your crew takes on too much at times? Or, how might taking pride in meticulous work mean that your crew sometimes loses sight of the big picture of what’s going on around you?

Understanding “normal” work is really about making these hidden pressures—assumptions about “what right looks like”—visible and giving them a name. This helps you stop automatically reacting to them.

Once you recognize these pressures, you can begin to have more of a choice about how to deal with them.

One thought on “What is “Normal Work”? Getting the Most from Accident Reports

  1. Pingback: Normal Work – Thinking it Through

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