US…and Them

By Nick Bohnstedt, Field Operations Specialist (Acting), Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

The Summer 2015 issue of Two More Chains explored the concept of “US and THEM” and the barriers this mindset creates to learning in the wildland fire service and beyond.

Unfortunately, I’ve got a pile of “Us and Them” examples from my own fire career. You probably do, too. One particular memory stands out in my mind:

The 4 of us stood there by the truck, absolutely filthy and tired after 4 shifts on a Type 3 fire in western Idaho. The fire was kicking our butts, but if the winds stayed consistent, our planned burnout might just allow us to turn the corner. Just then, a spotless rental SUV with street tires carrying team “nameplates and polo shirts” arrived at the drop point . . .

Whether you like it or not, first impressions in the fire service matter. We are tasked with rapidly building highly-functional teams in a dynamic environment using all the flavors of “Us and Them”.

But what makes that possible?

I like to think that the honor system allows us this privilege. The common trust that safety is a core value. That we’ve all had training commensurate with our qualifications. That we will do the right thing when nobody is looking. That you have my back to the exact same extent that I have yours.

The insight that Alex Viktora provided us back in 2015 speaks louder now than ever before, and until it ever gets quieter, it is definitely worth another read.

The original Two More Chains cover story by Alex Viktora can be found here:

Here are some key excerpts from Alex’s insightful and thought-provoking article that I’d like to share with you:

Model We All Use: Us and Them

This model, which we all use, is simple: folks like you, especially closest to you—those you work and suffer and eat and sleep with (in the case of wildland fire crews)—help shape and build your identity and your view of the universe. Let’s call this group that you belong to your “Tribe”. Humans have been part of tribal-type units, of one sort or another, for millennia. Tribes are important, critical even, to humans—individually as well as collectively.  

The other side of the model is folks you don’t know. You’re different than them. You think differently than them. You act differently than them. You wear different t-shirts and drive different colored trucks than them. You come from different parts of the world. You have different languages.

No Need to Change; No Need to Learn

Over time, it’s natural to protect, promote, and defend “Us” from “Them.” And when you hear about something bad happening to them, it’s only natural to attribute the outcome to the differences between “Us” and “Them”.

When I’d say things like “it could never happen to us,” I succeeded in protecting “Us” from the idiots—“Them”—simply by insisting that folks who have bad things happen are “Them.” Bad things always seem to happen to “Them” not “Us”. Right? And if bad things always seem to happen to Them—and only to Them—it’s easy for Us to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. No need to change. No need to learn.

      Bad things always seem to happen to “Them” not “Us”. Right? And if bad things always seem to happen to Them, it’s easy for Us to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. No need to change. No need to learn.      

All that you need to make this model work is a difference between your group and the others. Find a difference—big or small—and BAM. You’ve got it: Us and Them.

So how does this Us and Them phenomena happen? And why does it matter?

We All Belong to Tribes

The world is full of Us and Them situations. We find ourselves in these situations because humans have grouped-up in one way, shape, or form for a long time. Some of these associations are serious, while most are trivial. To one degree or another, they’re all tribes.

I’ll bet you have your own Us and Thems. You’re not alone. We all play in this game. And you’re either in one of these tribes or the other: Ford and Chevy. Husky and Stihl. Apple and Android. Mets fans and Yankee fans. My favorite? Skiers and snowboarders.

If you’re like lots of folks, the bumper of your car is a good place to go to see what your tribal affiliations might be. Football teams, philosophical and brand loyalties, are identified right there for the captive audience behind you to see. Tribal badges. What tribes do you belong to? . . .

Single Biggest Impediment to Learning?

Do tightknit, highly-cohesive units contribute to the existence of tribalism in the wildand fire service? They certainly can. And our tribe may lead to Us and Them situations. Could one of our greatest strengths also be our most significant weakness?

Here’s the bad news: Us and Them—tribalism—can be a dangerous way to view the world. It leads to dangerous revolutions. Arms races. World wars. Mass suicides.

Have any of these Us/Them dichotomies in the world of wildland fire led to these kinds of dangerous, tragic situations? Perhaps not. Have these divides led to warring factions where battles are waged and lives are lost? Not exactly.

In my view, Us and Them just might be the single biggest impediment to learning in the wildland fire service. Us and Them is a problem in the world of wildland fire in two ways—and both of these have to do with learning:

  • When different groups are thrown together on a fire, how will the tribes mingle, communicate hazards, achieve objectives and establish collective safety? How will they share and learn from each other as they work together—at the tip of the spear—in real time?
  • When something bad happens to a member of another tribe, it’s easy to look at the attributes of the other tribe (geography, resource type, experience level, agency affiliation, etc.) and dismiss the event as attributable to just these superficial differences. When we dismiss negative events like this, we can’t learn the lessons that are available . . .


Alex’s probing into the concept of “Us and Them” changed my perspective when I first read his article back in 2015. His insights made my little world of wildland fire seem a bit bigger. They opened this firefighter’s eyes to the possibilities that are available when we begin to break down barriers such as “Us and Them”.

I hope you can find some time to dive into Alex’s article in its entirety and consider how “Us and Them” affects your learning.

Enjoy the read!


2 thoughts on “US…and Them

  1. I also have experience with “Us and Them” many as a matter of fact. But one that sticks out to me happened a few years ago in northern Nevada. I was on a detail in northern Nevada to cover as an ENGB for an unstaffed type 4. When I arrived a large fire was just wrapping up, i got to the station and tied in like normal. Several days later I hear a couple seasonal folks talking about a burnover. I asked what fire they were talking about, thinking it was from another year, and they stated it was from the fire that had happened the other day. Their response was dismissive and they even stated “It was a VFD engine, they must have had themselves in a bad spot!” I promptly asked the detailed FMO why it was not mentioned in my in brief, he seemed just as dismissive and also mentioned that they were “Just VFD’s”

    Anyway I could get into how that made me feel, and how I addressed his response, (spoiler it was not the most tactful approach and probably made them shut down to an alternative perspective) but that is not the important piece. So “Us and Them” it happens more often than we would like to admit.

  2. Pingback: Heatstroke Lesson Sharing from the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests | Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

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