The Illusion of Control — Ready to tip some sacred cows?

[This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Travis Dotson

In the wildland fire service, we suffer from an “Illusion of Control”. This illusion is so pervasive it’s never even acknowledged, let alone discussed. The ever present assumption that complete control is possible puts us in a constant cognitive struggle to make sense of the frequent evidence to the contrary.

We are not in control of the elements influencing fire, we are not in control of the other humans influencing our situation, and we are not even in control of our own perception of what the situation is.

In spite of all this uncertainty, as we step into this dynamic and complex environment, we convince ourselves we are in control of our own safety.

This unconscious self-deception—the illusion of control—is feeding our well-intentioned efforts to “get better” at our current way of doing things. What if we dropped the illusion and accepted all the instances in which we gamble? Could this acknowledgment provide a new perspective on when and where we are willing and not willing to take chances in this line of work? Maybe.

Good old Wikipedia says: “The illusion of control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events.” Notice that the illusion stems from overestimating one’s ability to control. This is an important distinction.

Complicating the matter, Wikipedia goes on to inform: “The illusion is more common in familiar situations, and in situations where the person knows the desired outcome.”

I am rather familiar with the fire line. When I’m there I know what the desired outcome is. If I come upon a stretch of line dotted with sketchy leaner snags I tell myself to be “super heads-up” when I walk through. If I scramble down that piece of dirt and don’t get smashed—especially if a snag creaks and wobbles and I pick up the pace—when I’m back at the truck I can give myself credit for surviving (overestimating the extent of my control). But let’s face it, I was just rolling the dice. And I got lucky.

Sticks and Stones

For the most part, we accept the gambling involved with heavy things falling down onto us. Tops of trees and granite masses of multiple sizes whiz by us on a fairly regular basis. When someone does get mangled by forest shrapnel, we typically attribute this to “wrong place/wrong time”—which means chance (bad luck).

To be realistic, on any given day it’s a good bet to go into the woods with the expectation of not getting hit by a tree or rock, but it’s still a bet. Now, enter all the elements we typically face: fire weakened trees, wind, compromised root systems, bug kill, poor visibility, tough ground, etc. The odds get worse, but then we “mitigate” right?

Send fallers in ahead of time, set a wind speed threshold, avoid really bad areas, etc. Being anywhere in there is still a gamble. We don’t even need to go into any detail about rocks. If there’s slope and chunks of solid mineral material, gravity does its finest work and we just cross our fingers and stay “super heads up”.

Again, with trees and rocks, most of us accept the fact that we’re rolling the dice. We are instructed to believe that our own ability to “keep our head on a swivel” is solely responsible for our continued existence, which further escalates our commitment to the illusion of control.

Entrapped By Our Beliefs

We love to rail against the goal of “zero fatalities” and drone on and on about the “inherently dangerous” nature of our business. But right out of the other side of our mouth comes a long list of things that can “guarantee” us not being entrapped by fire. Ready to tip some sacred cows?

I’m not saying all the advice dispensed in the long list of lists isn’t helpful. I’m just saying we need to acknowledge all the assumptions that are baked into them. Let’s go right to the king of the lists:

The Ten Standard Fire Orders

Assumption One: All of these actions are POSSIBLE (within our control).

Have you ever KNOWN what your fire was doing at ALL times? Think of all the simple and complex ways you have been surprised by fire.

Assumption Two: Humans are capable of flawless performance (it’s possible to get everything right all the time).

When I’m not thinking clearly due to the carbon monoxide in my brain from the smoke I’ve been living in for a week without adequate rest and extreme physical exertion, having a list tell me to “think clearly” doesn’t remedy the situation.

Then there is the king assumption above all else and the hardest one to let go of:

Assumption Three: It’s possible to FIGHT fire safely. (Note: Not interact with fire, but FIGHT.)

To believe this, you have to believe that in this dynamic, complex, unpredictable environment, individuals are to blame for bad outcomes. To believe this is to say only “bad firefighters” get hurt or killed (especially by entrapment). This last order sets us up for the circular logic used in the aftermath of tragedy: “They died, so they obviously didn’t provide for safety first.” While this is a convenient method for self-soothing (I won’t die because I DO provide for safety first), its utility on the fire ground is questionable and might even be destructive.

Difficult Pill to Swallow

I realize there is a group out there shaking their fists and shouting: “Blasphemy!” Trust me, I know how difficult a pill this is to swallow. I know it’s easier to just spit the pill out and keep on doing your part to support the Illusion of Control.

I’m just asking you to consider this more realistic perspective. Just try it out for a bit and see how it feels. Consider for a moment how it would feel to have less control than we would like, knowing full well you have no choice but to jump right back into the “I have control” mindset to go out and swing a tool.

The Absence of Zero Risk Alternatives

One area we almost all agree on is the absence of zero risk alternatives. I’m fairly certain there are very few folks out there who believe we can mitigate our way out of risk completely. The 2016 Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book) recognizes this: “Our safety philosophy acknowledges that while the ideal level of risk may be zero, a hazard free work environment is not a reasonable or achievable goal in fire operations.” Pretty straight forward.

The Red Book goes on to state that: “The primary means by which we implement command decisions and maintain unity of action is through the use of common principles of operations. These principles guide our fundamental wildland fire management practices, behaviors, and customs, and are mutually understood at every level of command. They include Risk Management, Standard Firefighting Orders and Watch Out Situations, LCES and the Downhill Line Construction Checklist. These principles are fundamental to how we perform fire operations, and are intended to improve decision making and firefighter safety. They are not absolute rules. They require judgment in application.”

So none of our lists are “absolute rules”. And, I would add that thinking of them as “rules” only serves to entrench us in our Illusion of Control. The supporter of these lists being absolute rules typically believes in the fantasy of “just follow the rules and nobody gets hurt”.

As a crew leader, what is your primary duty? Is it to get work done? Is it to bring all your crewmembers home safely? I know your answer is “both”. That’s exactly why we are so invested in the Illusion of Control. We have to believe we are in control to “get off the bus”, to feel OK with “engaging” in any format. We have to believe we are in control to take on the charge of “bringing everyone home safe”—even though this charge devastates survivors.

Did the crew leader fail when a random rock or snag kills a firefighter? No!

By the same token, did a crew leader fail when their fireground prediction was wrong—no matter what the reason—and the crew is overrun by fire? That is where we are less willing to emphatically shout “No!” because it makes us uncomfortable. It challenges our own Illusion of Control.

I’m not saying there isn’t skill involved in our work, of course there is. Skill is an enormous part of our job and we have honed it to a very sharp point. We are good, more than good, we are outstanding at navigating the complexity of the environment we face. We have gotten better and better over time and we will continue to improve. But we will never be in complete control. And we will never improve to the point of perfection. I truly believe there is benefit in acknowledging that.

Let’s back off from that stuff for a bit. We’ll come back to it. Maybe we should explore where this Illusion of Control came from, where was it born and who fed it so consistently—enabling it to grow as big and strong as it is.

The Illusion of Control is nothing new, it’s just part of our wiring. Many of us work for “land management” agencies whose very premise is rooted in the notion that intentional human intervention is needed for “the greater good”. Belief in our ability to control is crucial to that effort.

Jetty Jacks

You Ever Heard of ‘Jetty Jacks’?

Have you ever heard of “jetty jacks”? These large, crossed-steel structures built to trap sediment and stabilize river banks were used in an attempt to tame the Rio Grande starting in the 1940s. They served their purpose but now present a dilemma for all land owners involved. The modern day complexity resulting from the initially simple solution is well documented in Taking Out the Jacks: Issues of Jetty Jack Removal in Bosque and River Restoration Planning, by Kathy Grassel, 2002.

This paper explains how “jetty jacks contributed to the success of the massive human undertaking of reshaping the Rio Grande for the protection of property, levees, and riverbanks from flooding.”

As the use of these simple tools increased, those in charge realized they could convert the meandering and braided river into a more convenient straight channel down the middle of the Rio Grande Valley. In relation to our modern day, the author explains: “Jetty jacks in a post-dam era have lost their function.” The paper goes on to discuss “issues surrounding their former usefulness, present redundancy, and potential stumbling blocks to their removal”.

The Failure to Predict Downstream Complications

If you’re not getting where I’m going with this, let me help you out. When we engineer solutions to a problem we are currently facing, we rarely predict all of the potential downstream complications that we may be creating in the process, as in the case of jetty jacks.

What if some of the older “solutions” we have implemented in the wildland fire arena have actually “lost their function” and we just haven’t acknowledged it yet?

More likely, it’s not the solutions themselves, but rather the perspective which spawned them that is problematic. The perspective of “Fire as the Enemy” obviously framed the problem in such a way that produced exactly what we currently have, an organization unable to extract itself from adversarial language related to fire.

With language driving culture and culture driving action, it makes sense to be where we are today. The problem, however, is that the language supports the old problem frame. And maintaining that frame limits our ability to innovate. I am curious about what possibilities would emerge were we to shed this limiting perception? For better or worse, we love the idea of an enemy to defeat. It feeds our power-driven Illusion of Control. And, it sells T-shirts.

The Context in Which These Solutions were Imagined

Now back to those Fire Orders. Let’s talk about them in the context of their inception. What else was going on when these well-intentioned words were crafted? Who created them and what was the typical view of the world at the time? We all know the story, our very essence is rooted in our retelling of the lessons written in the blood and the glory of our pursuit.

“Surely these men gave their lives in defense of this country, for without the strength of our forests, water, and other natural resources, this Nation would not be a leader in the free world today.”

Richard E. McArdle, Chief, U.S. Forest Service, January 1957

This powerful statement linking our business directly to leading the free world came after 11 fatalities on the Inaja Fire of 1956 which spurred the creation of a task force to tackle two very clear objectives:

1. Recommend further action needed in both administration and research to materially reduce the chances of men being killed by burning while fighting fire.

2. Recommend ways to develop experts in fire behavior.

Many efforts resulted from this endeavor, including—but not limited to—the creation and adoption of the Ten Standard Firefighting Orders.

What I want to examine is the context in which these solutions were imagined. What did America, and the world for that matter, look like and what was the perspective of those charged with tackling the socially unpopular recurrence of dead firefighters?

1957 America

As the Ten Standard Fire Orders were being crafted, the United States was deep in the Cold War. As our collective fear of Communism blossomed we dreamt up the notion of “Mutually Assured Destruction” which included “Massive Retaliation” as part of our foreign policy.

The memory of dropping two atomic bombs on Japan was fresh in our minds. The culture of the time relating to anything unwanted was to overpower and destroy it, both overseas and domestically. Here at home we were just wrapping up an era of well-supported public persecution, eventually known as McCarthyism. At the same time, the U.S. Government was in the height of intentionally dismantling Native American communities through the “Indian Termination Policy”. Yes, it was literally called “Termination”. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing.

What does this have to do with the Fire Orders? Context matters. America in the 1950s wasn’t all lollipops and daisies. Part of the fabric of the time was a general tendency toward control, with the default response to any problem being force. Overpower. Eliminate. Defeat. This is the unquestioned vernacular depicting the go-to tactic for maintaining accepted norms. And it comes through loud and clear in the Fire Orders.

Having your default response set to “fight” has consequences. It sets you up for periodic defeat, which we have certainly proven with our continued combat with fire.

A Small Group Who Started Pushing Back

I am by no means the first to question the utility of our sacred lists. After South Canyon, the fire community was shaken to its core. Much discussion regarding the Ten Standard Orders ensued. Most folks reacted with the mantra: “We don’t bend them; we don’t break them”.

There was also a very small group of folks who started asking harder questions and pushing back:

In the paper cited above, Ted Putnam wrote: “These ‘orders’ are deceptive in that they seem to be basic actions firefighters can accomplish. It is only on closer inspection and considering them in light of what is behaviorally possible that it becomes apparent that none of them can be followed, as stated, let alone following them all simultaneously as management suggests.

Admitting that We Don’t Know Everything

So what does all this mean? The existence and continued use of the Fire Orders only serves to confirm our very real Illusion of Control. I’m not certain we can eliminate the Illusion of Control—I’m not even sure we want to.

I do feel like there is benefit in acknowledging it. We’ve said it before: Uncertainty Exists. I’m suggesting the effect of uncertainty on our objectives is most problematic when the uncertainty goes unrecognized. What if we chose to admit that we don’t know everything, including what the fire will do and how we will react?

The ultimate assumption in the Fire Orders—and just about every other tool in our toolbox—is that the system surrounding the individual is perfect and bad outcomes are the result of some individual’s poor performance (AKA “human error”).

Acknowledging that we consistently overestimate our level of control is just one more reason to accept that “mistakes” are well within the range of “normal” on the spectrum of human performance and that a system dependent on flawless human performance is unsound and unjust.

Asking the Question has Merit

The other unspoken assumption in almost every list or piece of guidance we have is that, overall, our objective is to overpower the fire—to fight. But this flies in the face of the current fad of waxing poetic about identifying and protecting “values at risk”—most notably, our very vulnerable human workforce.

What windows open when we reimagine our mission and the intent of our actions on a given assignment? Can we even open that window while subscribing to marching orders born of an aggressive and simplistic worldview more than a half-century ago?

I don’t have the answer. But I am confident that asking the question has merit.

We are not in complete control. And the sooner we admit that, the sooner we can get busy innovating our way to safer interactions with fire.

7 thoughts on “The Illusion of Control — Ready to tip some sacred cows?

  1. Great discussion starter, thank you! Particularly the 2 points of the practical impossibility of simultaneously following all guidelines while getting any work done, and the results-based analysis – someone got hurt or killed so they or they supervisors did something wrong, and the correspondingly dangerous assumption that results were good so our process/decisions must have been good – the old “Good Luck Reinforces Bad Habits” warning.

  2. Does anyone have access to the original article “Effective Firefighting Calls For Bending Rules Sometimes –Quentin Rhoades, 1994”? I remember that article from back in the day and this blog spot reminded me of it. The link in the blog doesn’t take you to the original op-ed. I would like to re-read it.

  3. I am inclined to believe that the best way to make wildland firefighting safer is to do less of it. Let’s stop trying to hold fires well within our national forests and public land boundaries, especially late in the season. Let’s emphasize strategic long-term fuel breaks and timber sales instead of mobilizing massive amounts of men and machinery in real time trying to hold fires along travel corridors that haven’t been maintained in 50 years. Much of our motivation to fight fires came from when our national forests were putting money back into the treasury growing a crop of trees for the nation. That is largely a lost motivation. We used to think that it was a waste for a tree or an acre of forest to go up in smoke, but we cut so little timber on federal land today that what is actually a waste is the money and human effort and exposure that goes into randomly trying to hold fires in locations that alleviate pressure on local administrators in the very short-term but work against long-term resiliency.

  4. Great article Travis. Reading it made me pause for some self reflection. I can’t help but wonder how much of our “Risk Management” discussions are influenced by an illusion of control?

  5. Pingback: Is Our Safety Messaging Making Us Less Safe? | Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

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