Many organizations require their employees to undergo regular training on personal ethics. The goal of these trainings is to expose one to the common humanity and encourage you to not be a jerk. Yet while we spend numerous hours on the personal, we rarely talk about the larger ethical issues revolving around what we do as organizations--in this case, as emergency responders--even though many of the decisions we make before and during a crisis have ethical dimensions. For example, in the wildland fire world, we routinely prioritize the protection of communities and major infrastructure over individual homes, smaller clumps of structures, and other values when suppression resources are tight and the number of incidents are large. Is this right? Is it moral? Ethical? Is it ethical for leadership to place those decisions on IMTs and other responders? Is it ethical for the decisions to be made without an extensive public discussion about the values that will be applied to those decisions?
To the nonspecialist, disasters have an accidental nature which is related to the factor of surprise when they occur: the normal, structured, everyday aspect of some form of human life is suddenly and directly ruptured via events that initially exceed customary social and physical prediction and control. This... together with a historical and contemporary certainty that some disasters will occur in the near and intermediate future, renders the inevitable fact of disaster a compelling moral or ethical subject. Human well-being and harm will be at stake in ensuing disasters, and this in itself creates moral obligations to prepare for disaster and reflect on the moral principles that do or do not apply in responding to disaster.
In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. --Eric Hoffer
Preston Cline is a Wharton guy who recently finished his PhD on mission critical teams. He's smart, generous, and a dynamic speaker. I was honored to read a draft of his dissertation and just received a copy of his finished product. It's full of good stuff that's applicable to incident management and in the future, I'm sure I will reference his work regularly and pay particular attention to the points about developing, conveying, and sustaining expertise.
On that topic, perhaps the most thought-provoking passage comes in Preston's introduction:
In the fall of 2013, I asked Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, the following question: “What happens to experts when the rate of change exceeds the rate of learning?” His immediate answer was “they cease being experts” (Kahneman, 2013).
Indeed. We see the passing-by of former experts regularly. People step out of the stream and can never quite make it back to where they were. But what happens to a profession or an organization when the rate of change exceeds the rate of learning for all of the experts in that field or group? What happens when the problems are too dynamic to work out completely or for the answers to have consistency across time?
It seems there are many organizations struggling with this potentiality. In the wildland fire world, we have recently seen a change in how S-520-Advanced Incident Management is taught. Where once it was a "do as I did" experience, today it is evolving into a strategic thinking and stress management class based on adult learning concepts. (Preston's thoughts contributed greatly to this change.) These ideas are slowly working their way through the system. For instance, we also have a movement underway to refine how incident objectives are written so that all responders understand the why behind the what.
In the face of rapid change and quickly evolving complexities, we will certainly have to rethink our definition of expertise. Expertise must move from the how and what to the why, from specific knowledge to a higher level of strategic thinking born of experience. Art based on craft. Yet in our world, it also means exposure to a conflict: the drive for certainty (science) and uniformity (legalities) that we see in so many other parts of our society against the uncertainty of incidents, crises, and emergencies that we regularly encounter. Scripted plays versus improvisation out of necessity. (It is most acute after fatalities or serious accidents.) This conflict places a burden on all of us, including academics studying our field, to better explain why we do what we do and to place in context the uncertainties that compel our decisions.
There's also a need for doing more at the C&G level. The strategic thinking must now always be there on any extended incident of any type. However, for many (federal at least) IMT members, the ability and time to consider incident issues is severely limited. If we are to truly cultivate and expand expertise, we must invest in the time to reflect, to share, to learn--and it must be more than the drive home after an incident or a couple of days at a team meeting in the spring.
The current and future challenges are too great for us to allow anyone's expertise to stagnate or diminish.
Apologies for not writing much recently. Lots of wildland fire work here in SW OR, summer days with the family, a new puppy, and getting the daughters ready for another school year. I'll do better.
As a communicator, it's easy to get wrapped around the axle trying to remember what we can and cannot talk about. For instance, in the wildfire world, I saw a lot of skittishness last year when it came to air tankers--and for good reason. Contracts and such are complicated things beyond most PIO's (and ICs, FMOs, and agency administrators) understanding. When it comes to flying things that weigh a bunch and get politicized easily, it becomes even tougher to not only get it factually correct, but to also navigate through all the potential political potholes.
Yet just because a topic includes complex and controversial issues does not mean we should surrender the whole conversation to others.
One of the tough things about policy is that the identification of problems is easy while the improvements and solutions are extremely difficult to express and even more difficult to implement. Still, the problems cannot be ignored even if a certain proposal has little chance of implementation. With that in mind and also understanding I'm no scientist or lawyer, let's talk about federal incident management positions and wildland firefighters. To mix metaphors, just give me a second to mount the soapbox and start chasing rabbits.
Since 1970, the western US annual wildfire season has grown in duration by 78 days. (Globally, fire season has lengthened across 11.4 million square miles, roughly the size of Africa.) Since 1984, the area annually burned by wildfire in the US has doubled. The Forest Service estimates that area may double again by 2050. Some scientists now say 50% or more of western forests could burn in the next three decades. Fires greater than 1,000 acres have increased almost 600% since the 1970's and fires over 10,000 acres are up by over 700% for the same time period. In short, the changes we are seeing across the landscapes are not explainable without considering the major driver of climate change. Everything else, including lack of thinning, prescribed fire, and other management practices can't touch the influence of climate change.
Media briefings are not something we do every day. Sure, crisis communicators and PIOs often do interviews, but a full-blown live media briefing for a high-visibility incident seldom comes around. I've had the luck--or misfortune--of doing media briefings on four incidents during my career. Some were bigger than others and one was more emotional than the rest, but the common elements are multiple and varied media outlets, live broadcasts, long-term and complex incidents, and regional or national (and international) coverage.
Media briefings are perhaps the most intense thing we can do as PIOs/crisis communicators. Not only are we representing all the responders and speaking to all of the public affected, but because of the high visibility, many others are watching and our reputation--perhaps our career--might be influenced by a single exchange. Because of that dynamic, you can look at media briefings as the most personally stressful communications chore. If you are speaking about fatalities, it amps things up even more.
Since the idea of this blog popped into my head, I've been thinking about a post on media briefings. I started writing a few times, but those attempts were ultimately frustrating. As I worked through the process, I came to realize I couldn't build a post around an academic bent or just jot down a basic How-To. No, in order to honestly convey the lessons I learned, it had to be more personal. So please bear with me. As of now, I plan to break the topic up into three posts (maybe four) that will mirror the chronology of my career through the Rodeo-Chedeski, Wallow, and Yarnell Hill fires. (The Eagle Creek Fire will make an occasional guest appearance.) This first one will be the most personal and deal with learning and persevering through failure, the second will cover mostly positive lessons learned, and the third will be about the unique stresses fatalities bring.
Teaching with a PowerPoint built by someone else (especially a committee) is a great opportunity to inspire student and instructor boredom. In the incident response world, we are usually bound by NWCG and FEMA developed presentations. Not only can they be dry, but they are often out of date and not aligned with the frequent changes in incident management and crisis communications/public information. So what's an instructor to do?
Communications plans are essential to any crisis. You have to understand the incident, identify your audiences, select the principal messages, and determine the best ways to deliver and spread your information. Then you have to make sure a lot of other folks understand the plan. For a primary crisis communicator or PIO, you should always have a plan and it should constantly be evolving based on the reality of the incident. However, unlike public affairs people, we often don't have time to write it all down.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.