What do firefighters have to lose?

Loss aversion is a powerful force and the fire service is no exception


The long and short of it is, "…we overreact to perceived losses … and the more there is on the line the easier it is to get swept up into a irrational decision." 1

By Charles Bailey

At 1500 hours on a Friday, your company is toned out for reported house fire. You wait at the station for a crew. A few minutes go by and no one else shows up, so it’s you, the driver and the new kid. You request mutual aid knowing it will take a long time for them to make it in. As you approach the scene you can see the smoke hanging low in the street and a bunch of people outside waving.

You got out later than you wanted. You worry about how long this fire has been burning. You worry about the new kid. People are watching. You should wait for help to arrive but it is a small fire; you should be taking up the lines before help even arrives.

About five feet inside the door you realize that it is incredibly hot with no visibility and you can’t see any fire. It occurs to you that the fire might be in the basement. What you feel next is a hard tug on the line from in front of you as the new kid falls into the basement, dragging you along with him. It's too late.

Loss aversion is a powerful force. We don't want to lose. But what was to be lost at this fire? Why not wait?

What was at stake was a loss of meaning. Firefighters are not isolated machines, churning along algorithm defined pathways. They are living, sentient beings, always a part of group dynamics. The choice of tactics is not always about an SOP; it is, as often as not, determined by the firefighter's notion of what their peer group expects of them. It is an internalized set of expectations about how to feel and behave.

If you are from a small town where people understand that there are often not enough firefighters to fight a fire from the inside, you might not have gone in with only three people on the scene of the fire.

Your chief of department might have said to you at some point, "When the resources are available or when life is at risk, we will make interior attacks. However, when resources are not in our favor, we understand that applying water from the exterior is all that we can safely do."

"…the more there is on the line, the easier it is to get swept up into an irrational decision." 1

In August 1949, a large wildland fire — The Mann Gulch fire — killed 13 firefighters in Montana. Karl Weick examined this fire from a socio-physiological point of view. In his discussion2, he talks about "sudden losses of meaning" during the Mann Gulch fire. The question of loss of meaning cannot be ignored because it, along with peer pressure, can be devastating for firefighters.

When the firefighters at Mann Gulch hit the ground early in the morning, they thought they would be done with the fire and taking up before 10 a.m. "As Mann Gulch loses its resemblance to a 10:00 fire, it does so in ways that make it increasingly
hard to socially construct reality…"

The perceived expectations of the public, the peer group and of the chain of command are powerful. Organizations imbue firefighters and officers with a sense of what it means to be a firefighter. Too often the words are "aggressive interior."

Unless the department makes an effort to educate and provide alternatives to that aggressive interior attack ethos, firefighters and officers will continue to behave in ways that seek to avoid the loss of their association with that ethos.

If we show up at a house fire and do not run inside when running inside is all we have ever been taught to do, then who are we?

Loss aversion says that people don't like to lose.

What a firefighter has to lose may be bragging rights around the table or it could be a more fundamental loss of meaning; either of which is serious enough to become the basis for, what is clear in hindsight to be, irrational behavior.

References:

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori and Rom Brafman, Broadway Books New York, New York, 2008.

Karl E. Weick. Reprinted from The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster by Karl E. Weick, published in Administrative Science Quarterly Volume 38 (1993): 628- 652

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