By Marc Revere
Published Tuesday, October 2, 2012
The chaotic: a space so turbulent that cause and effect are unknown; strategically, it is not clear what to do with any measure of certainty.
—Christopher Bellavita, Director of Programs for the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security
Wag Dodge, the foreman, lit a fire that seemed to be right in the middle of the only escape route the smokejumpers could see. Just moments before, crewmembers were moving toward the river where they would be safe from the fire, which suddenly blew up on them. The foreman inexplicably turned them around, away from the river, and started angling them upslope, but confusingly not running straight for the top. As the fire gained on them, Dodge said, “Drop your tools.” Moments later, the foreman pointed to the escape fire he’d started and yelled, “Join me.” But his second-in-command thought, “To hell with that; I’m getting out of here.”
In the aftermath, only two survived the race of their life. The other 13 were burned to death. In the confusion, Dodge’s crew broke up into several splinter groups. Dodge alone survived in the mid-slope fire he lit for himself and his crew, a tactic that had never been used before. Obviously for his crew it was hard to make sense of it all.
What Is Sensemaking?
Why did Dodge turn the crew away from the river, or order them to drop their tools? Why did he start a fire and order the crew to his location? In 1949, smokejumpers would never abandon their tools! That did not make any sense, and someone lighting a fire during a fire was beyond comprehension. Each smokejumper faced a dilemma: Follow orders they didn’t comprehend, or lose a race of their life with the advancing fire.
Before we go further, a quick note of attribution: The above details on the Mann Gulch disaster came from a 1993 USFS report, “Mann Gulch: A Race that Couldn’t Be Won,” by Richard Rottermel, and the 1992 book that made Wag Dodge famous, Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire. Additional information and analysis about sensemaking and how it applies to this event are influenced by the article “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster,” by Karl Weick.
In a 2012 article, “The Missing Piece of NIMS: Teaching Incident Commanders How to Function in the Edge of Chaos,” Police Chief Cynthia Renaud writes, “What truly determines an incident commander’s final success in restoring order is how effectively he/she can understand what is happening in the chaos and determine a course of action. How quickly can he or she work through a mental process that asks and answers the following questions?
- What has happened here?
- What have I never seen before; what is completely foreign to me?
- What have I seen before; what is familiar to me?
- What do I know?
- What do I need to know?”
Klein defined sensemaking as “a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively.”
Put simply, “sensemaking” is the process by which people give meaning to experience. It’s a concept that enables us to investigate the interaction between people and information we see and/or experience. This is when we adapt and respond to unexpected or unknown situations, as well as recognized situations.
Sensemaking & Mann Gulch
Sensemaking, as it turns out, was a significant factor in the Mann Gulch disaster. When the smokejumpers landed at Mann Gulch, they expected to find a fire that could be completely surrounded and isolated by 10 a.m. the next morning. They clung to this image, attempting to rationalize new information that contradicted it, until it was too late. Because they did, less and less of what they saw made sense. Additionally, the foreman was very new to the group and this led to the discipline breaking down; members began to value their individual welfare over that of the team, and they failed to commit to following Dodge’s orders in the time of crisis.
In Weick’s article, he notes that the USFS concluded that it needed “to reexamine our thinking about temporary systems, structuration, non-disclosure intimacy, intergroup dynamics, and team building.”
What is theorized to have occurred at Mann Gulch is called the “cognitive gap” that individuals experience when attempting to make sense of observed data (Dervin). First-time experiences, never-before-seen occurrences, leave us in bewilderment as we try to comprehend. In essence, what the smokejumpers saw and observed did not match their experience. They could not make sense of the ambiguous situation. As a result, their situational awareness suffered. The highly complex, uncertain situation drastically reduced their ability to comprehend and make decisions.
The study of sensemaking is relatively new; literature referring to it started to appear in the late 1980s. In 2007, the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences released a technical report, “FOCUS: A Model of Sensemaking.” The authors developed a data/frame model that explores the relations between data input and mental representation, or “frames” for interpreting data. These frames are analogous to the slides in a slide tray. As a firefighter, you establish mental frames, or slides, that you can refer to when faced with future incidents. These frames/slides are formed through training, simulations, table-top exercises and experiences at actual events.
A similar model, recognition-primed decision-making, also stresses the reliance on past experiences, but focuses more closely on decision-making—specifically, as it relates to the fire service, on the command decisions made by firefighters (Klein, 1993).
So what happens when you face an event outside of your “slide tray”—as did the smokejumpers at Mann Gulch? The authors for the U.S. Army’s “A Model of Sensemaking” propose six key steps:
- Elaborate on the data that you know—gather more data, make inferences, fill out the details.
- Question inconsistent data—concentrate on what makes this incident inconsistent with others you’ve experienced.
- Avoid “preserving the frame”—recognize when you are justifying, explaining away data, or distorting the situation.
- Compare this frame with other frames and examine the distinction between them.
- Identify key pieces of information that are most closely associated with established frames.
- Recognizing that the situation is not what you thought it was, build a new frame and continue to seek more information.
These steps can help you make sense out of complex situations. In effect, sensemaking is the process of fitting data into a frame and fitting a frame around data.
Returning to Mann Gulch…
Wag Dodge, as the leader of the smokejumper crew, ordered his followers to join him in the escape fire. Dodge was very much concerned for their safety. However, the team lost its support of one another, and flight won over fight. In the ARP, one conclusion was that Dodge did not build his team of smokejumpers in advance and communication was not strong among the members. The foreman, in advance, could have pulled his new team together, explained his plan and had a safety briefing—the way we do now, almost automatically.
In the final analysis, Weick noted, “Excellent captains modeled norms that made it clear that safety, effective communication, and cooperation were expected from everyone. It has been my experience that in every incident where things have gone wrong or could improve, it always revolves around two areas: communication and coordination.”
Weick highlights that excellent crews expect one another to enact any of these four exchanges:
- I need to talk to you.
- I listen to you.
- I need you to talk to me.
- I expect you to talk to me.
It’s amazing how very similar Weick’s recommendations are to the tenets covered in the IAFC’s Crew Resource Management manual. Using CRM provides for better teamwork and new communications and problem-solving skills, in an operating philosophy that promotes team members’ input and proactive accident prevention. Effectively using all resources is the ultimate goal in achieving safe and efficient operations, where all team members direct information to the officer.
In my two-part article on adaptive leadership (http://www.firefighternation.com/article/command-and-leadership/adaptive-leadership-personnel-arena and http://www.firefighternation.com/article/management-and-leadership/adaptive-leadership-dealing-unknowns), I explain several decision-making models. Focusing on life-threatening situations, those made on the edge of chaos, sensemaking first and foremost requires that personal and organizational discipline is addressed well in advance of any event, communications are maintained with all crewmembers, and leaders are experienced and well trained. Optimally, the organization (or its leaders) has created an environment that grants individuals the permission to question.
A Final Word
In the end, sensemaking begins with the basic question: Does what I see fit the frame and data I have experienced in the past? If you’re dealing with the known, there are likely policies and procedures that fit the situation. If you’re dealing with the unknown, there will be no polices or procedures, no known practices or solutions to fit the situation.
Cynthia Renaud best described situation like this when she wrote, “Not every incident has a playbook! These types of situations present a daunting task in which known methods rarely provide applicable resolutions because the situation is new and untested.”
The nature of firefighting means that firefighters and fire officers will be faced, at some point, with incidents that have no established playbook. The preparation we do on an individual, crew and department level to prepare ourselves to recognize unknown situations and work through them to find a solution will ultimately determine whether we go home.
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