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Benchmarking High Reliability Practices in Wildland Fire


Teams and organizations that excel at operating safely in disaster-prone circumstances like wildfire organize and behave in specific ways. They think and act differently than other organizations. These processes and actions are called 'high reliability practices' (see Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe's book, Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in the Age of Complexity).

We seek to more fully understand where and how leaders and teams are incorporating the principles of high reliability organizing (HRO) into wildfire management.

Our primary goal is to compare unit behavior on prescribed fire, wildland fire use and suppression events. Secondary strata for comparisons include agency (US Forest Service, NPS, BLM) and position (ground, district, forest/park/resource area). Ground-level positions include: engine captain, crew foreman, hotshot superintendents, and helitak. District positions cover AFMO (Fuels) and AFMO (Fire). Forest positions include AFMO and FMO - generally for fire and fuels combined.

Practically, we seek to establish a baseline measure for the fire community and determine whether there are significant differences in behavior across fire type, unit type and agency. Theoretically, we are interested in whether the 5 identified principles of HRO can be measured and evaluated on their own, or whether 'mindfulness' is a single construct on its own, and how 'mindfulness' is related to other constructs such as 'respectful interaction', 'heedful interrelating' and 'leadership'.

Results to Date

Results should have enormous practical possibilities, not only in improving overall work performance, but increase the fire community's ability to manage high-risk fire programs with a heightened sense of safety awareness and efficiency.

Conference Presentations

Black, A.E.;McBride, B.B. 2012. Types and Status of High Reliability Practices in the federal fire community. (Presentation) 3rd Human Dimensions in Wildland Fire Conference, International Association of Wildland, Seattle, WA April 17-19, 2012.

McBride.B.B.; Black. A.E. 2012. Variations in High Reliability Practices in the Federal Fire Community: relative contributions of Agency affiliation, years of experience, and position hierarchy and function. (Presentation) 3rd Human Dimensions in Wildland Fire Conference, International Association of Wildland, Seattle, WA April 17-19, 2012.

Black, A.E. 2009. High Reliability Organizing in the wildland fire community: consolidating the foundation to further the dialogue. 10th Wildland Fire Safety Summit, April 27-30, 2009. Fort Collins, CO.


Black, Anne E.; Kathleen Sutcliffe; and Michelle Barton. 2009. After Action Reviews - who conducts them? Fire Management Today 69(3): 15-17.

Black, Anne E.; Sutcliffe, Kathleen; Barton, Michelle; Dether, Deirdre. 2008. Assessing high reliability practices in the wildland fire community. Fire Management Today 68(2):45-48.

Additional Details

Data collection and sampling: A 15 minute telephone survey was conducted by the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research in fall 2007. Through it, we sampled 668 permanent primary fire employees at the regional and field levels across the country in a random sample from the Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management fire organizations.

Analysis: Analysis uses both Principal Component Analysis to extract information about the structure of high reliability and related concepts, and standard comparison testing to identify differences among sub-groups. The analysis work has been completed by Human Factors & Risk Management.