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Communicative Construction of Safety in Wildland Firefighting


This Joint Fire Science Program funded and Human Factors & Risk Management sponsored PhD research explores communication practices within wildland firefighting crews to understand what facilitates and inhibits member-learning (and thus high reliability operations) at the crew level.

Results to Date

Findings based on 27 in-depth interviews with members of two heli-rappel wildland firefighting crews (Study One) pointed to several key processes and variables that appear to influence how crew environments either facilitate or inhibit group communication and learning – and thus safety. Findings revealed that the two crews differed substantially in their communicative interactions related to three specific routines: planning, use of safety rules, and authority. The crews also differed in their general interactions with one another related to safety, groupness, and efficiency.

Findings were further explored in a large-scale survey assessing workgroup-level safety climate (Study Two). The survey was completed by 379 wildland firefighters representing 220 crews (on-the-ground crews including hotshots, helitack, heli-rappel, engine and Type 2 handcrews). Safety climate refers to the degree to which an organization’s practices emphasize safety over production pressures. Safety climate constructs assessed in this study include: safety communication, failure learning behaviors, work safety tension, and psychological safety. Additional measures to capture crew staffing patterns (dispersed, co-located), work styles (independent, task interdependent), crew prestige, and the value of after action reviews (AARs) were also included, based on qualitative results.

The two studies illustrate that communication processes critically shape how safety is accomplished in wildland firefighting workgroups. Both studies demonstrated that wildland firefighting is not an individual activity, but a group one. Therefore, safety is a collective accomplishment that is socially defined through the workgroup’s appropriate and normative safety actions. Study One showed the importance of communication in shaping everyday enactments of tasks and safety; findings illustrated how members’ patterns of interactions set a precedent for appropriate behavior. These expectations influence how members enact tasks. Study Two illustrated that communication-based activities helped members to feel less pressure to take risks and enhanced their perception that the workgroup was a safe interpersonal environment.

Briefings and Presentations

Jahn, J.L.S. 2012. Communication and High Reliability: How the Crew Environment Facilitates or Inhibits Wildland Firefighter Learning. 3rd Human Dimensions in Wildland Fire Conference, International Association of Wildland Fire, Seattle, WA April 17-19, 2012.

Jahn, J.L.S. 2011. Learning by Doing: Wildland Firefighters’ Stories about their Pivotal Fireline Learning Experiences. 11th International Wildland Fire Safety Summit, Missoula, MT 4/4-7/11.

Jahn, J.L.S. 2010. Materiality and Communication in HROs. April 28, 2010, 2nd International Human Dimensions of Wildland Fire conference, April 27-29, 2010; San Antonio, TX.

Jahn, J.L.S. 2010. Social Bodies: Bringing Materiality into Theorizing about High Reliability Organizations. Paper presented to the Organizational Communication Division of the National Communication Association, San Francisco, CA.

Reports and Publications

Jahn, J.L.S. 2012. The Communicative Construction of Safety in Wildland Firefighting. (Doctoral dissertation). University of California, Santa Barbara, CA.

Jahn, J.L.S.; Putnam, L.L.; Black, A.E. 2012. The Communicative Construction of Safety in Wildland Firefighting. Final Project Report (JFSP Project Number: 10-3-01-4). July 10, 2012. Santa Barbara, CA.