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The collapse of decision making and organizational structure on Storm King Mountain

Author(s): Ted Putnam
Year Published: 1995

Stress, fear, and panic predictably lead to the collapse of clear thinking and organizational structure. While these psychological and social processes have been well studied by the military and the aircraft industry (Cockpit Resource Management) (Weick 1990 and Wiener, Kanki, and Helmrich 1993), the wildland fire community has not supported similar research for the fireline. The fatal wildland fire entrapments of recent memory have a tragic common denominator: human error. The lesson is clear: studying the human side of fatal wildland fire accidents is overdue. Historically, wildland fire fatality investigations focus on external factors like fire behavior, fuels, weather, and equipment. Human and organizational failures are seldom discussed. When individual firefighters and support personnel are singled out, it’s often to fix blame in the same way we blame fire behavior or fuels. This is wrong headed and dangerous, because it ignores what I think is an underlying cause of firefighter deaths – the difficulty individuals have to consistently make good decisions under stress. There’s no question individuals must be held accountable for their performance. But the fire community must begin determining at psychological and social levels why failures occur. The goal should not be to fix blame. Rather, it should be to give people a better understanding of how stress, fear, and panic combine to erode rational thinking and how to counter this process. Over the years, we’ve made substantial progress in modeling and understanding the external factors in wildland fire suppression and too little in improving thinking, leadership, and crew interactions.

Citation: Putnam, Ted. 1995. The collapse of decision making and organizational structure on Storm King Mountain. Wildfire 4(2):40-45.
Topic(s): Human Dimensions of Fire Management, Human Factors of Firefighter Safety
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 15470
Record updated: Sep 19, 2017