Making sense after the smoke clears

By Frank Radosevich II
July 12, 2012

When an organization experiences a traumatic event, finding out what went wrong can often be a difficult task.

After two Forest Service helicopter rappellers died in the July 2003 Cramer Fire near Idaho's Salmon River, investigations were launched to learn what went wrong. Nine years later, the wildland firefighting community is still searching for answers and lessons that can be drawn from that fire.

Helping with that learning process recently was Dr. Elena Gabor, an assistant communication professor who studied the Cramer fire and how groups and individuals fighting the fire perceive time. This June, Dr. Gabor took part in what’s known as a staff ride at the site of the fatal blaze.

Originally a military practice, staff rides take participants to the very spot where an event happened to immerse them in the surroundings as well as the facts of the case. Doing so can help others understand the decisions made and the factors, perceived or genuine, that led up to them.

“For the firefighter community, a staff ride is an important process,” she said. “It facilitates organizational dialogue, sense-making and helps an organization move forward by revisiting the past.”

Dr. Gabor was selected for the government-sponsored staff ride because of a paper she wrote as a graduate student about the investigation report on the fire. In the paper, she noted how the report failed to consider the subjective and inter-subjective experiences of time by the firefighters and only focused on the linear clock time.

The staff ride—comprised of more than 90 forestry officials, members of the firefighting community and academics—was broken down into three phases. During the preliminary phase, participants read up on the facts and history of the fire. For the second phase, the field day, participants met with experts and people directly involved with the blaze. For the final integration phase, the group engaged in a two-hour discussion and sought to make sense of the accident based on the previous days of study.

Dr. Gabor also took part in a small nine-person hike to the fatality site on the mountain. She said the experience gave her a clear understanding of what obstacles and options the rappellers had.

“Being there, experiencing the location and the terrain, I had a very different understanding of the event,” she said. “When you look at a poster or an aerial picture, you estimate the distance between two points and think, ‘it’ll take me just three to four minutes.’ But when you’re there, you get a totally different sense to scale, time and space.”

Dr. Gabor added that she would incorporate the staff ride into her Organizational Communication classes at Bradley by using the experience to show how the perception of time is an important element in how members of an organization form and communicate their expectations. For example, she said, fire investigators may miss important experiences by using only clock time to investigate and report the events.

“Another lesson that I’m bringing to my students is the importance of engaging in empathic dialogue to facilitate organizational sensemaking after a serious accident.” she said. “It will be very relevant for the course that I’ll teach in the fall on organizational culture.”