By Claire Cleveland
For eight summers, Jody Jahn earned money for college working as a wildland firefighter on U.S. Forest Service crews in rural Idaho. Now, instead of rappelling out of helicopters to fight fires, she's an associate professor in CMCI’s Department of Communication who studies the culture of wildland firefighting crews.
Her current research project is designed to capture what's already working well in wildland fire culture, and then work with crews to train other crews on their best practices.
“It's really about problem solving and improving culture in a collaborative manner. And I think that's where the value lies,” Jahn said. “Our goal is to help the wildland fire community figure out what they want the wildland fire workforce future to look like and help pull all those details together into some action plans that they can try out.”
During her time as a firefighter, she worked on five crews over the eight years, and each crew was different from the others.
“I found that a crew's culture impacted everything about my professional development and safety as a firefighter,” Jahn said. “I worked on poorly managed crews in my first few seasons, then moved onto crews with excellent leadership and culture.”
With time she discovered “that a crew's culture evolved entirely from the vision and dedication of its leadership.” She wants to understand how firefighters gain credibility in leadership roles, what dynamics are at play in firefighting teams and how those team dynamics are designed.
The research is particularly pertinent right now because wildland firefighting, especially at the federal level, is at a turning point.
Traditionally, wildland firefighting has been a seasonal summer job. Leadership and key support positions operate year round, while the bulk of the wildland firefighting workforce—nearly 18,000 firefighters—are employed on a seasonal basis. But as the severity and frequency of wildfires increase—on average 7 million acres burn across the country every year, more than double the annual average in the 1990s—the need for a professional workforce has also increased.
Jahn and her team have developed pilot programs that they plan to run through this fire season with the goal of fine-tuning firefighting practices to be more inclusive, diverse and open to problem-solving approaches as the profession shifts from seasonal work to career tracks.
For the program, Jahn’s research team works with crews in Western states, typically between five and 25 firefighters, to identify their purpose and values and then translates those into routines they would conduct often and that could help other crews.
For example, a crew with lots of inexperienced firefighters might determine its purpose is to focus on training foundational skills and that its values are learning, inclusivity and mentorship. In contrast, a crew of highly experienced firefighters might determine their purpose is to develop leaders able to manage both highly complex fires and challenging interpersonal dynamics.
The researchers would then help the crew create concrete practices to serve that purpose and exemplify those values, like daily debriefings that emphasize open dialogue or training to develop diversity mindsets.
“A crew with a diversity mindset would recognize the skills they traditionally have valued—like physical fitness, chainsaw proficiency, navigating terrain and decisive leadership—while also recognizing the importance of activities that are sometimes taken for granted like community and morale-building within the crew,” Jahn said.
To explore wildland fire culture and start to build pilot programs, Jahn and her team surveyed U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighters. The survey resulted in 1,500 anonymously submitted answers to five open-ended questions. Jahn’s team then distilled the responses into central themes that firefighters later rated.
Over the next year, Jahn and her team will work with three to five U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighting crews to test the pilot programs. The researchers are targeting a range of fire specialities, such as hotshot crews, who work on foot next to active flames, or “helitack” crews, who work with helicopters.
Researchers will track the test crews through the year with brief interviews and then conduct a debrief session at the end of the year to identify what worked and areas to adjust for next season.
“We can use a kind of diffusion of innovations approach,” Jahn said. “Where they're just kind of learning from one another about what might work well in a culture as opposed to forcing culture change from the top down.”
Our goal is to help the wildland fire community figure out what they want the wildland fire workforce future to look like and help pull all those details together into some action plans that they can try out."
- Jody Jahn