(p. 41) How do wildland firefighters make decisions in life-threatening situations when, for instance, a fire explodes and threatens to engulf the crew? They are confronted with endless variables, the most intense, high-stakes atmosphere imaginable, and the need to make instant decisions. Psychologist Karl Weick found that traditionally, successful firefighters kept four simple survival guidelines in mind:
1. Build a backfire if you have time.
2. Get to the top of the ridge where the fuel is thinner, where there are stretches of rock and shale, and where winds usually fluctuate.
3. Turn into the fire and try to work through it by piecing together burned-out stretches.
4. Do not allow the fire to pick the spot where it hits you, because it will hit you where it is burning fiercest and fastest.
But starting in the mid-1950s, this short list of survival rules was gradually replaced by much longer and more detailed ones. The current lists, which came to exceed forty-eight items, were designed to specify in greater detail what to do to survive in each particular circumstance (e.g., fires at the urban-wildland interface).
Weick reports that teaching the firefighters these detailed lists was a factor in decreasing the survival rates. The original short list was a general guide. The firefighters could easily remember it, but they knew it needed to be interpreted, modified, and embellished based on (p. 42) circumstance. And they knew that experience would teach them how to do the modifying and embellishing. As a result, they were open to being taught by experience. The very shortness of the list gave the firefighters tacit permission– even encouragement– to improvise in the face of unexpected events. Weick found that the longer the checklists for the wildland firefighters became, the more improvisation was shut down. Rules are aids, allies, guides, and checks. But too much reliance on rules can squeeze out the judgment that is necessary to do our work well. When general principles morph into detailed instructions, formulas, unbending commands– wisdom substitutes– the important nuances of context are squeezed out. Better to minimize the number of rules, give up trying to cover every particular circumstance, and instead do more training to encourage skill at practical reasoning and intuition.
Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.