How emergency services prepare for uncertainty
On the day when the moon blocked the sun, Oregon’s wildland firefighters were uneasy. The eclipse wasn’t the problem. No panic was about to start– these weren’t the olden days nor the end of days. Still, all hell could break lose.
“Expect some craziness,” said Matthew, an Assistant Fire Management Officer in Oregon. “They’ve talked about impending doom, right, happening for a while.”
It was the hot dry summer of August 2017. Wildfires had ravaged over 300,000 acres in the Pacific Northwest.
It was also the first total eclipse since 1979. One of the best views of the eclipse would be in Oregon. State officials believed that a million people would visit. The convergence of a million eclipse-seeking tourists at the height of fire season had gotten the fire crews in a state of high anticipation.
But was trouble really on the way? Perhaps fire season would not turn horribly worse. Maybe far fewer than a million would visit Oregon. No one knew the future.
In a world of uncertainty, how do emergency services plan for the future?
To find out, sociologist Dr. Alissa Cordner spent three fire seasons at Oregon’s Cascade National Forest. During her ethnographic research there, in what social scientists call “participant observation,” she trained and worked as a wildland firefighter and interviewed her fellow fire crew members and the fire management bureaucrats.
This sociological story begins at the edge of an eclipse.
To explain how fire managers work in a world of uncertainty, Dr. Cordner uses former US Secretary of Defense and Iraq War architect Donald Rumsfeld’s well-known typology of “knowns and unknowns.”
Not long before the US-led invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld distilled his peculiar brand of logic:
“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
The multi-year Iraq War has caused the violent deaths of well over a hundred thousand people and eventually led to the rise of the transnational terrorist organization ISIS, itself the cause of thousands of deaths. Meanwhile, some sociologists. Dr. Cordner among them, use Rumsfeld’s knowns and unknowns as an intellectual framework for anticipating risks.
Fire crews can anticipate known risks. When a wildfire breaks out, “driving is going to be the biggest risk,” said Nathan, who has two decades of firefighting experience. “A lot of crazy people from outside the area, not knowing how to drive through roundabouts, blowing red lights, blowing stop signs, people getting lost in the woods. I think that’s going to be the biggest hazard to the firefighters.”
People outside of their cars are another risk, but fire crews are uncertain how to deal with them. In this known unknown, firefighters are trained to fight fire, with less emphasis on contending with visitors who are intoxicated or otherwise up to no good. “Public contact, especially for people who are out doing something wrong, it’s kind of like a risky thing for us,” said Susan, a squad boss. “We’re not law enforcement, we don’t have guns, we don’t have anything to really, like, protect us. So that’s kind of risky.”
The Best Laid Plans
Firefighters plan. They have to. And they do so with the deep experience, careful training, and well-educated anticipation that the firefighting forces collectively share.
Yet, for the total eclipse, leadership (almost all were men) handed down the plans to the rank and file, with little direct input from crew members or captains. They shared these plans in obligatory morning briefings. Leadership’s plan called for many fire crews working 12-hour shifts and fire engines stationed on the highways, ready to roll at a moment’s notice.
In the days just before the eclipse, some firefighters said that they saw no evidence of a tourist horde. Some firefighters thought it was all hype.
Brian, a first-year firefighter, was skeptical.
“It’s being billed as the apocalypse,” he said. “But, I mean, I’m trying to go into it with zero expectations because I honestly think it’s gonna be, like, it’s either gonna be the shitshow that everybody expects or it’s going to be a fraction of that.”
In the briefing on the morning of the eclipse, instead of wearing street clothes like they normally do, the firefighters wore their firefighter gear. They’d been given special glasses to see the eclipse.
Later that day, the moon eclipsed the sun.
And that was the day’s most extraordinary moment.
After months of planning and untold hours of meetings, Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management wrote after the event: “State emergency managers received no reports of eclipse-related deaths or injuries…”
Be prepared, as the Scout motto goes, and this is the job description of wildfire management. Every year they plan for the season’s worst-case scenarios, even if none of these scenarios come to pass. Yet, year after year, they must diligently prepare for all of them.
This time, the worst did not arrive and the known unknowns produced no unknown unknowns. As they diligently prepared for the worst, some firefighters groused about overkill – too many resources for too small a risk.
But for emergency services, such as firefighting, failure comes from under-preparedness, not from overkill. Once in a blue moon the worst-case scenario does happen.
For them, human life, even one, is worth resource overkill.
This was written by Josh Dubrow based on Alissa Cordner’s “Staring at the sun during wildfire season: knowledge, uncertainty, and front-line resistance in disaster preparation,” published in Qualitative Sociology 44, no. 2 (2021): 313-335.
“Expect some craziness,” p. 314.
Dr. Cordner explained what a total eclipse is pithily, simply, and helpfully: “Total solar eclipses occur when the moon travels directly in front of the sun during the day. The sun is 400 times wider than the moon but the sun can be blocked completely because the moon is 400 times closer to the earth (NASA 2017a). Prior to the 2017 eclipse, the last total solar eclipse in the contiguous United States was in 1979, and the next will occur in 2023.” (p. 322)
The Knowns and Unknowns speech was from a Department of Defense press conference. Source: Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld February 12, 2002 11:30 AM EDT. Rumsfeld titled his biography, “Known and Unknown.”
“Driving is going to be the biggest risk,” p. 326.
“Public contact,” p. 326.
Dr. Cordner described the firefighter gear: “green Nomex pants, dark blue district t-shirts, and laced fire boots.” (p. 328.)
“It’s being billed as the apocalypse,” p. 328.
“State emergency managers received no reports of eclipse-related deaths or injuries…” P. 329.
Copyright Occam’s Press 2022: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND