Skip to main content

Department ofCommunication


Crisis Team

Andrew Ishak examines how firefighters communicate and gain experience while performing a dangerous job.

Communication between team members is vital, especially when the team regularly encounters life and death situations. Lecturer Andrew Ishak's recent research delves into how wildland firefighters gain experience in unexpected ways, and how they talk to each other about tragedies that occur while they tackle a very dangerous job.

In a recent article in Small Group Research, Ishak and Elizabeth Williams detailed the ways firefighters "borrow" experience from their colleagues to do their work more effectively.

Experience is a key component for quality decision making in emergency response, but it's not always easy to get it in training because of time and safety constraints. So wildland fire crews create scenarios designed to expose them to the experiences of their colleagues. For example, "staff rides" are guided, extended walkthroughs at the location of a deadly fire. It's an emotional process that enables firefighters to catalog the experiences of others as their own. They describe it as putting mental "slides in the tray," a metaphor that draws on a now largely obsolete technology — the slide show.

Ishak and Williams also explored how first responders talked about the disastrous Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013, in which 19 firefighters died, in a Western Journal of Communication article.

They found that firefighters wanted specific answers about what happened but did not want to blame any of their team members, which can be demoralizing. Those desires are somewhat at odds with each other when it comes to discussing and describing the fire in official reports. So, a "debrief" after a tragic event is a big challenge when it comes to appropriate communication within the wildland fire community because it shapes future actions and relationships.

"Much of my research and teaching is about how people deal with high stakes events, whether it's researching first responders, or working with public speaking students at SCU who have to give a big presentation," Ishak said. "In any case, the debrief is a really important event. How are we going to discuss what just happened? How are we going to improve? And how are we going to move forward? Like in firefighting, the way we talk about a student's high stakes work can have a big impact on their future actions."

Faculty Feat, Faculty Story