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Workplace Dynamics | Peer-Reviewed Research

Leap Of Faith

What Makes A Firefighter Plunge Into A Burning Building?

Based on research by Erik Dane, Michael G. Pratt and Douglas A. Lepisto

What Makes A Firefighter Plunge Into A Burning Building?

  • Trust grows either from concrete knowledge or leaps of faith.
  • Firefighters develop — or bolster — leaps of faith by labeling coworkers as certain types such as “book smart” or “paycheck’’ and telling stories about how each type performs at work.  
  • Such leaps of faith are maintained by shutting out new information, leading to a closed-loop system.

In May 2018, fire broke out an industrial warehouse in Houston. The four-alarm blaze spun off a pyrocumulus cloud visible miles away, a Channel 13 meteorologist tweeted.

More than 150 firefighters from at least four different fire departments rushed to the scene before the fire was put out. Four suffered minor injuries. What gave the firefighters the confidence to enter and attack the life-threatening flames? Trust: in their own abilities and training and, perhaps in equal measure, in the coworkers who faced the same danger and uncertainty they did.

But forming trust by relying strictly on real-life observation is difficult in firefighting, where only 4 percent of calls firefighters respond to are actual fires. When they’re not responding to calls, the majority of firefighters’ time is spent prepping equipment, making meals, doing fire inspections or making routine medical runs.

So firefighters rely heavily on another basis for deciding whether to trust their coworkers: a leap of faith.

Former Rice Business Professor Erik Dane joined Michael G. Pratt of Boston College and Douglas A. Lepisto of Western Michigan University to learn how these leaps of faith start and survive. Their main data source was interviews with 63 firefighter conducted for the study. The scholars also observed firefighters at stations and on fire calls.

Leaps of faith, Dane and his team found, are fueled by supporting and sustaining dynamics that feed off each other. This interconnectedness “creates a type of closed loop that allows firefighters to continue to willfully accept the uncertainty that accompanies their job,” they write.

One of the most important of these dynamics is the widespread labeling of fellow firefighters as specific “types,’’ then telling stories or making assumptions about how each type will act. To further protect the faith that the firefighters place in these labels, firefighters then block out or avoid seeking new information that contradicts the initial belief. The “types” themselves are as recurrent as Jungian archetypes. In the interviews, firefighters cited four general types of colleagues and the narratives they routinely attach to them.

Paycheck: On the job for “not the right reasons” and seeking money, benefits or time off. They will be unprepared at a fire scene.

Book smart: Firefighters with college degrees. Viewed with suspicion and deemed to lack common sense. As one firefighter put it: “Many of those folks are the ones that can’t find their butt with both hands when they get to a scene.”

Worker: They do their jobs, emerging from a fire covered in water, sheet rock or plaster. Workers “earn” their dirt, and are communal and physical people. They won’t leave you trapped in a building.

Spark: Passionate firefighters, always looking to learn new information in firefighting and safety. Some sparks, however, seek fires to fight even when they are off the job, raising questions about self-discipline.

To apply these labels, firefighters use cues from both in and out of daily life at the fire station. Does someone help with cleaning and food shopping? Does someone party too much? If someone has a second job, what is it?

The labels are applied quickly, decisively and out in the open. “I can tell right away,” one firefighter said.

Once these label are applied, the researchers found, “new forms of data that could be relevant to assessing trust among firefighters are systematically ignored.’’ This closed-mindedness helps sustain the firefighters’ leaps of faith — even though actual evidence about their coworkers’ performance may be increasingly available as many local governments ask firefighters to take on EMT roles.

Self-fulfilling practices then kick in. Although fires were exceedingly rare, researchers found that when they did occur, “firefighters labeled in particular ways were assigned to corresponding roles.”

Because paychecks and book smarts are regarded as less effective at fighting fires, firefighters with these labels are put in less critical positions. If that isn’t possible, a chief might use extra men to back them up, leaving other areas short-handed.

“These actions made the labels self-fulfilling,” Dane and his team write, “because they helped to reinforce what firefighters already believed about their colleagues: that paychecks and book-smart firefighters could not be trusted at a fire.”

The researchers also found that firefighter dynamics are sustained by a love for tradition — another possible block against new technology, practices and mindsets. On the whole, though, mindsets that reinforce set labels “facilitate the acceptance of uncertainty,” the scholars say.

Dane’s findings may also apply to industries such as nuclear plant operation, where dangerous activity is a threat but rarely occurs. And the team’s insights may further shape our understanding of how trust is formed in other types of work and personal relations where actual knowledge is rare. Take marriage, for example: A spouse may go for decades without ever getting proof of his or her partner’s fidelity. Instead, the relationship must operate on a leap of faith.

Erik Dane is a former professor and was the Jones School Distinguished Associate Professor of Management (organizational behavior) at Jones Graduate School of Business  at Rice University

To learn more please see: Pratt, M., Lepisto, D., & Dane, E. (2018). The hidden side of trust: Supporting and sustaining leaps of faith among firefighters. Administrative Science Quarterly, 1-37.

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