Space Shuttles and Wildfires

Engineering space shuttles and managing wildfires are not similar enterprises. One is highly calculated aerodynamics and the other is natural hazard mitigation. Despite being rooted in different disciplines of physics and ecology, there a parallel elements in the government organizations that exist in the oversight and application. Space and wildfire agencies must both utilize science-based decision making, and prioritize safety over efficiency. Both require strategic long term planning, as well as the ability to coordinate reactively. Systems of command and control are relied upon to ensure operational effectiveness and reduce risk to the greatest degree. Both types of work are dependent on motivated, experienced personnel to achieve objectives. Organizationally, both space and wildfire agencies may fall victim to similar institutional flaws.

In 2003, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration experienced its second incident of catastrophic failure within two decades. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) identified several glaring management discrepancies that were responsible for the loss of Challenger  (1986), and then present once more for Columbia. The space shuttle’s technical malfunctions that transpired in operational situations were rooted in stagnant organizational culture and unidirectional communication.

The Investigation Board found that NASA promoted a culture of “bureaucratic accountability”, where strict adherence to hierarchy resulted in low-level engineers being intimidated to express concerns or propose ideas when problem-solving. The CAIB found that, “[NASA] emphasized chain of command, procedure, following the rules, and going by the book. While rules and procedures were essential for coordination, they had an unintended negative effect.” Additionally, the CAIB recognized that NASA maintained a stagnant, “perfect place” vision of their agency, rooted in the success of Apollo-era missions, that was slow to accept the new social contexts the agency existed within. Lastly, leadership within NASA engaged in “doublespeak”, using language and emphasizing priorities that were not supported by the actions and policies that were implemented. The CAIB found that NASA fundamentally failed to correct the systemic flaws that first lead to the Challenger destruction and were present in the Columbia dissolution, and concluded that NASA was not a “learning organization”.

Organizational culture pertains to the beliefs, values, and social norms that exist and define the functioning of an institution. It is the collective attitude of an organization and can be summarized as “the way we do things”. Organizational culture is a malleable mentality that is subject to environmental and political change. These value systems exist within an organization’s structure, which corresponds to the functional framework and actions taken by the entire group. Leadership plays a crucial role in crafting culture, but more importantly in the facilitation of appropriate alignment between culture and structure. Misalignment or incongruence between an organization’s culture and it’s actions can result in reduced efficiency and performance of an institution. 

NASA’s culture of the Space Shuttle era draws parallels to existing attitudes within some Canadian wildfire management agencies. Largely focused on enhancing operational response and incident management, wildfire agencies have manifested strong and efficient command and control systems to maximize efficiency and coordination. These hierarchies, while vital on the fireline, exist within all sectors of wildfire management, including areas such as prevention, vegetation management, and others. Additionally, as environmental and global conditions are shifting at accelerating rates, wildfire agencies cultures are stagnant relying on successful histories of suppression. NASA’s “can-do” approach to technical obstacles was crafted under the highly political space race, and while it generated agency success during the Apollo era, compromised collaborative problem-solving during years of reduced public interest and funding. An inability to adapt agency structures to shifting environments placed increased pressures on personnel, as they were forced to do more with less. Organizational culture is heavily influenced by alterations in environmental and political landscapes. Lastly, NASA leadership emphasized safety in language, however their actions surrounding timelines and finances sent messages throughout the organization that efficiency was to be prioritized. WIldfire organizations all possess mandates regarding the importance of fire’s ecological role, but structural support for the achievement of  these objectives is substantially less than language suggests.

Tasked with amorphous responsibilities pertaining to civil protection and natural resource management, wildfire agency personnel are attracted to the sector from a sense of public service, as well as environmental stewardship. From these motivational sources, and numerous others, there are values that emphasize the importance of both social and ecological roles of wildfire. Wildfire operations achieves belief-based incentives to address short-term social concerns surrounding wildfire, and is supported with significant structural support and funding. Environmental values within wildfire organizational cultures, however, are largely incongruent with current structures. This incongruence may manifest in the form of cognitive dissonance, or collective frustration and the inability to see one’s work as “good”. 

Over the course of three month of interviews, including participation from over 50 AAF, BCWS, researchers, and municipal workers, several distinct narratives appeared. These narratives include:

  • The importance of integrating historical fire regimes into wildfire management. 83% of individuals answered that it is imperative for holistic management. 17% of participants identified changing climate and environmental conditions as nullifying factors. 24% of individuals expressed that historical fire regimes have not been integrated into land management.
  • The lack of homeowner accountability, and the future importance of homeowner participation in wildfire risk mitigation.
  • The need for increasing the strategic use of fire
  • An imperative to increase support for other areas of wildfire management besides suppression operations. These areas chiefly pertain to mitigation activities such as prescribed fire and vegetation management, but other categories such as public engagement and fire ecology were also recognized. 
  • An acknowledgement that rising wildfire trends may be compounded by factors besides climate change, such as landscape interactions. This was identified as an area that must be communicated better to the public.

  • In their current capacity, wildfire organizations are not suited to adapt to rising wildfire trends. There must be structural changes to rise the level of innovation and adaptability.
  • Extracted from an ongoing report, this graph reflects sentiments that wildfire suppression is the current priority for Canadian wildfire agencies.Extracted from an ongoing report, this graph reflects sentiments that wildfire suppression is the current priority for Canadian wildfire agencies.Extracted from an ongoing report, this graph reflects sentiments that wildfire suppression is the current priority for Canadian wildfire agencies.

    Figure 2 offers a compelling contrast to Figure 1. Many Specialists expressed that a multitude of areas necessitate support. Most participants noted a need to have a new approach to handling the problem, that the current management structure resulted in reactionary planning and knowledge “siloing”. These sentiments have been summarized under the category of “Organizational Communication and Structure”

    Also extracted from the report, this graph stems from a question in which participants were asked to rank their organizations ability to adapt to rising wildfire trends on a scale from 0-4. 0 represents no adaptability, and 4 represents a strong ability to adapt. The results are concerning as many do not have a high confidence in their own agencies.

    The importance of the NASA case is that wildfire agencies must not fall into a similar trap; the creation and persistence of systemic organizational flaws that may contribute to increasing wildfire complexities. The CAIB pointed to three principle aspects within the NASA organization that may exist within wildfire organizations: a constant state of command and control, an inability to innovate new organizational visions when entering new contexts, and the impact of “doublespeak” from organizational leaders on personnel. One important distinction between the Challenger and Columbia incidents versus significant wildfire incidents, is that natural hazard events cannot assign responsibility for failure as distinctly as space shuttle malfunction. The management of ecosystems and their disturbance processes is not as exact as rocket science. However, significant wildfire seasons such as the 2017 and 2018 seasons in British Columbia, should and have prompted the reevaluation of agencies. At the very least, these types of significant wildfire incidents and seasons should instigate wildfire agencies to better understand the sentiments and beliefs of their personnel, at all levels.

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