The Safety of Work

Ep.51 How do experts manage fuzzy role boundaries?

Episode Summary

On today’s episode, David gets the opportunity to speak with Dr. Tim Neale. Together, they discuss how experts manage fuzzy role boundaries.

Episode Notes

Dr. Neale is a Senior Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University. There, he studies human geography and cultural anthropology. We use his paper, Fuzzy Boundaries: Simulation and Expertise in Bush Fire Management, to help frame our discussion. 

Tune in to hear our insights about the safety community and Dr. Neale’s thoughts on bush fire management.





“When you’re interacting with somebody, what is your expertise based in?”

“There’s no one way of doing it right and any attempt to wrangle these people, these professionals into being all one type of person, they will resist it.”

“The theme that expresses itself in a particular part of people’s work, expresses itself in many other parts of their work; it’s not a contained problem…”



Fuzzy Boundaries: Simulation and Expertise in Bush Fire Management

Episode Transcription

David: You’re listening to the Safety of Work Podcast, Episode 51. Today we’re asking the question, how do experts manage fuzzy role boundaries? Let’s get started. 

Hey everybody, my name is David Provan from the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University. Welcome to the Safety of Work podcast. Today, I’m joined by Dr. Tim Neale, who is a researcher at Deakin University here in Melbourne. Tim has some really amazing ethnographic research on work as done by five behavior analysts. Other than COVID-19, wildfire has been the story of 2020 in both Australia and the US. So my thoughts go into all those who have been personally affected.

Tim, welcome to the Safety of Work podcast. Can you start by just giving our listeners a bit of your background and what you’re doing at the moment in your role?

Tim: Sure. I am, these days, I got a long job title. I’m a DECRA Senior Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University which is a social science and humanities research institute. What I do there is I’m a human geographer and cultural anthropologist. I do a lot of research on things like how we understand natural hazards and how natural hazard agencies or land management agencies collaborate with different parties, in particular traditional owners and other other aboriginal peoples. 

Those are the topics I’m interested in. I’ve come to a slightly winding road. I was born and raised in Aotearoa, New Zealand. All my undergrad studies were in things like literature and philosophy. I was convinced I was going to be a short story writer, novelist, or something like that. Those persuasions that over time, I got more and more interested in more practical matters and started to look at studying fields like anthropology and understand how people understand their surrounds and their environments. 

As a friend back then put it to me when I was trying to understand what this amorphous blob of interest that I had is as a postgraduate researcher and PhD student. They were like what you’re interested in is how particular voices and parties become authorities or not, or how they lose their authority. It was a broadly whim, I think he was bang on actually. I did a PhD, and what it was about was a controversy around the governance of land and rivers, waterways—particularly in the funnel of Queensland. Went out there and interviewed people about what was going on, how their lands were being governed.

While I was up there studying the stuff, it was during the dry season. For those who have not been there, west of northern Australia is a monsoonal climate. It has a nice, long, recently, comparatively cool dry season, when a lot of the landscape is on fire. As a New Zealander, I wasn’t very used to free running fire in the surroundings and people not dealing with it as any kind of emergency. People were very relaxed with the amount of fire and smoke that was around them. I thought that, well, that’s pretty interesting. Maybe people in different parts of the world have very different views of fire. This is of course, I’m extremely naive in hindsight, but at the time it seemed remarkable and interesting. 

A couple of years later when I finished my PhD—about 2014—I was very lucky to be offered a post doctoral fellowship with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Center to look at how people manage fire risks. I was able to think about this thing, as I was saying before, about how different kinds of knowledge, how different kinds of voices become authoritative. I was able to take that interest and apply it to fire management which is really what I’ve done a lot of in the past couple of years. 

David: Yeah, it’s obviously great parallels and didn’t realize until I started reading your work about the parallels between things we’ve talked about on the Safety of Work podcast before. But also, a topic I’m very interested in particularly in relation to the safety professionals within organizations. Exactly like you said, how they become authoritative or otherwise within the organization then how that plays into the way that they perform their role and I suppose, essentially, the effectiveness of the outcomes that they’re trying to achieve. 

I had to contact you and say, which paper are we discussing? Because you published quite a lot in the last three or four years as a researcher. Your background as you mentioned with literature and philosophy, for our listeners, just before we jump on the podcast, I said, gee, you write really well, for academic papers. The way you explain things made it really easy to understand. Your papers—you make yourself available through the research gate. Our listeners will be able to get hold of today’s paper as well and have a read. 

But this paper we’re going to talk about, do you want to introduce the paper—the title of it and what the research question is? What are you trying to get at with this piece of research?

Tim: Sure. The paper we’re going to talk about is a paper I wrote with a colleague—Daniel May—at the Australian Management University. The paper is called Fuzzy boundaries: Simulation and expertise in bushfire prediction. The title Fuzzy Boundaries comes from an interview that is part of the data that we are studying from the fire manager who was talking about the kinds of lines that he likes to draw on his maps of predicting fires. It became this cool theme. 

The paper is published in a journal called Social Studies of Science which is one of the journals of the field called Science and Technology Studies. Science and Technology Studies, I’m a big booster for, it’s a loose conglomerate of people who are sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, and historians who think about science in scientific research as something social. If it is done by people and it’s latent with values and what are those values and who are those people are the key questions. 

This paper comes from a block of research that I’ve done—a lot of it with Daniel—about how fire management practitioners work with the uncertainties of the near and distant future when it comes to managing fires. These might be risk analyses that they do on a day when it’s hot and windy outside, you know it’s going to be a hazardous day, and they’re doing predictions of fires that are happening or fires that are occurring in the more distant future. Or alternatively, doing long term or medium term analysis of where are fire risks probably in the landscape over a longer period of time. 

This particular paper was really a bit of a very fun and interesting scoping work where I had come across this community of fire managers, fire experts—they’re called fire behavior analysts or FBANs. FBANs are people who in a hot and windy day are tasked with predicting what fires are going to do—where it is going to go, what assets might be put at risk. They’re drawing the lines on the map and distributing that to other people. 

What I wanted to do is try and get a sense of this community, what are some of the challenges that they face in doing their work. What do they find rewarding about it? Why do they do it? What are the difficulties they face? The research question to answer your question more directly, was really what did they collectively value as a good FBAN? What to them makes a good fire behavior analyst and what makes a good fire behavior prediction?

But something I understood fairly early on by interacting with fire behavior analysts was just the level of intuition and uncertainty that went into their work of trying to predict something as chance based and chaotic as a free running landscape fire. Knowing that there was going to be lots of uncertainty, then, rather than approach it as technical exercise of were they good because they’ve got good training or they’re good because we can measure their success in some kind of statistical way, but actually, no they’re good because they think they’re good, because the people they interact with think that they’re good. 

I wanted to talk to a wide selection in order to get some sense of okay, do they have a collected set of problems and do they have a collected set of values.

David: Yeah. It’s a fascinating parallel with the research that I’ve done that we talked about. I think it was episode 30, when we talked about the Professional Identity research that I did with safety professionals and asking them those types of questions about what good safety looks like, what a good safety professional looks like and how do they judge success in their role—what does it look like to them. You had a slightly similar process. You did a few more interviews. I’m reading the paper, you did at least 20 interviews. That’s a fairly large sample given, you said, that’s about 20% of Australia’s total FBAN population.

Tim: Yeah. I was very lucky, I managed to meet some members of the FBAN community who thought, ah, it would be interesting to have a chat with a social scientist. I think that’s one of the things. I think a lot of expert communities do their work because they’re passionate about it. They don’t necessarily have a lot of opportunities to talk to other people about it. I was very fortunate that the FBAN community wanted to have a chat and I ended up doing an interview. I kind of wish I’d done more, and I’ve since had an opportunity to do many more interviews. 

David: By the way, I don't know if we said that. We’re talking about five behavior analysts. I’m feeling a bit like the lingo of it.

Tim: Slipping into the lingo.

David: You did those interviews and coded all of them. I’m stuck into the findings, because I think we have to make some real fun parallels between what you learned and what stood out for you. Our listeners, in terms of their role as safety professionals or just their role inside organizations. Do you want to just maybe start by highlighting from you, I suppose, what you saw are some of the really key findings so I don’t direct this part of the conversation too much. 

Tim: I guess for a little bit of background as somebody coming from anthropology, geography, and science and technology studies, necessarily, I’m what we call in social science the social constructionist. I think that social roles, the roles that we play are all kind of produced and we help produce them. We’re now looking at an expert community like fire behavior analysts or safety professionals of some kind. Their role is made by what they do and that role will always have boundaries, conflicts, or tensions that people need to work through in order to do their work. Academics have this too and people have spent lots of time talking to academics about all the kinds of tensions they have to manage.

The key findings from these 20 entities was to zero in on 3 tensions that fire behavior analysts have to manage in order to do their work. There are tensions because there’s no real solutions, there's no fix to them. But there are things that everybody has to balance. The first one of these tensions is the tension between where they draw their expertise from. Is it from being in the field, out on the fire line, or is it from being in the office, whether that’s in an incident control center or a stake control center, wherever it is. Where they’re far away from where the fire is happening, but where they can do their analysis from their simulations, look at all the data coming in. This is one tension that they have to manage. Happy to talk about that more. 

David: Yeah. Let’s dive in and talk about those three because I saw those three themes. That first one experience was really fascinating. I saw you’ve identified three separate career pathways or what that you had people who had direct firefighting experience and then they came into these five behavior analysts roles, or they had some interest in that activity—for volunteering, or they came for more of a technical science or a GIS type based background. I suppose they are the three pathways, but I like the way that you said that that impacted the language that people used, how they talked about things, and even how they talked about what their tools were that they were drawing on in terms of making decisions in that. 

I found that really deeply interesting. Was that really clear when you were speaking to them about just the way they talked about it, was easy to map to what their experience background was? 

Tim: It was apparent to me. I haven’t actually asked fire behavior analysts what their own reflections on it are. I’ve talked to fire behavior analysts about the paper. That’s been an interesting process. It’s been all very positive. In terms of the language thing and people’s background is really interesting because it goes to this point of why the transition that’s happening within emergency management. That emergency management and its failure as many other parts of the world has historically been fairly volunteer based and you had a lot of people whose jobs like foresters, often working the land and enjoying the fire season still working the land in another way. To people who have much more specialized professional roles that actually take them away from the fire ground and mean that they are not coming necessarily from a place of experience of forest or landscapes that are at risk. But actually they're coming from a place of experience of professional management of technical expertise or let’s say computer simulations.

That transition that’s happening within the widest sector is actually reflected in this specialized community as well. That some of the older, more experienced, long term practitioners come from those backgrounds, they have probably worked in the sector their whole career, to people who are now entering the emergency management sector, not just fire. Generally, for whom this may be their third career. Or they’re just coming out of university, but not with expertise in fire ecology or forest ecology, and complex systems modelling or logistical modeling. That’s where they’re drawing their experience from. 

This plays out in the actual work of when you’re interacting with somebody, what is your expertise based in? Oh, you’re a fire person. You sweated the fire time. Or you’re a tech person. You know the code, you haven’t really done your time.

David: Yeah. I think in my research I saw this and I’m interested in saying whether you discussed with people how they saw themselves as opposed to maybe people with different experiences. Because in the safety profession, we have this big tension between people who’ve worked in frontline occupations on tools and then if coming to safety and they’ve got frontline work experience in managing their own safety and working in and around safety hazards and risks every day. Personal experience with that, they might be pilots, paramedics, or something and then they become a safety person.

Then you got this group of people who it’s a profession. Like me, for example, who went to university and did, but has never swung a hammer in anger. And then there’s this tension between how both camps think of the other group. I’m not as effective, professional, or authoritative as they are. Because they’re valuing their own experience and devaluing experience that they don't have all the experience about this. 

Did you see anywhere in those conversations where people would talk about those other roles in a negative way?

Tim: Interestingly, not really. I saw instead a lot of actual respect for one another’s expertise. An understanding that these expertise are different and one may be better or one maybe more appropriate to the task than another. But nonetheless, knowing the hazard from experience or knowing it from a modelling perspective are both valid. I guess I wouldn’t say I saw people putting down one another. So much as saying no, my expertise is different to their expertise even though we have the same role. 

David: Okay. Got it, got it. That’s experience. That’s interesting that you pulled out. I’m going to steal from your conclusion and say this tension between this embodied field experience versus this technical or bureaucratic kind of knowledge. I think that’s a great tension for, I suspect, a lot of professionals to think about particularly safety professionals. I'm assuming again you're going to go straight into your second theme now.

Tim: Yeah, thank you for the segue. The second thing, the second tension people manage in this role, as I mentioned before, there's a lot of uncertainty that people are managing. You don't necessarily know where the fire started, you don't know the way there necessarily. One of the main tensions that people have to manage is the tension between improvising and standardizing, and this expresses itself in a number of different ways.

Fire behavior analysts, much like meteorologists, there's this saying of talking about there's the art and science of prediction. There's the science of it—the tools, the spreadsheets, the models, the simulation runs. That's the science. Sitting behind each one of those, there is a whole bunch of papers and years and years of peer review research and technical know-how. To actually do the job in practice requires you to improvise. 

If a fire's starting somewhere and you need to know what's at risk, you're looking up Google street, or you're calling people up, and you're using all these different kinds of non-scientific tools in order to put together the best prediction that you can to meet whatever it is, the kind of the operational need at that moment. It might be a short term risk assessment, or you might be looking over a note. We know what's the risk over a number of days. 

The theme of the interviews is that this tension between improvising and standardizing doesn't just express itself in the moment of trying to produce a prediction about the future. It also expresses itself and all these other parts of people's work that attempts to formalize accreditation or attempts to formalize how people produce their predictions—how they communicate them—that there's always this tension of self-expression of the part of it as against the bureaucratization or the formalization of it, and how people negotiate that is a constant tension. There's no one way of doing it right. In any attempt to wrangle these people, these professionals, into being all-in-one type of person, they will resist it. Even though they realize that that presents certain challenges to their work.

David: I'm smiling because that theme is one of the central themes that we know in safety that the requirement for individual actors to express their initiative to manage complex systems versus this desire by the bureaucracies that they sit within to proceduralize, standardize, comply and conform, and that's the tension that exists strongly in that. 

I liked the way that you talked about science and the art as well because if it was just science, then the tools would have already taken over the role of people, I suppose, in it. You had some good models in your paper for what the model predicted the fire was going to do, and then what the actual fire did do, and sometimes those things are close and sometimes they're probably really way off. 

Tim: When you talk to fire behavior analysts—this is something that I don't think really made it to the paper, but has become clear to me over time is that if a prediction doesn't eventuate, that's not actually a bad result for a fire behavior analyst. They'll explain to you, well, it didn't happen because the advice led to a different suppression strategy, we sent resources in at different places, and so, of course, the final result doesn't reflect what I predicted, or it helped him form a response and that response was effective—great result.

What I predicted was way off, and this is something that they point out, that a good prediction should be measured, not on its accuracy, but on whether or not it was useful for informing other people's responses. Again, that comes back to this thing of it's not a purely technical exercise. Therefore, it's something that’s responsive and it's about responding to people's needs as fire behavior analysts can observe. Anything that's saying oh well, we should judge these people on whether or not their predictions are accurate, is probably a false measure.

David: That's some sage-like advice within that about the successes, the informing other people or other actors and the actions that they take, and that would resonate with safety professionals. We struggle a lot in our profession to say how do you judge the success of your role in an organization. Should it be by the number of incidents that occurred or should it be some other measure? It's hard to know what you've actually got control over impacting. And to be clear in your own mind is what are those things that you're trying to impact. Impacting how the next actions happen from others is a good thing to do. It'd be hard to measure because as soon as you start looking at it, you're changing it anyway.

Tim: I think about how lots of expert communities, but particularly, fire behavior analysts and their users, incident controllers, or other people involved in incident response. I've described it as a dance and one is responding in relationship to the other. Users are coming to fire behavior analysts saying I want assuredness, and I want security in what you're telling me. Fire behavior analysts are saying well, I want boundedness. I want you to give me a direct, simple question. And how those two parties interact, how they dance together is different on different occasions. As you're saying, there's no control-scenario where we just say this is the alternative, it’s only what happened.

David: It's not often helpful to talk about what could have happened, or it's only useful to understand or look at what did. You mentioned being comfortable with ambiguity is something around that improvising thing because not expecting your world to be simple is a good way of starting to deal with the complex world. I suspect that the fire behavior analysts in your study, they'd probably be pretty comfortable with things changing in a very rapid and dynamic way.

Tim: Yeah, definitely. Interestingly, that brings me to the third—seeing from the paper—which is the tension between disclosing and withholding which, like with the other themes, there is no simple rule. There's no way of making sure that you've done the right job as a fire behavior analyst, from talking to them, it turns out that in different scenarios, you disclose and withhold depending on the situation. What I mean by this is that in a lot of cases, it may be useful to disclose how uncertain you are because it's useful to your users. It's useful to really let them in on every different scenario that you've gone through and all the different permutations and how uncertain it is. There’s a high likelihood or low likelihood and so on.

But very often the users, the people, that five behavior analysts are interacting with in an incident management context have very short time. You actually need to effectively communicate what you think is going to happen. You actually have to withhold a lot from them because if you give them too much—and this is again, fire behavior analysts talk about this—you can lead to decision paralysis or people not trusting you because they think well, I'm going to go to David and he's not going to shoot, he's not going to give it to me straight. He's just going to waffle on and it's going to be no help. 

They are really looking for quick, sharp guidance in a lot of cases, and so you actually have to withhold quite a lot from them. I've since seen this, I've spent some time not just with fire behavior analysts, but also with meteorologists, and you can see this in practice that they might have eight models for what's going to happen in the future, and they will show people only one of them. They say it's their job to figure out which one’s the best message. Scientifically, they're all relevant, but what's the actual most relevant to this user for the decision that they're trying to make.

David: In that one, you're starting to get also organizational and political corruption in, what's the message that we want to send? What's going to happen this fire season, for example, in Victoria, where we’re both based in Australia and how might fuel levels be impacted by five kilometer restrictions from people leaving homes and not being able to get out to regional Victoria and clean up their properties. What's the message that the government wants to send about what's going to happen this fire season? 

I read a lot in your paper around these social political boundaries and tensions around impacting on judgments as well, because that's obviously a big issue for fire behavior. In the heat of the fire, when they're working directly with emergency services, it might be slightly less of an issue, but with longer term forecasting, I assume that there's quite a lot of political intrusions into some of that messaging.

Tim: Yeah. I wouldn't want to speculate, but I think the thing that I would draw attention to is like with the other themes that I was talking about, the theme that expresses itself in a particular part of people's work expresses itself in many other parts of their work. It's not a contained problem that just in the moment of incident response, I have to decide how much to disclose and withhold. If I disclose a lot, then I've reduced the risk to myself, that I didn't tell somebody something. But if I withhold a lot, I'm probably a more effective communicator. But that expands to many different other parts of people's work, that it's not just a contained problem. It's actually one that proliferates. 

In relation to thinking about the relationship between emergency management agencies and the public is a perfect example of this. Over the past decade, we've seen increasing messaging from emergency management agencies, whether that's during fire season or around floods, we've got increased numbers of apps and engagement programs. We've got warnings that go directly to our phones. We've got lots of disclosure. It's a live debate as to whether there's been enough that's being disclosed, or there should be more that's disclosed, or actually are we disposing too much, and we're over warning people, we're giving them too much information. Again, it's a tension around which I don't think there's a simple solution. It's just like how are you actually going to negotiate this in this particular instance.

David: Yeah, no, I think that's that's good. If you don't mind, there's a couple of other things that jumped out of the paper that I'm not sure which theme they sort of belong in, but there are things that we haven't quite mentioned yet. Somewhere in there, obviously, there's lots of information that fire behavior analysts can draw on in terms of whether it's between improvising and judgment to actually formulate their advice. They have to choose what they're going to trust and what they're going to ignore, and they're dealing with also uncertain sources of other information, like weather information, and on the ground information. Did you get much insight into how they made decisions about what information they would trust and what information would be easily ignored?

Tim: Yeah. Again, it's an idiosyncratic thing. I went into these interviews expecting people to say, I always trust the call from the local fire brigade or the person who's on the fire ground. I always trust the intelligence that I'm getting from the system about the state of the fuels and how dry they are, or how much of them there are, according to the maps.

I actually discovered there's no real consistency, whether that's within a jurisdiction or across jurisdictions. That some people have their go-to members of the emergency management structure that they just trust because they've trusted them before and it's always worked out well. Some of them have had a bad experience now and then with a piece of fire ground intelligence or something that's turned out to be not correct that they got from a member of the public, and that just leads them to next time be more skeptical about that source of information.

Again, I expect it to find universal patents and instead, I found lots of idiosyncrasy. That some people, as I was saying before, will look at Google street view in order to understand whether or not a field—they're looking at a map—and a field is clearly a field of wheat. Okay, I'm going to check Google street view to find out whether that wheat has been cropped and therefore, it's going to have one kind of fire behavior, or it's not being cropped, in which case, it's going to have another kind of fire behavior. Then I talk to others and they’re like, I would never do that.

David: I think that's a practitioner. Like you said, you've got what has worked for you in the past and your experience that you've had. You also mentioned in your paper a thing about fire behavior analyst as they get better, and as their expertise, and the discipline, and the profession grows, then they also become victims of your own success in a way that the better you do at something, the more expectations there are on you to do even better and the least tolerances for you making mistakes. Rene’ Amalberti wrote about this in Safety 20 years ago in relation to the aviation sector that the safer the industry becomes, the higher the expectations are on that industry to be even safer.

Tim: There's something we're seeing this year in relationship to the past fire season that we had in Australia—2019 to 2020 was fire season, also known as black summer which is part of Australian fire culture—is that after you have a big season is one to several inquiries, official inquiries, and we've got four or five here in Southeastern Australia and they haven’t all reported back.

But several of those that have, have all been very positive or pretty positive about the response of emergency management agencies to the fires. They've said this response was quite good and delivers on a bunch of the improvements made from previous fire seasons. However, we can do even more. The fire sector could be even bigger, it can respond even more quickly, it can be even more technically advanced.

Something I'm really interested in trying to understand in future research is what are the complications of that. Does that set up a catch-22 to some extent, as you were saying, of constant expectation of raised performance in relationship to something like bushfires, which are very charred spaced, extremely stochastic, if that's possible, that are not like several other hazards that are much more regularly predictable. We could have a terrible fire season and a great response, but it's still a terrible fire season and it's not necessarily because they would find that it is.

David: I think that's a great way to look at work. This paper fuzzy boundaries you're talking about, there's a good message for all practitioners. But in this case, fire behavior analysts dealing with fuzzy lines on maps, fuzzy kinds of future scenarios, fuzzy roles and responsibilities, fuzzy internal tensions and trade-offs that they're making every day. For the podcast, it's a good relationship with some of the roles that we talk about more centrally now in our podcasts about safety professionals, or supervisors, or workers, or managers.

This is just showing in these technical-expert types of roles, ones that we think you're going to have quite a repeatable scientific basis and process underneath them. They're just as fuzzy, and just as complex, and just as hard because they're in the same types of organizations that we work in and dealing with the same types of social relationships. Is there anything else you wanted to mention about the paper and then I'm also keen to just get a bit of sense of what's next?

Tim: No. Maybe, it's a good springboard to talk about what's next because what's next is —subsequent to writing the paper, I then had a series of battles with journals about publishing it, and eventually, it was published somewhere much more highly regarded than when I initially sent it. 

David: What’s the push back? We always have this discussion about qualitative research because we—I have always been in safety—we've very similar research designs to you and sometimes you hit these scientific journals that just don't want to publish qualitative work.

Tim: That was the experience. It wasn't technical and quantitative enough. I wasn't quantitatively measuring whether or not people are good at their job. I got into a series of discussions there and eventually gave up and saved it somewhere else, and it was a great experience. Cheers to social studies of science.

But this paper was, as I was saying before, a bit of a scope piece of scoping work for me to then do research that I've done, and I'm in the midst of right now, which is a participant observation of fire behavior analysts which I did over this recent fire season. I'm planning to do over the next fire season in a couple of different jurisdictions in Southeastern Australia, and I've been undertaking training to become a fire behavior analyst. I'm halfway through the training. Hopefully, if I can ace the test, I'll be a trainee.

This is all part of me trying to get a deeper understanding of this work and the challenges that people face in order to produce recommendations about the future of this work because it's clear from the past fire season that we just had and previous ones that those predictive insights are only growing in importance, not just within the sector in terms of how emergency managers manage incident response, but also how those emergency management agencies respond or relate to the public and the people at risk.

This past fire season, we saw for the first time agencies like New South Wales Rural Fire Service and South Australian Country Fire Service releasing their predictive maps. That was something and putting them on social media, people may have seen them. We had maps that give you what's the prediction for the next 24 hours, where the fire is going to be. This is the first time they've done this, and now it's becoming this expectation that people have, just like the Bureau of Meteorology giving you the forecast, that fire agencies will give you tomorrow's forecast today.

That increased expectation and these new interactions with audiences, I really want to try and understand them from an even deeper perspective by doing this work and getting stuck in. Also, to go to an earlier theme of the paper, the culture of emergency management is one in which you really do have to have some experience of things for people to be receptive to your message.

To do research in this phase has been necessary being on some fire grounds and now, I'm doing this training, that definitely has changed, not just my understanding, but people's understanding of what social scientists do and what we can generate, in terms of the paper that we've been talking about today and its application. It's been really interesting.

Thinking about these tensions has led to opportunities to actually advise different fire agencies about how they might support their fire behavior analysts, and talking to fire behavior analysts about strategies of how they might communicate with their users. That's all happening. It's turned out to have this quite applied element which has been quite fun and interesting. That's broadly where things are heading, but I think the role of predictions, as our climate changes, as the hazards that are around us change, we've seen this in relationship, not just to fires, but also this year in relation to the pandemic.

The level of interest people have in the prediction—the model, the thing that's going to tell us about the near future—to me it's a really interesting place to be thinking about what are we, what are our values, and what do we find believable, and what are we finding authoritative, what are we finding useful in order to make decisions about those uncertainties.

David: That's an amazing conclusion and really useful conclusion for safety professionals and any organizational leader or anyone. I can't think of a role where the creation of foresight isn't going to be more useful. In my Ph.D., when I looked at the role of safety professionals, I concluded that it is the role to create foresight about the changing shape of risk in your organization and facilitate action before people get hurt.

It's that foresight and productivity that is needed and expected whether you're trying to understand what a fire might do, or understand how a task is going to be performed in an organization, how safe that task is going to be. But I suppose in your world, you're working in an area that's probably only going to get more interesting with climate change, and the financial, and the human, and the environmental cost of wildfire we've seen in the US just now as well, what's been happening in California. We're obviously, in our part of the world, about to head back into another summer here. You're positioning yourself into an area that's growth, but I really—

Tim: I followed my interest, and it happened to lead me here.

David: Yeah. I really respect that. Actually, the next step is to understand this even better by becoming one myself. I assume you'll be taking a whole lot of ethnographic field notes, and journaling, and reflecting on how you work. Fascinating. Maybe when you've done a bit more of that, we might have to have another conversation.

Tim: I would love that. I guess a final note, my interactions with emergency managers over the past six years have really changed my perspective to some extent on what social science—what we can do. For a long time, I thought, you can just critique these things from the outside. The critical insight comes from, if possible, interacting and then it becomes trying to maintain some sense of critical distance. For me, it's been rewarding and interesting, but it wouldn't have been possible without emergency management professionals going oh, this is interesting. Let's give this a go.

David: That's right. We talked to our listeners a bit about doing ethnographic research as part of their roles inside their organizations and using these techniques, these observational techniques and interviewing techniques, and then analysis techniques with information that they get from that to inform how they do their work and how they make their decisions in their organization for the changes that they're trying to influence. 

Thanks so much, Tim, for the time. That was really interesting. I'll make sure for our listeners, the paper's linked in and available. Anything else you want to plug Tim because this is your first time podcasting?

Tim: It's true. I have my own podcast. For those of you—say professionals and others, affiliates—who are interested, I have a podcast called Conversations in Anthropology which has been running the last 3 years or so. I co-produce it with colleagues Cameo Dalley, David Boarder Giles, Mythily Meher, and Matt Barlow and it's a lot like this in some ways.

We sit down with people that we think do interesting research, and we ask them how they got into it, and what they think is important about it, and why they think it matters to the future. People can look that up, Conversations in Anthropology, and give it a go.

David: Thanks, Tim. Thanks for joining us on the Safety of Work podcast.

Tim: It was my pleasure.

David: That's it for this week. I hope you found this episode thought-provoking and ultimately useful in shaping the safety of work in your own organization. Send any comments, questions, or ideas for future episodes directly to us at