It’s an odd term – normalization of deviance. But the term and the premise behind the term provides a valuable explanation as to some of the behaviors we observe in the first responder world.
Defining the term
Normalization: To make normal; to make an established standard.
Deviance: Departing from the norm; performing in a non-standardized way.
When we are operating under conditions of stress and consequence, coupled with changing conditions and time compression, we can feel a sense of urgency and this can cause us to want to take a shortcut from safety best practices.
We can rationalize that, because we are operating in conditions of stress and consequence, with urgency and a feeling of pressure to perform quickly, we can shortcut our best practices. Some even go as far as to rationalize that we SHOULD shortcut our safety best practices when faced with conditions that are urgent.
I know that throughout my career, under certain conditions, I have taken shortcuts and rationalized doing so by saying to myself: ‘There’s no time to waste. If I follow all the steps I’m supposed to, the outcome of this incident is going to be worse.” So, I took shortcuts.
Sadly, when we take shortcuts and get away with it, we are, in a sense, being rewarded for taking the shortcuts. The brain remembers the path to successful outcomes and if that path involved shortcuts, the brain may compel us to take the shortcuts again because it’s a faster (and perhaps even thought to be a more efficient) way to the successful outcome.
Our past successes can set us up for a fall. Once we get an ample supply of previous successes under our belts while taking shortcuts, we can let our guard down to the best practices that we now think were overkill. Every successful outcome derived from shortcuts in best practices sends the lesson into long-term memory. But the success we enjoyed was based on luck, not skill.
One of the main factors contributing to shortcuts is feeling the work must be done urgently. By the very nature of the work we do, the sense of urgency is present at most emergencies we respond to. So it becomes easy for us to rationalize the need to take shortcuts.
Once we have rationalized our need to take shortcuts often enough, reinforced with positive (successful outcomes), the shortcut becomes the new standard of behavior. It becomes the new “normal.” Once this happens on a large scale, no one within the organization is able to see the shortcomings in the behavior because it now seems normal.
It is easy to get drawn into deviance in the first response world. We operate so often under conditions of stress, consequence, time compression and changing conditions that taking shortcuts to expedite successful outcomes can become, in itself, normal.
The Drift into Failure
Over time, deviant behavior can become the norm. Even grossly deviant behavior – the kind of behavior that would seem to be way outside the bounds of safe practices – can become the norm. This drift into failure can be slow, sometimes taking years or even decades for the new (deviant) standard to become entrenched.
On the Defense
The organizations that are drifting toward failure often cannot see it. They are deep in their denial that anything is wrong and defiantly defend their methods as best practices. They can even defend their close calls, near misses and casualty events by rationalizing this as a dangerous profession and responders are just going to get hurt and killed sometimes.
Dr. Gasaway’s Advice
I don’t deny the danger of our profession. Nor do I think we can engineer, equip or train away all the risks we face. However, there is a difference between ASSUMING risk and CREATING risk. Those who have normalized deviant behavior have been creating risk for so long that it now feels normal. The more success they’ve enjoyed the more normal their deviance feels.
When someone from the outside starts poking their nose into the business of the deviant fire department, they can find themselves quickly beat down or shown to the door. I have experienced this firsthand and it makes me sad because I can see the bad things coming and they cannot.
To be clear, I don’t have any special gifts that allow me to see bad things before they happen. All I have is the wisdom that comes from reviewing hundreds of casualty reports and conducting research into what causes first responders to get hurt and killed. From that, patterns emerge. Predictable patterns that often involve deviant behaviors.
One of the services I offer for fire departments is the opportunity to have me come in and look at how they do their business. It’s a friendly visit. I’m not an investigator and I’m not a lawyer. The department is not compelled by any standard or law to do anything I recommend to them. I just observe and offer ideas based on best practices and my knowledge of how responders get hurt and killed. Sadly, only a handful of departments take me up on the offer.
Now to be clear, there are many resources for getting these evaluations done so don’t think I am trying to beat the drum for my business. The important thing is to realize that deviant (less than best practices) behavior can slowly drift into your organization. Then, before you know it, you have a new best practice – a new standard – a new normal, and it’s deviant.
1. Discuss areas of vulnerability in your department where it appears as though you may be drifting toward failure.
2. Discuss a close call or near-miss event where, in hindsight, it appears a contributing factor was a shortcut that members have been taking multiple times over a long period of time.
3. Discuss the value of having an outside, independent, evaluation done on your department’s operations, equipment, training, communications, SOPs, and dispatching.
About the Author
Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander. His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.
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