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The Big Lie: discursive risk analysis and wildland firefighter safety in the Western United States

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While increased length and intensity of wildfire seasons in many places have led to more concern about wildland firefighter safety, we believe ethnography has been underutilized as a method within this domain. In response, we begin building a shared idiom for ethnographic engagement with wildland firefighter safety and similar occupations. We draw on ethnographic approaches to late industrialism to develop a method called discursive risk analysis (DRA) as an initial stage in a broader collaborative and generative research practice. By collaborative, we mean cooperation among stakeholder, disciplinary, professional, and other groups. We use DRA to analyse ethnographic data and documentary sources relevant to discussions of 'the Big Lie' among firefighters and agency leadership. The Big Lie is a term that both firefighters and agency leaders used to suggest that wildland firefighters are being harmed by agency discourse that says firefighters will be kept safe despite the unavoidable danger of the job. It is important to the Big Lie discussion that this harm is conceptualized by firefighters as discursively driven, necessitating a research method attentive to discourse. Discursive Risk Analysis of the Big Lie discussion suggests two discursive gaps that may result in two discursive risks. The first gap, found in agency discourse, is that 'everyone knows the job is dangerous' but 'zero fatalities is a reasonable goal.' This gap is associated with a discursive risk, a possible decrease in trust among wildland firefighters in agency leadership. The second gap, observed in firefighter discourse, is that 'the job is dangerous' but 'no one will get hurt today.' This gap is associated with another discursive risk, the possibility of decreased situational awareness. Finally, we clarify each of these gaps and risks through two anthropological concepts (the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis and the public secret) that can bring new perspectives to discussions about institutional cultures of health and safety.
Trevor J. Durbin, Casper G. Bendixsen, Amber A. Neely, and Sarah Strauss
Trevor J Durbin et al 2024 Environ. Res.: Health 2 015002
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