The introduction to
On the Fireline
Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters
I began fighting fire because someone asked me to. In the winter of 1998 I’d come home from my first semester at college to my parents’ ranch-style house, nested in the country between the Navajo reservation and a small Arizona town. On a mild December day, as I was splitting and stacking a cord of freshly cut pine, Owen Mills drove his rusted Chevy across the lawn and lent a hand. Owen, a middle-aged man from my father’s church who usually spoke with a smile beneath his orange mustache, was then head supervisor of the U.S. Forest Service’s Elk River Firecrew. In his soft-spoken way, he asked if I wanted to fight wildfire that summer. I piled a few more logs on the stack and said yes. That was it. He helped me finish the woodpile before shaking my hand and driving away.
So in August 1999, one day after the spring semester ended, I found myself at Elk River, wide-eyed and ready to learn about fire behavior, weather, frontal assaults, backburning, and the Ten Standard Fire Orders and Eighteen Situations That Shout “Watch Out!” I received got training on how to load a helicopter, how to duck and cover to dodge slurry drops, and how to wield a chain saw. But most important, I learned how to dig. The veterans taught me that no job was more important than digging line, that primitive craft of creating a yard-wide trail of mineral soil between a moving fire and unburned fuel. I practiced digging with different hand tools and different techniques, and I dug line on my first fires. When the summer ended, I walked away with a few blisters on my hands, a few cuts in my boots, and a deep longing for the next fire season. I returned to Elk River for four seasons. During 2003, which would be my last, I carried a tape recorder and a notepad. I was simultaneously firefighter and ethnographer.
As a member of the firecrew, from early May until late August I worked, ate, slept, traveled, socialized, and fought fire with fourteen other men stationed in the woodlands of northern Arizona. Every day I carried a small notebook in the side pocket of my dark green Nomex fire pants and recorded observations, conversations, and events every chance I got. In addition, I conducted in-depth interviews lasting from forty-five minutes to three hours with all fourteen of my fellow crewmembers and several U.S. Forest Service supervisors. Most of the interviews took place after work in the firefighters’ quarters, though some were carried out on the clock in offices, under shade trees, or on tailgates. I also collected documents such as training materials, fatality reports, press releases, guidebooks, and anything else I could get my hands on that would shed light on the inner workings of the Forest Service. I promised all my crewmembers confidentiality, and any names of people or places that would break that promise have been camouflaged by pseudonyms.
During my last season at Elk River thirty wildland firefighters died across the United States—the most since 1994, when the body count reached thirty-six because of the deadly South Canyon fire, which alone claimed fourteen lives. From twelve to twenty-two wildland firefighters die every year. Since 1910, the year the Great Fires of Idaho and Montana killed seventy-two, over nine hundred wildland firefighters have died fighting fire. Most of them burned to death. And burning on a mountainside is a hellish death. When firefighters die in a forest fire, they burn from the inside out. The fire sets up its prey before it arrives by emitting a radiant heat that cooks the air. Trapped firefighters hysterically inhale the on-fire oxygen, which melts their lungs before the ravaging crematorium consumes their bodies. Imagine moving closer and closer to a whistling kettle, through its steam, until finally your lips wrap themselves around the spout and you suck in with deep and frequent breaths.
On all fires, no matter their size, wildland firefighters must carry a fire shelter—a single-person tent made of paper-thin aluminized material neatly folded into a four-by-eight-inch package, belt-strapped at the base of the spine. During a fire entrapment, and only as a last resort, they pop their shelters and deploy by lying face down on previously cleared ground with their hands and feet anchoring the rectangular shelter and their faces pressed against the dirt as the world ignites around them. But seasoned firefighters know that deploying a shelter doesn’t buy much, for though shelters can deflect some heat, they can’t hold back the white-hot air. The shelter affords trapped firefighters only two advantages: it serves as a makeshift temple where they can pray for a salvation that does not resemble the hell consuming them, and it makes it easier to identify their bodies. In the words of Rex Thurman, head supervisor of the Elk River Firecrew, “The only thing your shake and bake will do is allow you to have an open casket funeral.”
Rick Lupe’s funeral was no open casket affair. A strong gust wrenched his shelter from his hands seconds before the fire overwhelmed him, exposing his body to the thousand-acre inferno on Sawtooth Mountain that swallowed him up on May 14, 2003. After the burnover, Lupe crawled out of the charred ravine, smoking and smelling of burned hair and flesh, and stumbled toward his crew. The fire had seared over a third of his body to the with third degree. His legs and arms absorbed the brunt of the attack. In some places the flames dissolved skin and muscle, leaving only apyrous bone. A helicopter transported Lupe to the nearest hospital, where he soon slipped into a coma. He held on until June 19, long after firecrews had extinguished the fire at Sawtooth. He was forty-three.
The day Rick Lupe died, a light breeze floated through the pines on a calm, cloudless afternoon at the Elk River Fire Station. At 5:15 Kris, Diego, and I were taking advantage of the fine weather by sitting on lawn chairs outside our quarters and bullshitting, as was the normal custom following a rare 5:00 whistle. I was greasing my boots with an old cotton sock and nursing a glass of Glenfiddich. Kris was comparing my glass of scotch with his can of Keystone Light and making sure to call me “sophisticated” for my liquor selection, meaning rich and prissy, not cultured and polished. We were teasing and talking about everything and nothing at all. Then Peter Ferguson interrupted our lazy chatter. The plump and ruddy engine operator strolled up to us, bare-chested, and announced the bad news.
”Uh, you know that Rick Lupe?” Peter asked.
”Yeah,” Kris replied, looking up.
”Well, he died today.”
Everyone paused and looked away, though only for a second.
”Well,” Peter added, turning away, “he lasted about a month.”
Peter left us and began fidgeting with the exhaust pipe of his Harley. Kris went back to drinking his beer. Diego released a loud belch and struck up conversation with Kris again. Lupe’s death didn’t seem to bother or perplex them in the least. But it disturbed me deeply. I felt close to Lupe—connected, familiar, fraternal—and hence threatened, for Lupe was no newcomer to fire. He had battled hundreds of blazes during his twenty-plus years as a wildland firefighter. Lupe had been supervisor of an elite firefighting unit, the Fort Apache Hotshots, and was deeply familiar with wildfire. For years, during the hot months he had guided a twenty-person crew into the most perilous and inaccessible wildfires of North America. Many even called him a hero because his crew had saved two small towns from the monstrous Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002, which destroyed half a million acres. My crewmembers knew Lupe. Peter had fought fire with him; Diego knew of him; and Kris’s father, also a wildland firefighter, had walked many firelines with him. Yet the news of his death did not cause them the slightest pause, and their indifferent nonreaction, their mere shrug of the shoulders, turned my stomach almost as much as Lupe’s death itself.
That moment served as the impetus for this book because it forced me to puzzle over something I had never before found puzzling: how firefighters understand risk and death. Through many reflexive double-takes, I attempted to treat the familiar universe of wildland firefighting as a context to be questioned and denaturalized, to convert my home into an alien land in an effort to carry out what Pierre Bourdieu calls “an epistemological break” with my own uncritical understanding of firefighting and its occupational hazards. This book is the result. As an intimate inquiry into the world of wildland firefighters, it analyzes their lives during all stages of the day, on and off the clock, in an effort to reconstruct the practical logic (crafted in part by the organizational logic of the Forest Service) with which firefighters make sense of danger, safety, and death.
In an occupation like firefighting, the death of a friend, coworker, or fellow firefighter is something one must deal with sooner or later, and it didn’t take me long to realize why Peter, Kris, Diego, and the rest of my crewmembers dealt with Rick Lupe’s death with such ostensible lack of interest. My crewmembers did not pose any new questions at the time of Lupe’s death because the only questions that mattered to them had already been asked (and answered) a few days after he was burned: What did he do wrong? What should he have done differently? These questions, though they can take many forms, are but one question—the question of fault—and it haunts all who demand to know why wildland firefighters get caught up in deadly situations.
Fascinated by the question of fault, Norman Maclean pursued it into his eighties. The author of Young Men and Fire indefatigably retraced the steps of twelve smokejumpers who died in the Mann Gulch fire of 1949. The itch, it seems, was genetic, for seven years later his son, John Maclean, attempted to uncover what went wrong for the fourteen firefighters who died in Colorado’s South Canyon fire of 1994. Sociologists, psychologists, and organizational theorists also have tried to understand why firefighting crews break down. But the question of fault has been pursued with the deepest devotion by those most invested in the answer: agents of the U.S. Forest Service. Immediately after any burnover, an interagency and interstate investigative team descends on the burn scene with cameras, notebooks, tape recorders, and authority from the highest offices and soon emerges with a lengthy document, definitively titled a “Factual Report,” that itemizes the causes that led to the firefighters’ demise.
This book has little to do with the question of fault, and it is not obsessed with the circumstances that may have led to Lupe’s burnover. After all, why should his death shock us? Rick Lupe stood in the heart of an inferno consuming hundreds of trees standing over sixty feet tall, like incandescent matchsticks, sending out a heat so intense it could melt a dump truck. His death was not anomalous; about seventy firefighters a year find themselves in similar situations, that is, fire entrapments. What is perhaps most surprising about those who continue to pursue the question of fault is how surprised they are over the deaths of firefighters. When a firefighter dies, when death fulfills its threat, they grow zealously inquisitive and raise the question anew.
Far from answering the question of fault, this book questions the question of fault. It examines the taken-for-granted assumptions that allow us to pose such a question in the first place. This leads us back to a more fundamental question: Why was Lupe there to begin with? What motivates firefighters to deploy their bodies on the seam between the edge of life and a fiery death? Why do they risk? Why do they seek out such a dangerous occupation when safer ways of earning a living are available? Why did I? Moreover, how do firefighters become acclimated to the dangers of their profession? How are they socialized to risk by the Forest Service—an organization known for its ability to successfully “[inject] its own outlooks into its men”? And what can they teach us about how high-risk organizations motivate workers to undertake life-threatening tasks?
There are several social-scientific theories of risk taking, including various sociological explanations, economic models, and psychological accounts. However, one theory in particular deserves special scrutiny here because it has avoided scrutiny for many years. In fact it is so widely accepted and entrenched in our commonsense conceptions of risk taking that I hesitate to call it a theory and not an axiom. This idea above suspicion, captured in the locution “to risk is to be a man,” was first articulated (at least in so many words) by sociologist Erving Goffman almost forty years ago. . . .
In his famous essay “Where the Action Is,” Goffman sought to uncover individual motivations for risky behavior, or “action,” which he defined as those “activities that are consequential, problematic, and undertaken for what is felt to be their own sake.” Throughout the essay he played with this last part of the definition and at first seemed to subsume the motivation for action under its description. However, the mantra “action for action’s sake” was only a rhetorical trope for Goffman; his real argument rested on the intimate relation between action and character. “The voluntary taking of serious chances,” he remarked, “is a means for the maintenance and acquisition of character; it is an end in itself only in relation to other kinds of purpose.” Thus one risks to gain social recognition, and he must risk again and again lest this recognition expire.
If this is the case, Goffman argued, it is because society, at its most basic level, is made up of two very different types of people: those who are willing to make a “commitment” and those who refuse. Paradoxically, the thrill seeker’s motivation for action rests on passive observers’ greeting that very action with awe and attributing to the thrill seeker such qualities as “courage,” “guts,” or “heroism.” Goffman’s universe is populated with sacred daredevils on the one hand and profane bores on the other: “Looking for where the action is, one arrives at a romantic division of the world. On one side are the safe and silent places, the home, the well-regulated role in business, in industry, and the professions; on the other are all those activities that generate expression, requiring the individual to lay himself on the line and place himself in jeopardy during a passing moment. It is from this contrast that we fashion nearly all our commercial fantasies. It is from this contrast that delinquents, hustlers, and sportsmen draw their self-respect.”
Above I referred to the risk taker with the pronoun “he,” and I did so because the risky activities that commanded Goffman’s attention were male-dominated games (e.g., gambling, bullfighting, street hustling). By “risk” Goffman meant “men’s risk,” and by “character” he meant “masculinity.” And if one strips his argument to its core, it comes down to the idea that the pursuit of masculinity is the driving motivation behind risky behavior. This cornerstone idea supports most sociological conceptions of risk taking. In Masculine Domination, for example, Pierre Bourdieu writes, “It is [masculinity’s] vulnerability which paradoxically leads to sometimes frantic investment in all the masculine games of violence, such as sports in modern societies, and most especially those which most tend to produce the visible signs of masculinity, and to manifest and also test what are called manly virtues, such as combat sports.” And a prominent sociologist of masculinity notes, “We test ourselves, perform heroic feats, take enormous risks, all because we want other men to grant us our manhood.” If masculinity, then, is an impossible and fragile social construction that teeters precariously on its rejection of femininity, the drama of manhood must be performed ardently, publicly, and without end, and one way this is accomplished is through activity that threatens male bodies. Ever since Goffman argued that “men must be prepared to put up their lives to save their faces,” social scientists have believed that men take dangerous risks in order to acquire masculine recognition.
Following this logic, most researchers investigating arenas of professional risk taking have suggested that the hallmarks of a good firefighter, police officer, or soldier are hypermasculine traits such as courage, aggressiveness, and toughness. Most researchers conceive of soldiers, for example, as driven by courage, willpower, and confidence, qualities that “inspire men to hold their ground when every instinct calls upon them to run away.” The successful soldier is the unrealistic one, the actor who sees himself as bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than his enemy (psychologists would say that the wartime fighter is filled with “positive illusions”). Police officers are thought to have similar traits. Functioning under what one sociologist calls the “machismo syndrome,” they are believed to live for the “life-threatening intervention at a crime scene”: they long for the rare thrill of the chase, the fight, the arrest. Although many officers are filled with anxiety when coming on duty because “uncertainty structures police work,” as another sociologist puts it, they compensate by making a virtue of necessity, lauding the ambiguous and risky nature of their job as a primary attractant. The same goes, many others claim, for firefighters. The firehouse is believed to be a refuge for the most courageous of citizens. (It is no coincidence that the New York City firefighters are called “the Bravest.”) “In traditional fire departments,” one researcher notes, “physical size, strength, and prowess are highly valued; courage, toughness, and aggressiveness have become the hallmarks of a good firefighter.”
The story does not change when we review the literature on dangerous jobs in the industrial sector. One analyst finds that although high-steel ironworkers feel fear when “running the iron,” they must suppress this fear to earn the trust of their fellow workers. The most respected ironworker displays the most bravado, takes the most risks, and volunteers for the most dangerous jobs; by contrast, the least respected worker, the one considered the least trustworthy, is cautious, avoids risks, and steers clear of the most dangerous tasks. Likewise, underground miners, a number of analysts claim, manage their fears by forming a masculine “occupational subculture of danger.” And several scholars have suggested that men working in especially dangerous occupations often ignore safety procedures and refuse to don protective gear not only to meet production pressures, but also to avoid violating a masculine ethos by showing weakness.
Risk takers thus conceived, in times of war or times of work, fully recognize the dangers they face and charge toward them. Some fear the danger and wear a mask of courage, while others crave the sensation of the dropped stomach, the stolen breath, or the quickened and quaking heartbeat. But in all cases, to the ones who cross the line first, who push their limits furthest, who step most defiantly into the shadow of some Goliath, goes the glory, the honor, or in Goffman’s word, “the character.”
But this is not how things work at the Elk River Fire Station. In fact, the opposite is true. Over the course of my fieldwork, I discovered that firefighters prize competence and control above all other attributes and (contrary to most accounts) view masculine aggression and courage as negative qualities. The distinctive mark of a good firefighter is his ability to know—not to test—his limits and to master his destiny on the fireline. The quest for masculinity and the pursuit of an adrenaline high matter very little to wildland firefighters. They do not resemble danger-lusting heroes who laugh in the face of death, as they are commonly depicted by journalists, movie directors, and social scientists alike. Far from understanding risk as an avenue to a euphoric “adrenaline rush” or a route to acquiring masculine character, firefighters view risk as something that can be tamed, safety as something they are personally responsible for, and death as completely avoidable through competence.
Why did sociological theories of risk taking prove insufficient at Elk River? Because current theories are afflicted with an assumption that causes those who come under its spell to overlook crucial contexts. That assumption is that it is legitimate to conceptualize risk taking in a vacuum, divorced from the specific environment and circumstances where it takes place. Grouping all risk takers into a single class, analysts proceed to assign a master logic, a grand narrative, to explain all types of risky behavior. For Goffman, looters, gamblers, hustlers, downhill skiers, motocross racers, police officers, and soldiers (the list could go on) are all the same creature (“chance takers”), driven by the same impulse (the pursuit of “character”). By disregarding the social complexities that surround, influence, and define different varieties of risk taking, most theories treat professional risk taking, the duties of the SWAT team officer, as something that can be explained by the same mechanism as any other type of risk taking, say, the deadly gamble of Russian roulette. Their free-floating analyses, however, come with several conceptual shortcomings. Current theories of risk taking fail to scrutinize the intimate connections between class relations and professional risk taking; ignore the powerful influence of organizations; and assume that individuals who engage in behavior defined as risky do so through rational calculation and share the same understanding of “risk” as the analyst who studies that behavior. In what follows, I take up these three criticisms in turn.
Because the distribution of professional risk takers reflects the established social order, to study risk is to study power and inequality. Many sociologists and psychologists of risk have failed to realize this. By reducing risk taking to escapism or recreation, they treat chancy behavior as completely voluntary and ignore social structures. The sacrifices that professional risk takers endure are borne primarily by a narrow segment of society—mainly working-class men—not simply by “brave,” “heroic,” “thrill-lusting,” “action-seeking” individuals from all walks of life. The men who fill the ranks of America’s million-and-a-half-person fighting force (only 12 percent of military positions are staffed by women) are the sons of steelworkers, railroaders, and teamsters; men of color are overrepresented in subordinate military positions, and the educated and the rich are strikingly absent from the army’s ranks. The same is true in the world of wildland firefighting, a working-class world in which approximately 80 percent of firefighting positions are filled by men. Working-class men staff most of the positions within high-risk organizations while their well-to-do counterparts watch from a safe distance. Certain bodies, deemed precious, are protected, while others, deemed expendable, protect. Yet despite the inherent working-class composition of dangerous occupations, current approaches to risk taking fail to account for how individuals’ classed lifestyles and backgrounds influence their decision to sign up for jobs that could kill them or how individuals’ social positions, personal histories, and specific paths through life predispose them to the rigors of risky work.
Besides ignoring social positioning, current approaches to risk taking pay scant attention to how organizations influence professional risk takers’ perceptions of risk. The firefighter and the football player are seen as men desperately striving to uphold masculine identity through risk and violence, yet very little notice is given to how the firehouse or the locker room shapes their conceptions of risk. Many sociologists and psychologists begin their investigations of risk by focusing on individual characteristics and decision-making processes and neglect the power of organizations altogether. But a rigorous analysis of occupational risk taking cannot begin or end with an analysis of the risking agent. As Mary Douglas points out, “If it is conceded that institutions play any role, then it would follow that much of the inquiry about risk perception has been applied to the wrong units, to individuals instead of institutions.” Accordingly, analysts must investigate how institutions make people deployable by concentrating on the ways they train, educate, motivate, and discipline workers to ensure that they will place their lives on the line when “duty calls.”
The two criticisms presented above deal with the negative consequences that result when theories of risk taking ignore important contexts. My third criticism deals with something more fundamental—the theory of action used to explain risk taking—and accordingly requires elaboration.
Firefighting—marching, digging, chopping, crawling, and running among torching trees and smoldering ash—is a corporeal activity, and in the swelter of infernos firefighters’ bodies react to the dangers they face. How far should I go down the canyon wall? How much heat can I take? Is this dangerous, or am I scared? Is that oak burned straight through? Is that smoke or steam? Should I keep digging, or should I fall back? On the fireline thousands of questions like these must be asked and answered with such celerity that they exist in cognitive form only fleetingly, if at all. Decisions of risk are made at the bodily level and cannot be fully translated into articulate verbal accounts. The visceral experience of risk taking transcends linguistic expression: it is unutterable, ephemeral, known only deep down.
Yet the intuitive logic of risk—characteristically blurry and grasped only in the whirl of action—has been disfigured beyond recognition. Or better, it has been made too recognizable. Rational-choice theorists and economists—who, more than any other breed of social scientist, have paid attention to questions of risk preferences and risk taking—tend to assume that risk is unvarying, precise, and self-evident enough to be formalized in a sanitary equation that multiplies the probability of the bad event by the severity of the harm: r = Pr[E]he. But rational-choice theorists and economists are not the only ones who use this mechanical way of thinking when trying to make sense of risk taking. Many sociologists, including social psychologists who would never self-identify as rationalists, reason in a similar fashion, claiming that risk takers decide to dive off a cliff or storm into battle—actions treated as indistinguishable, though different in every way aside from the threat of injury—only after carefully weighing the bonus of the rush against the possibility of harm. Even Goffman confines risk to a cost-benefit calculation: “We can begin to see that action need not be perceived, in the first instance, as an expression of impulsiveness or irrationality, even where risk without apparent prize results. Loss, to be sure, is chanced through action; but a real gain of character can occur. It is in these terms that action can be seen as a calculated risk.” Goffman is correct to assert that the risk taker is more than a rash brute; but the alternative he provides—a cold calculator—is equally flawed, for at least two reasons.
First, Goffman’s alternative can account for only individual feats, not collective ones. Theories that understand risky behavior as the result of a calculation take as their fundamental unit of analysis the rational individual. This makes it impossible to explain collective forms of dangerous behavior, such as warfare or firefighting, without treating collectives as anything but a bunch of rational decision makers (motivated only by individual choices) who happen to be in the same place performing the same dangerous act. Although some (e.g., social engineers, military strategists) have found this approach useful, accepting it means ignoring all that makes collective risk collective, including leadership, solidarity, and communication. It also means not recognizing that the definition of “risk” and the decision to risk are often made at the institutional, not the individual, level.
Second, theorists who assume that daredevils engage in intense thought during the same moment that they engage in intense action inject scholastic thought categories into the heads of nonscholastic actors. Guilty of what Bourdieu calls the “scholastic fallacy,” they assume that people in action are at the same time people in contemplation and view an acting actor as “a sort of a monster with the head of the thinker thinking his practice in reflexive and logical fashion mounted on the body of a man of action engaged in action.” Yet firefighting (or any risky engagement, for that matter) cannot be sufficiently analyzed through tidy rational equations, which only suffocate bodily ways of knowing exhibited in the fast-paced commotion of action. Lighting a patch of shin-high plain grass with a drip torch, digging a scratch line with a combi to cut off an advancing head of fire, felling a towering conifer smoldering at its top: these are all practices of wildland firefighting that require corporeal knowledge, gained through experience—through history—not simply mental acuity acquired through rational calculation.
The logic of the risk taker cannot be assumed to conform to abstract models of rationalism. The logic of the risk taker is not a given but a question. It is a curious something that must be reconstructed, and reconstructed in a fashion that takes into account the risk taker’s background as well as his organization.
Accordingly, this book reconstructs the practical logic of firefighting specifically by focusing on how firefighters’ dispositions and skills acquired from their rural, masculine, and working-class upbringings connect with the organizational common sense of the U.S. Forest Service to form a wildland firefighting habitus. What is a habitus, and in particular a wildland firefighting habitus? A habitus is the presence of social and organizational structures in individuals’ bodies in the form of durable and generative dispositions that guide their thoughts and behaviors. As embodied history, as internalized and forgotten socialization, one’s habitus is the source of one’s practical sense.
We can further distinguish between a general and a specific habitus. As Bourdieu points out in Pascalian Meditations, a general habitus is a system of dispositions and ways of thinking about and acting in the world that is constituted early in life, whereas a specific habitus is acquired later through education, training, and discipline within particular organizations. Thus a judge comes to develop a juridical habitus, molded by the structures of the legal system, which projects authority and confidence from the bench; a professor acquires an academic habitus, conditioned by practices of the university, which allows her to lecture, instruct, research, write, and criticize with ease and command; and through years of seminary training and religious practice, a Catholic priest develops a pastoral habitus, which allows him to perform the rituals of the Mass seamlessly. A wildland firefighter also possesses a specific habitus, one that guides his understanding of risk, safety, and death and his responses to the mercurial, powerful, and at times overwhelming force of wildfire. If some individuals take to certain professions better than others—if they seem to be “naturals” at soldiering or are “born to be police officers”—it is because they bring to the organization a general habitus that transforms into a specific habitus with little friction, whereas others possess a general habitus that is at odds with the fundamental structures and practices of the organization. By examining how one’s most deep-seated dispositions transform into a specific habitus, by investigating how organizations tap into, build on, and condition these dispositions when producing firefighters, soldiers, or police officers, we can gain insight into how the social order reproduces itself through individuals with such “mysterious efficacy.”
As a result of my in-depth, participatory investigation, one that employed a dispositional theory of action, I discovered that the practical logic the firefighters of Elk River use to make sense of the risks incurred on the fireline, the logic of their specific habitus, differs greatly from the abstract context-independent logic that theorists tend to posit. In what follows I explain—in ways that Goffman’s theory could not—why my crewmembers decided to become firefighters, how they understood risk, the nature of their relationships, and why they charged toward the flames when the alarm sounded. . . .
The reality of death and flesh-and-blood sacrifice hangs as the silent backdrop to all arenas of professional risk taking. Behind the jovial rancor of the firehouse meal or the polished uniform of the Marine lurk the freeze-frame memories of charred bodies, gut shots, and fallen friends. Why, then, do these individuals place themselves in harm’s way, and how do their host organizations make sure they stay there? Why do individuals deploy themselves, and how do high-risk organizations make workers deployable? At Elk River I found answers to these questions, answers that differ greatly from the limited theories of risk taking previously advanced by social scientists. Contrary to the general belief, motivations for risk taking are not adequately satisfied by one-word clichés such as “heroism,” “adrenaline,” “masculinity,” “adventure,” or “character.” Rather, they are buried deep beneath the surface.
We must keep digging.