Top critical review
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Good read, questionable scholarship on one story
on December 31, 2007
My wife had to read the story of the Wagner Dodge and the men who perished in the Mann Gulch fire for a class. It piqued my curiosity, so I read the story, too. It was a very good read. However, something that didn't seem to jive was that a man who had been a 9 year veteran of the 10 year old branch of firefighting called "smoke jumping" would not have established a system of command and control for his crew. This was especially odd since he was an experienced foreman/crew chief with advance knowledge in the expertise of smoke jumping and firefighting. The author, Michael Useem, who is/was the director of the Wharton School's Center for Leadership and Change Management, is adamant that Dodge did not communicate well with his hastily thrown together mixed crew of inexperienced, experienced, young, and old firefighters. Useem asserts that Dodge was a failed leader, whose actions and poor communication, in effect, aided in the demise of about 13 of his crew.
Well, my wife and I decided to investigate a little further and we found that it is likely that either the author intentionally omitted important details about the event and testimonies of the survivors in order to persuade the reader to his assertion or Useem did not perform due diligence in investigating available sources. It is also possible that in 1998, pertinent information was not so readily available on the web. I could be wrong, but the discrepancies between Useem's account and various accounts on the web are marked. In fact, the diagram on p48 of the area and the routes taken by the smoke jumpers and the locations of the fire differ from online sources as well.
*** p55 Useem states: "He (Dodge) did not share his appraisals, barely explained his actions, scarcely even communicated his growing alarm."
First off, in the very same paragraph, Useem states that Dodge did communicate his concern about their surroundings as being a "death trap". "Source 1" (ref'd below) mentions that both survivors indicated that Dodge referenced the types of trees that made the area a "death trap", indicating he was trying to convey to the men the situation they were in and why.
*** pp47-49 possible error of chronology - Useem's order of events follow:
1.Smoke jumpers (SJ) land, gather equipment, and eat at Dodge's suggestion.
2.SJ w/Dodge head down the gulch
3."Firefigher already in the area" joins Dodge, et al. (Firefighter's name is Jim Harrison - not provided by Useem)
4. Dodge tells SJ to stop while he scouts out the fire ahead.
5. Dodge returns and tells the SJ's to head down the gulch towards river because the fire is getting out of hand.
6. Dodge goes to get food back at the landing zone (leaving them presumably w/o a leader)
7. The men get divided.
8. Dodge rejoins the men and regroups them
9. They continue to travel towards the river and then find the mouth of the gulch is blocked by a spot fire.
10. Dodge has his men reverse course to get away from the fire but does not explain his actions.
The chronology from "Source 2" referenced below:
1. SJ land, gather equipment, and eat at Dodge's suggestion.
2. Dodge does not eat with crew, but heads towards Jim Harrison, who was the firefighter mentioned by Useem who was "already in the area". "Source 2 mentions that Harrison was busy fighting the fire. Before Dodge sets off, he appoints Wm Hellman to lead the men down the gulch after they have gathered their equipment. Useem omits the fact that Dodge never left the group without having someone in charge, which I believe is a rather crucial detail when evaluating someone's effectiveness as a leader.
3. Dodge and Harrison leave the ridge that Dodge found Harrison on, they eat and meet up with the rest of the SJ's that were continuing down the gulch under Hellman's charge.
4. Five minutes after Dodge and Harrison joined and brought the group back together, they discover the gulch is blocked by a spot fire.
5. Dodge and the rest of the men see the fires rushing up the gulch and Dodge has everyone quickly reverse course to try to outrun the flames.
Important distinctions from the perspective the alternate sources:
1. Dodge never leaves them without a leader.
2. Dodge did not scout out the fire ahead of the SJ's advance towards the fire.
3. Dodge did not leave the group to go back to get forgotten supplies
4. Dodge went to meet Harrison, the "firefighter in the area", and brought him to the group, opposed to Harrison joining the group before Dodge separated from the group.
5. The SJ's clearly understood why they were turning around as they saw the rushing fires coming towards them.
My personal belief is that Useem was trying to fit this story to model a specific characteristic of leadership failure. Knowing that titles and positions do not confer, nor necessarily require, honor, integrity, or honesty, I think this could be a real possibility.
Ponder this, in the 2000 election, Al Gore ran an ad saying that Texas was the worst polluting state in the union due to spills, contamination, etc. and referenced an EPA report with the intent of making it look like then Gov. Bush was ruining the environment in that state. Well, when I looked up the report, I found that Al Gore was absolutely correct. By shear volume or tonnage of spills, Texas was the worst. However, it you averaged it over the number of reporting plants in the state, by land mass, per capita, or as compared to percentage reclaimed, Texas was normally ranked as one of the best states while Arkansas and Tennessee were average to below average. Bear in mind that Texas (and Louisiana) have a tremendous amount of petro-chemical production relative to the rest of the country. The point is that contextual information was omitted in order to paint a specific picture that was not representative of the reality of the situation as a normal person might evaluate it.
Presenting facts in such a way as to obfuscate what they indicate is deceit, and is therefore no different than a lie. Because I believe that this is what the author might have engaged in, if only in this single chapter, for me it destroys his credibility, and I cannot in good conscience give any stars for his book. (I had to give one to post, but I had no other choice)
For what its worth,
Timo (Candicearanjo@yahoo.com's husband)