Building Trust in Fire-Affected Communities: A Planning Guide for Managers

Author: Dr. Bruce Shindler, Oregon State University

In increasing numbers, agency personnel, interest groups and residents of at-risk communities are coming together to consider wildfire problems and taking steps to solve them. Particularly with regard to fire management, trust among parties is an essential element to successful local programs. Our intention in this project was to bring clarity to the trust concept and focus it specifically for use in fire management settings.

A quick run-down of the Trust Planning Guide is provided below. Thus far, the guide has been well received. Over 800 copies have been distributed to fire management agencies and their personnel across the United States. Students at Oregon State University are using the guide in a senior/graduate level course, Managing at the Wildland-Urban Interface. In Canada, fire agencies in Alberta and British Columbia are adopting a number of the tools provided in the document. In October 2014, a special session will be conducted by project team members as part of the Wildland Fire Canada annual conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Last month (May) Charles Sturt University in Victoria, Australia held a formal launch of the publication with members of the Country Fire Association and the Department of Environment and Primary Industries. Project team members Curtis and Shindler led discussions on the need for and importance of building trust among resource professionals and their stakeholders.

The planning guide is the outcome of an international collaboration of researchers and practitioners/field managers in support of fire management personnel. Initially, our team of social scientists from Australia, Canada and the United States utilized our collective research from fire affected communities to examine factors that influence stakeholder trust. We then crafted a working draft of a planning guide and shared it with experienced agency personnel and community leaders in Victoria (Australia), Alberta (Canada), and Oregon (U.S.). We followed this with workshops with these individuals and field visits to local wildfire sites. This allowed us all to engage one another and deliberate the essential features of building trust among parties. This interactive practitioner/stakeholder assessment provided useful insights and helped shape the final document.

Key Points about the Guide

The information presented draws on management experience and the research of scientists working in inter-face communities in Australia, Canada and the U.S. While each local setting has its own distinguishing features and each country has its own agency organizational structures, our research suggests there are common characteristics that lead to trust in relationships. Our primary purpose is to focus on these central elements. We also recognize that personnel are involved in numerous tasks. Thus, this guide is intended for use by individuals across the agency spectrum. First, it is designed as a reference point to summarize key concepts and helpful resources. It is also a diagnostic mechanism where single components can be used as stand-alone tools for building trust within agencies and with stakeholders. Overall, the guide is intended to help communities achieve better fire management outcomes.

Trust Building Loop (adapted from Huxham and Vangen, 2005).

Trust Building Loop (adapted from Huxham and Vangen, 2005).

Section 1: We begin by describing the relevance of trust in fire management planning and operations. The focus here is on the role of trust and trust-building—particularly for practitioners who implement programs and engage stakeholders. We also consider the critical responsibility of agencies to support these individuals. We also focus on the art of trust-building. For example, skepticism—rather than trust—usually is the starting point in most agency-stakeholder interactions. Simply, agency personnel and stakeholders must often interact with individuals they do not know or have little experience with. Each participant will calculate the risks of their involvement and proceed accordingly. In these situations, a lack of trust can be beneficial when it involves healthy skepticism. Essentially, the parties will need to trust each other just enough to allow them to first work together—then examine the options and move through a planning process. From a practical standpoint, people need time and experience before they come to trust others. These ideas are represented in the trust-building loop.

Section 2: An essential part of this guide is a set of strategies for building trust at both the agency and practitioner level of fire management. For example, we identify a set of desired outcomes for field level personnel that include 1) effective communication and follow through, 2) inclusion of local concerns, 3) building community capacity, 4) shared responsibility and 5) transparent decision-making. Then, from successful collaborative efforts, we provide a set of actions that contribute to achieving each of these outcomes. Reference the link to the Trust Planning Guide above for a full view of these strategic tools.

Section 3: Based on feedback from our agency and stakeholder participants, we also included examples from each country to illustrate the role trust played in various fire management efforts. These local cases describe a range of management contexts and activities.

Publication of the Trust Guide was supported by the Joint Fire Science Program.

The Trust Guide project was funded by the Joint Fire Science Program.

Section 4: We conclude by providing an assessment tool for management personnel. This involves a questioning process for assessing progress—to examine the local fire context, evaluate stakeholder interactions, acknowledge management challenges, and address factors that contribute to productive relationships.

Research Team

  • Bruce Shindler and Christine Olsen, College of Forestry, Oregon State University Oregon, USA
  • Sarah McCaffrey, USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station, USA
  • Bonita McFarlane and Amy Christianson, Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, Alberta, Canada
  • Tara McGee, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta, Alberta, Canada
  • Allan Curtis and Emily Sharp Charles Sturt University New South Wales, Australia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *