Time out : organizational training for improvisation in lifesaving critial teams

Ishak, Andrew Waguih, 1982-
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Exemplified by fire crews, SWAT teams, and emergency surgical units, critical teams are a subset of action teams whose work is marked by finality, pressure, and potentially fatal outcomes (Ishak & Ballard, 2012). Using communicative and temporal lenses, this study investigates how organizations prime and prepare their embedded critical teams to deal with improvisation.

This study explicates how organizations both encourage and discourage improvisation for their embedded critical teams. Throughout the training process, organizations implement a structured yet flexible “roadmap”-type approach to critical team work, an approach that is encapsulated through three training goals. The first goal is to make events routine to members. The second goal is to help members deal with non-routine events. The third goal is to help members understand how to differentiate between what is routine and non-routine.

The grounded theory analysis in this study also surfaced three tools that are used within the parameters of the roadmap approach: experience, communicative decision making, and sensemaking. Using Dewey’s (1939, 1958) theory of experience, I introduce a middle-range adapted theory of critical team experience. In this theory, experience and sensemaking are synthesized through communicative decision making to produce decisions, actions, and outcomes in time-limited, specialized, stressful environments.

Critical teams have unique temporal patterns that must be considered in any study of their work. Partially based on the nested phase model (Ishak & Ballard, 2012), I also identify three phases of critical team process as critical-interactive, meaning that they are specific to action/critical teams, and they are engaged in by critical teams for the expressed purpose of interaction. These phases are simulation, adaptation, and debriefing. These tools and phases are then placed in the Critical-Action-Response Training Outcomes Grid (CARTOG) to create nine interactions that are useful in implementing a structured yet flexible approach to improvisation in the work of critical teams.

Data collection consisted of field observations, semi-structured interviews, and impromptu interviews at work sites. In total, I engaged in 55 hours of field observations at 10 sites. I conducted 31 semi-structured interviews with members of wildland and urban fire crews; emergency medical teams; and tactical teams, including SWAT teams and a bomb squad. I also offer practical implications and future directions for research on the temporal and communicative aspects of critical teams, their parent organizations, and considerations of improvisation in their work.