Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Psychological PPE: The fire service’s Challenger

By James Rychard   

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Photo credit: Chalabala / Adobe Stock

For decades, NASA was on top. With a streak of successes, they grew a mindset that they could do anything. They could fix any problem placed in front of them.

Recall the year 1970 when the Apollo 13 crew experienced irreparable damage to their spacecraft on the way to the moon. It was NASA’s engineers, millions of miles away, who innovatively orchestrated the unconventional use of internal spacecraft parts that saved the three astronauts and enabled their return to earth unscathed. When an organization saves lives and does it by using parts outside their original design and use, that breeds confidence. As NASA’s successes grew, so did their confidence. To some, they might have even said that confidence morphed into arrogance. They were untouchable with respect to space and safety.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, but a cold one. Despite the freezing temperatures that unexpectedly hit the state of Florida the night before, NASA was determined to get the Challenger and its seven-person crew off. The day was Jan. 28, 1986, and the Challenger’s flight was special; a teacher was being sent into space. Appropriately named the “Teacher Flight”, this was deemed to be a memorable mission. As NASA officials monitored the three-billion-dollar space truck, officials and engineers at Morton Thiokol, a subcontractor of NASA, held their breath. Their inspections and assessments dictated a catastrophe was imminent for the space shuttle, they just didn’t know when. Unfortunately, 73 seconds after lift-off the shuttle exploded.

To understand the whys, a presidential commission was created to investigate the disaster. As the layers began peel back on the events leading up to the destruction of the Challenger, a well-documented problem surfaced. What made matters worse? NASA knew about it. When the final report was filed, it was determined that there were two culprits: the failure of an O-ring seal, and the attitude of NASA. If there was an issue with flight safety, then how could NASA have overlooked such an obvious issue?


According to Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, “NASA was under political pressure to launch, and Morton Thiokol was under commercial pressure and could never have had the power to stop the launch.”

Given these diverse types of pressures were at play, it’s no wonder a catastrophic event occurred. Pressures such as these create tremendous amounts of tension for any organization. Further, and regrettably, “external pressures” can outweigh responsibility; they can make those in charge willfully blind to doing the right thing. The fire service industry is not immune to this concept.

Honourable Judge Simeon Lake, who presided over the United States vs. Enron case addressed to CEO and Chairman, Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, said, “You are responsible if you could have known, and should have known, something which instead you strove not to see.”

The fire service can have an attitude that tells us that we can do anything and solve whatever problem is placed in front of us.

Essentially, what he was saying was that willful blindness is a legal term and a choice. If you see something that could create potential problems, you need to do something about it. Don’t wait until something happens; act because you have the duty, responsibility and power to do so. When going back to the Challenger structural break up, willful blindness did play a big part in the process. They chose not to act on the issue of compromised O-rings on the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs). Soot was uncovered behind both the primary and secondary seals and was deemed a “red flag”.

Morton Thiokol’s rocket engineers had documented for years that there was a problem and communicated their inspection and assessment results to NASA. After recovering the SRBs in the Atlantic Ocean post-launch, Thiokol noticed that the O-rings, the rubberlike seals that measured ¼ inch in diameter which encircled the forty feet of circumference of the SRBs, were demonstrating impingement of heat. To ensure a sense of redundancy was in place should one seal become compromised, two O-rings seals were engineered; if one seal failed, the other backed it up. The O-rings were vital for flight safety—they prevented any hot repellent gases from penetrating the external fuel tank which the shuttle rested on.

Yet, due to political pressures, NASA managers chose to turn their head to the issue and issued a waiver: there was a known problem, no time to fix it. The processed document gave the green light to fly. NASA chose to be willfully blind to the seal degradation problem.

Like NASA, the fire service can have an attitude that tells us that we can do anything and solve whatever problem is placed in front of us. We are good! Not necessarily because we have had decades of success, but because we train repeatedly for the unexpected. Whatever problem placed in front of us, the fire service works tirelessly to fix it. In some cases, there are levels of redundancy built into fire-ground and rescue practices to ensure fail-safes are in place. This is what makes the fire service a “safe” industry – because we drill on “hypothetical situations”.

However, for some organizations in the fire service industry, they rest a little more on their laurels than they should. They can have the mindset, similar to NASA’s “we can do anything”, and in response breed a sense of over-confidence. When applying willful blindness, it becomes vital that leaders, managers and supervisors choose not to look the other way when issues surface. Yes, political and commercial pressures can arise, but it’s up to those in charge to not allow safety to be compromised—and safety can also be psychological safety.

Although the fire service industry doesn’t need to worry about space vehicles blowing up and the use of rockets, there can and should be concern. The O-rings can serve as a metaphor for other issues within.

If we chose to substitute O-ring for a mental health concern such as bullying, intimidation, collusion, favoritism or disrespectful behaviour, which could lead to stress leaves and PTSI/PTSD symptoms, it’s possible to pull back the layers and uncover where the toxicity originated. In other words, the fire service can experience a Challenger situation if those who are responsible to build a culture of safety, choose to be willfully blind to factors that can render one unhealthy.

Being in charge comes with a high price and making good decisions can be paramount to successful outcomes. Choosing to be willfully blind to things that leaders, managers and supervisors “could have known, and should have known, something which instead [they] strove not to see,” can land them in hot water, as decided by Judge Lake.

Success does breed confidence, and it is possible to have an inflated sense of confidence should a streak of successes exist, be it professional and/or organizational.

If leadership is a choice and being willfully blind to events/issues/circumstances is also a choice, then it becomes paramount that the fire service industry has the right leaders, managers and supervisors in charge. Leaders are human and fallible, which means mistakes will happen, but it’s prudent that they do the right thing, which can be hard, especially when both political and commercial pressures are in play.

Simon Sinek once said that leadership is a choice. It doesn’t matter what rank or role someone is in as long as they look after the person to the left and the right of them. What makes Sinek’s ideology unique is that it is the anthropological definition of a leader. When looking back to the reasons why the Challenger disaster occurred, and how any future disasters can be averted, the fire service industry can be safer when it does not become willfully blind to perpetual issues/problems.

In addition to being a firefighter and R2MR instructor from the city of Burlington, Ont., James Rychard is an advocate for mental and behavioural health in the fire service, sitting on multiple association committees. He can be reached at

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