Professor leads USFS organizational culture


Fox (right) is shown here with a team member surveying a zone map of the area in which they were working. Photo Courtesy of Rebekah Fox.

Kyle Chitwood, Life and Arts Contributor

Associate professor Rebekah Fox’s work with the United States Forest Service is setting precedent in shifting its organizational culture.

A professor in the communication department at Texas State since 2009, Fox has been contributing to USFS since her time as a graduate student. In 2015, she became a member of the USFS Rapid Lessons Sharing Team in its beginning years as a resource for the Forest Service.

In RLS, Fox said that “a learning expert and a dirty firefighter” team up so that no additional firefighters need to be pulled off duty to file reports. Her most notable reports consist of a water tender rollover, where the driver rolled off the side of a mountain, and a civilian hiker extraction after a family’s camping trip was overrun by wildfire.

While Fox enjoys her work with USFS, she has an admiration for its shift in organizational culture. Her role in RLS is to develop in-depth incident reports for fire teams in emergency situations to determine what lessons can be learned from the unintended outcomes.

Fox said many organizations fail to recognize what may have set someone up for a certain failure, choosing to blame the person instead. With USFS, a greater emphasis is placed on learning how the organization can learn from an incident rather than assigning fault.

“It’s easier in an organization to find somebody that did something wrong and fire them, but that doesn’t do anything to change what set them up for failure,” Fox said.

According to Fox, USFS’ efforts to move from a culture of blame to a more equitable society begins with learning from unintended outcomes and creating an environment where people are comfortable speaking up if something goes wrong.

Risk management and mitigation specialist Dale Snyder said after a fatality on his team, the organization began its “blame, shame and humiliation process,” even though not a single individual was at fault. So, Fox’s contributions and the shift in organizational culture not only helped his team manage present risks, but prevent future happenings.

“(Fox’s work) is extremely helpful for not just the risk management, but for communication,” Snyder said. “We went from blame, shame, humiliate, to learning from incidents.”

Another firefighter Fox has worked with, supervisory fire engine operator Estella Coffey, said the previous culture of assigning blame was draining to her team members.

“Her fresh eyes looking at things can bring perspectives we either thought about and passed on or haven’t considered,” said Coffey. “I think this shift is the absolute right way to go about it.”

While Fox makes many contributions to USFS, her work in the field serves as a first-hand example of what she teaches in the classroom.

Lee Stark, communication studies junior and student of Fox’s, said her real-world experience helps establish her integrity as a professor.

“I think Fox’s forestry experience gives her a lot more credit than a lot of other teachers have because she’s still doing it while she teaches,” Stark said. “When you’re out there doing it, it helps sharpen your edge.”

In addition to her background with USFS, Fox is a volunteer member of the Capital Area Fire Adapted Coalition, which is a group of citizens in Travis County interested in emergency management.

Additionally, she has worked with the Travis County Fire Marshal’s Office to create an internship for students studying communication who are also interested in safety management.

While she plans to continue her work with USFS, Fox’s next steps are in the direction of articulating the concept of learning from unintended outcomes and developing it as a community practice.

For more information on RLS reports, visit the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center at, where firefighters share various lessons from around the world.

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