Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How do people do dangerous jobs? Some people seek them out!

I have been watching the Book TV program on U.S. Marshals: Inside America's Most Storied Law Enforcement Agency, and wanted to share a couple of thoughts. They relate to my post in early June on Drew Gilpin Faust's book, This Republic of Suffering.

The experienced U.S. marshals in the program were asked how they felt when standing in front of a door, having to knock on the door while understanding that there was a significant probability that there would be a felon on the other side who was facing a long spell in jail if apprehended. One of the marshals told of an instant when when the knock of the door resulted in four gunshots coming through the door; one hit the shield the marshal was holding knocking him to the ground, and a second shot struck the marshal in the stomach. Marshals are aware the situation is dangerous, and the two present described increases in heart rate.

One also described in some detail the thoughts that went through his head each time -- checking who were on his right and left and behind him, reviewing the arrangements for the confrontation, assuring both safety and completion of the job. Both the experienced marshals described the importance of training, and both described trying to assure that the corps of marshals have recent, well done training. I suspect that in that critical moment, the marshals may fall back on the routine that they have been trained to perform, and concentrate on performing the tasks well.

I am reminded that many years ago I was reviewing reports of people using parachutes who had been instrumented with heart rate monitors. (The research lab in which I was working had expertise on biomonitoring and automated analysis of the records from such monitoring, and was considering bidding on a project to make parachute jumping safer.) One of the reports I read described a jumper whose parachute had failed to open. He had escaped from the harness for that chute, gone into free fall for a time to clear the unopened cute, and then popped his backup chute and landed safely. During the entire jump his heart rate had remained unaffected; his training had kicked in and he had coolly done what he had been trained to do. After landing however, his heart rate shot up reflecting a high degree of stress, and stayed high for several hours.

It occurs to me that something of the kind may happen to the well trained marshal before knocking on the door he believes will be opened by a felon. Something like this may also happen to the well trained soldier at the moment of danger in battle. Training kicks in and the mind focuses on conducting the things for which one has been trained.

I also recalled a student in a course I taught some years ago. The university course was titled "Risk", and sought to acquaint the students with literature on risk and uncertainty, and also to give them some tools to make better decisions. The students in the course had been asked to describe a career decision, the criteria that were important in making that decision, how the alternatives ranked against each criterion, and the uncertainty involved in predicting the outcome of each alternative.

My student was a law enforcement officer. He was deciding between his current job in the Washington DC area and a job offer he had to join the DEA in Florida. The Florida job involved a reduction in pay, a reduction in status, and moving away from his friends and family -- all of which were negative in his mind. He thanked me for the experience of the assessment, and went on to accept the Florida job in spite of all the drawbacks. What he was grateful for was the explicit realization that the job in Florida offered more frequent risks to his physical safety, and that he valued those experiences. Indeed he was willing to give up pay, job status, and closeness to family to seek more dangerous job experiences.

Author Faust, in her book, sought in part to understand how Civil War soldiers felt in battle. I was dubious that, lacking comparable experiences herself, she could really understand how those soldiers felt in battle. In fact, I also posted on this specific concern.

Training helps people think about what they must do to get their jobs done in times of stress, and what they must do to survive in times of danger. And while we think that people would normally try to avoid danger, some people seem to seek out dangerous jobs.

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