Job aid: inspecting a fire shelter

Example of a fire shelter
Example of a deployed fire shelter

Flowcharts, along with their decision-table siblings, guide a person through choices, evaluations, or decisions.  As an example of a flowchart, I’m using inspection guidelines for a personal fire shelter.  The guidelines come from the USDA Forest Service website (specifically, Fire Shelter Inspection Guide and Rebag Direction).

A fire shelter is a last-ditch, personal-protection device, meant to radiate heat away from a firefighter who’s been trapped by a fire.  The shelter’s pup-tent shape encloses air for the fighter to breath as the fire passes over.

The photo on the right is taken from page 16 of The New Generation Fire Shelter, a 2003 publication.  Although the text doesn’t say so explicitly, a portion of the shelter appears to have been cut away so you can see how the firefighter lies within it after it’s deployed.  (There are hand straps to hold the shelter down.)

Firefighters receive a fire shelter as part of their equipment, and one of their responsibilities is to inspect it regularly.  That’s what the guidelines are for.

A fire shelter in its bag
A fire shelter in its bag

The second photo shows what a fire shelter looks like in its bag.  Firefighters leave the bag closed until they have to deploy it, which explains the need to inspect the bag regularly.

There’s more to the guide than appears below; I’m just highlighting its flowchart.  Which is a good excuse for me to point out that most job aids are combinations of techniques–for example, step-by-step instructions (a cookbook) combined with decision guidance (like a flowchart).

Who uses this job aid?

A Forest Service firefighter or a person with similar responsibilities.  While you could use this to help inspect any fire shelter, the language in the guide implies that you’re inspecting your own.

What’s the task being guided?

Determining whether a fire shelter has any defects that would render it unsafe.

 Notice the number of decisions involved:

  • Is there moisture in the bag?
  • What’s the status of the bag itself?
  • Are there holes?  How many, and what size?
  • Does it have a label with a red R?
  • Does it have a yellow rebag label?

I want to emphasize, because of the nature of the task, that the full guide has a number of photo examples (e.g., this is what a label with a red R looks like).

From the Fire Shelter Inspection Guide

(See full guide at the U.S. Forest Service site)

When to build a job aid: go / no-go

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series When to Build a Job Aid.

If you’re wondering whether you should build a job aid to support some task, this is the first of a three-part guide to help you figure things out.

Should you, or shouldn't you (part 1)?

That first consideration (“Is a job aid required?”) isn’t as daft as it might seem.  If your organization mandates a job aid for some task, then you’re stuck.  You want to do the best job you can with it (or maybe you don’t), but unless you convince the right people to reverse the policy, somebody’s going to be building a job aid.

Which means you can skip the rest of the “should I build?” stuff that will appear in Parts 2 and 3.

Assuming that a job aid isn’t mandatory, the next question is whether speed or rate is a critical factor in performing whatever the task is.  The short answer is that if speed matters, a job aid isn’t going to work.

Wing tips up, feet down, watch for that wave...First, when it comes to routinely high-volume work like factory production or air-traffic control, that normal high-volume state doesn’t allow the performer time to consult a job aid.  Successful results depend on learning–on committing skill and knowledge to memory, and on retrieving and applying those things appropriately.

I’m a pretty fast typist (65 – 80 words per minute if I’ve been writing a lot), but the moment I glance down at the keyboard my rate drops, because the visual signal interferes with the virtually automatic, high-rate process I normally use at a keyboard.

That’s rate.  As for speed, many jobs call for you to apply knowledge and skill  in an unscheduled fashion, but quickly.  Think about safely driving a car through a tricky situation, much less an emergency.  You don’t have the opportunity to consult a job aid.  If a kid on a bike suddenly pulls out in front of you, you can’t look up what to do.

Anyone who’s helped train a new driver knows what it’s like when the novice is trying to decide if it’s safe to turn into traffic.  We experienced drivers have internalized all sorts of data to help us decide without thinking, “Yes, there’s plenty of time before that bus gets here; I can make the left turn.” In the moment, the newcomer doesn’t have that fluency but has to be guided toward it–just not via a job aid.

What’s next?

Once you’ve determined that you’re not required to build a job aid, and that there’s no obstacle posed by a need for high speed or high rate, you’ll look at the nature of the performance for clues that suggest job aids.  That’ll be the next post: Ask the Task.

CC-licensed image of seabirds by Paul Scott.

Job aid: reference for cell layout

Reference job aid is a term I use for any job aid that collects or lays out information so that someone can look up a meaning, decode an example, or perform other kinds of work with facts.

(Over the next few days, I’ll post several examples of real-world job aids.  This is the first one.)

The image below and its accompanying table of callouts are taken from the Institution Rules and Regulations for the former United States penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, California.    As the regulations make clear, an inmate was entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.  Anything else was a privilege and could be revoked.

Who used this job aid?

My guess is: guards, to explain to inmates how their cells were to be organized, and to make certain that cells conformed to the rules.  Also, possibly, the inmates themselves, though I have a suspicion it would be more to justify some claim:  “Hey, I’m allowed to have up to twelve books.”

What was the task it supported?

Most likely, it was a reference for what can someone have in his cell?  What is he not allowed to have?  (In the latter case, if an item is not pictured here, it’s not permitted.  This is one way to for you to be certain that Robert Stroud, despite the title of a movie, never kept birds while at Alcatraz.  Apparently as a title The Birdman of Leavenworth didn’t sound as striking.)

(Click to enlarge)