The Adjacent Emergency

This post discusses the discovery of the present's capacity to tip over into an emergency state as events unfold and mitigations fail. Locating this tipping point is explored from the angle of experience in wildland firefighting.

The Adjacent Emergency
Between the "normal" present and the adjacent emergency are events and the failure of the mitigations designed to manage them. This tipping point, or transition, along the edge of the emergency, might be operated in intentionally as is common in emergency environments or avoided to eschew the potential risk of falling completely into the adjacent emergency. The adjacent emergency is pervasive in emergency management and is a mainstay of incident operations.


I generally share the same advice with friends leaving for outdoor adventures. Having spent my share of time in the woods both inside and outside of emergency scenarios, I offer they should not wait until an emergency starts taking place to take emergency action. Instead, they should look at every scenario and analyze it for its capacity to produce an emergency and take action before an emergency starts to unfold even if they aren't certain one will follow. The absence of an emergency in the present does not indicate that one is not an adjacent possible future state.

Causal Mapping Diagrams

During my undergraduate studies, I was privileged to take a few courses taught by Dr. Sue Swedis. In one class, we went through an exercise that has stuck with me ever since and surely influences the advice I give to fellow adventurers. The first step of the exercise is to pick an activity/process/event (I think I picked logging) and then map out a chain of events leading to an emergency. Connected to each event are mitigations that ideally prevent further progress down the map. If the mitigations intended to manage each event are successful, progress down the causal chain is thwarted. On the other hand, the failure of mitigations moves the activity closer to trouble and puts increased pressure on subsequent mitigations to successfully manage future events. At the same time, the energy expended to avoid future detrimental events is increased. It should be kept in mind that as the causal chain is descended, decision space and options steadily decrease.

Causal mapping has since permeated my thinking. When listening to others I try to visualize where they are in the chain of events, how close are they to having an emergency, and imagine how many events would need to occur and mitigations would have to fail before there was a real problem. The idea of the adjacent emergency is to sense if the present is abutting a transition point from the routine, manageable, and controllable to an emergency scenario requiring new ways of acting and thinking before the transition occurs (Snowden & Boone, 2007). The adjacent emergency focuses on the last rung of the causal chain before the activity/process/event flips over into an emergency.

As discussed above, the transition point between the normal state and adjacent emergency state is reached when the last remaining event (or events) occur, and their corresponding mitigations fail. If the mitigations succeed, the transition is avoided. Sense-making around the adjacent emergency can be guided by questions including: "How many things have to go wrong before we are in trouble and how can we mitigate or altogether avoid the negative consequences?" If the answer to the first question is multiple events and the answer to the second is that there are several different mitigation strategies that could be used, the emergency is not adjacent but rather further down the causal sequence. In this case, there may be many options available and adequate decision space to manage the emergency before it becomes adjacent. If the inverse is found, the emergency may be adjacent and deliberate action is needed urgently.      

Boundaries and the Adjacent Emergency

Locating the adjacent emergency requires finding the boundary of the steadily nearing or already next door transition point between normalcy and emergency. The outer edge of the boundary is formed by the last remaining mitigations between the controllable and manageable and the adjacent emergency. If they fail, the adjacent emergency will become the present situation. The inner edge of the boundary is where the descent down into the emergency begins marked by possible changes in emotions and increases in variables including complexity, risk, and exposure. Within the boundary and outside its inner edge, responding units seek to maintain their internal environments so they can engage with the emergency on their own terms.

Taking a closer look, the boundary is a graded transition point (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003). Meaning, the boundary can be nearly crossed before it is totally traversed - it can be moved across in varying degrees before it is spanned and the adjacent emergency entered. While the outer edge has been crossed the boundary can be operated in without crossing it entirely through what I have heard referred to while fighting forest fires as "operating in the gray." When operating in the gray within the transition point there is momentum pulling the responding unit into the adjacent emergency but there are also forces pulling operations back into normalcy through continuous mitigation and the maintenance of structured coherence, both at the cost of increased energy expenditure (Snowden, 2010). These methods put pressure on leadership and management who will have to recognize when it is time to lift the imposed structure on the responding unit. Signifiers such as decreases in operational tempo and complexity indicate the responding unit has receded its position in the boundary away from the edge of the emergency. Now, management and leadership styles can change to fit the less urgent and dynamic context (Snowden & Boone, 2007).  Operating in this manner is to act like the golf ball in the header image that is on the edge of the hole but has not yet tumbled into it. The responding unit balances at the edge of the adjacent emergency. Functioning in the transition between normalcy and falling over into the adjacent emergency is where flow states are found among the experienced. Moving operations further into the hollow of the adjacent emergency may provoke emotions including anxiety, confusion, loss, and unfamiliarity.

Recognizing when one has moved from the tipping transition point of the adjacent emergency and into it is marked by signifiers such as changes in the hazard profile and vulnerability to them, growing physical or psychological stress, and changes in the ease with which risk can be managed. Falling into the adjacent emergency unexpectedly or without a strategy to cope with the dynamics found there can cause a breakdown in the responding unit. If a breakdown occurs, it is possible the pattern of behavior of the responding unit becomes a mirror image of the emergency's patterns of activity. In this case, the responding unit loses its coherence and its identity, and the resource no longer has its ability to function purposefully and becomes totally reactionary instead of engaging on its own terms (Cilliers, 2006).

It is important to note that operating deeper into the adjacent emergency is not wholly undesirable nor does it have to be associated with the aforementioned negative emotions. If there is a need to move further into the emergency, meaning to engage with greater complexity, take on greater risk, and increase exposure, responding units must act as described in the above and exert energy to maintain the structure of the group and devise strategies to mitigate risk. Crossing the boundary and moving further into the emergency places an increased emphasis on the skills of the responding unit. In wildfire, there are different levels of fire crew certifications required to operate further down inside the emergency: Type two Crews, Type two Initial Attack Crews, and finally Hotshot Crews. In order, each is qualified to take on increasingly risky and complex assignments.  

The Role of Experience

It is certainly difficult to discern if there is an emergency that is not taking place at the moment but may be close at hand. In locating the adjacent emergency, experience is key. I was fortunate to spend a few years on Hotshot Crews fighting forest fires throughout the West. Through this experience, I learned an enormous amount about risk management while working in a hazardous environment. I remain impressed by the twenty-year veterans who always knew when it was time to get down the fireline and back to safety long before it would have occurred to me to do so, especially early on in my time as a firefighter.  

One of the key differences between myself and the career firefighters is experience. It is experience that allowed them to analyze the current state of affairs and reach the conclusion that an emergency is adjacent and will occur if certain events unfold and mitigations fail. Past experience works as an enabling value that allows one to distinguish certain features of the present. For example, a senior wildland firefighter might notice unique properties in the vegetation between the fire and their crew that could lead to explosive fire spread if the weather shifted. Here, the firefighter's past experience enables them to notice their surroundings in the present as having the potential to cause harm to themselves and their people, and challenge management objectives. In this situation, the mitigation of falling back to their safety zone where their vehicles are parked can be put into action and prevent the fire crew from tipping over into the adjacent emergency and double-timing back down the fireline with fire close behind. More dire situations can be imagined.  

Experience can also work in a governing manner. For example, the experience level of a first-year firefighter limits the experiences they can have on the fireline. They will not likely experience their surroundings as the senior firefighter did. The first-year firefighter simply does not have the experience required to live the present the way the senior firefighter does. To the first-year firefighter, the present does not show up with the potential to cause harm if certain variables align so they do not detect an adjacent emergency. Accrued years of experience enable one to have a wide variety of experiences, limited experience works the inverse way as a governor rather than an enabler, to use the language of Cynefin. In the present context, greater experience may enable one to locate more adjacent emergencies with greater ease when compared to someone with less experience.

Experience, especially extensive accrued experience, can act in another governing way as well. When unique or novel experiences occur, past experience is drawn upon to formulate the reasoning behind their happening - the causes that produced the effects experienced. Experience becomes restrictive when it is used to explain newness in a way that removes its novelty and inculcates it into the already existent body of experience. In this way, newness and uniqueness are stripped away in the pursuit of comfort either through laying over the present previously used explanations or explaining the experience as already being familiar (Maturana, 1995). To escape this trap, there is an opportunity at the moment of each new experience to use new language and apply past experience in different ways that widen rather than further entrain the body of experience used to make sense of the world (Cilliers, 1998; Maturana, & Verden-Zöller, 2008). This insight becomes particularly useful when one is trying to locate the boundary of the adjacent emergency as it may be that the events along the boundary are unexpected, unusual, unclear, and barely discernable in the present. A bias to use past experience to eradicate novelty and strangeness and conform new phenomena to old patterns may be a central constraint to being sensitive to adjacent emergencies.    

Specific and General Knowledge

In determining if there is an adjacent emergency and locating its boundaries, both specific and general knowledge (what might also call experience as it is handled above) are useful. It is easy to fall into the trap of granting total primacy to industry-specific knowledge. Even the example above of the first year and senior firefighter point to the value of specialist knowledge gained over the years. Surely on the fireline or other operational contexts where hazards are many and the risk involved changes minute by minute specialist knowledge may be of the greatest value. However, away from the scenes back at Incident Command Posts, or in conference rooms, consulting engagements, non-industry-specific knowledge, or perhaps it might even be called generalist knowledge, has a unique value in locating adjacent emergencies. As it is imagined here, while specialist knowledge is concerned with tasks and their safe completion, generalist knowledge is occupied with understanding tasks (critically and otherwise), the context they take place within, their history, making sense of how involved factors are interrelated and may evolve over time, and seeking leverage points to positively influence the activity as it moves into the future. Generalists may offer fresh insight into the proximity of the adjacent emergency (or detect new ones) and its nature while working with specialists to devise a strategy for managing it.


This post explores the emergencies that are right next door separated from the present only by events that have not yet occurred and the activation of mitigation strategies designed to manage their hazards. The tipping point between what might be described as normalcy to the adjacent emergency is a transition point and understood as a gradient where operations can partially enter the adjacent emergency through mitigations and imposing and maintaining structure (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003; Snowden, 2010). The objective is to avoid fully "tipping over" into the adjacent emergency where the responding unit descends into the emergency without planning for it. Before moving off the edge and further into the emergency, plans to expend a greater degree of energy to hold the responding unit together as well as the skill level of the responding unit are two key variables to address before moving further into the emergency where greater risk and complexity exist.

The role of experience greatly influences whether or not an adjacent emergency will be located. Accrued experience enables one to live the present with greater richness and be able to locate adjacent emergencies with greater ease than someone with less experience. At the same time, granting specific knowledge total primacy in locating the adjacent emergency is a mistake. Specific knowledge combined with general knowledge may support gaining greater insight into the adjacent emergency.


Cilliers, P. (1998). Complexity & postmodernism: Understanding complex systems. London: Routledge.

Cilliers, P. (2006). On the importance of a certain slowness. Emergence: Complexity and Organization, 8(3), 105-112.

Kurtz, C. F., & Snowden, D. J. (2003). The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated. IBM Systems Journal, 42(3), 462-483.

Maturana, H. (1995). The nature of time. Chilean School of Biology of Cognition.

Maturana, H. R., & Verden-Zöller, G. (2008). The origin of humanness in the biology of love. (B. Pille, Ed.) Exeter, Devon, UK: Imprint Academic.

Snowden, D. (2010). Naturalizing sensemaking. In Informed by knowledge: Expert performance in complex situations (pp. 223-235). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Snowden, D. J., & Boone, M. E. (2007). A leader's framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review, 85(11), 68-76.