Astronauts, Firefighters, EMTs, and Interpersonal Conflict

How are astronauts and firefighters alike? They both need extensive training on complex equipment, face the possibility of death every day, live where they work, develop strong bonds, and strong teamwork and cooperation is the key to their success. And, conflicts can cause major problems for both.

According to Harvard Medical School researcher Dr. James Cartreine, “If two astronauts aren’t getting along well, it can impact the success of the mission, and if two firefighters or EMTs are having trouble it can potentially interfere with rescue operations.’ Conflicts can even endanger lives, if people don’t completely support each other. Cartreine points out that teams of astronauts, firefighters and EMTs usually get along well–but when they don’t, the consequences can be disastrous. “You can imagine that even if you’re good friends, when you spend all your time together doing stressful work with few breaks, people can get on each others’ nerves,’ said Cartreine. A computer program to help astronauts with conflicts is now being tested by firefighters and EMTs nationwide.

NASA is concerned enough about crew conflicts to fund development of an interactive media program to help astronauts deal with conflicts. According to Cartreine, the Crew Conflict Program asks you a number of questions to get a good understanding of the conflict and then guides you through coming up with ways to negotiate a resolution. Or, if it really can’t be solved, how to get your job done and keep your peace of mind, in spite of the conflict. But the program is not a table-top mediator–it doesn’t connect information from both parties in the conflict and the other person in the conflict would not even know someone else was using it. Firefighters and EMTs use the program independently and come up with ways they can improve the situation.

The program draws on science from diverse fields, including psychology, legal arbitration, labor management, business negotiation, marriage and family counseling, and even schoolyard conflict–incorporating approaches that have been found to work. Cartreine also received input from three of the United States’ largest fire departments and from NASA flight surgeons. The program provides “virtual coaching sessions’ with an expert who appears in hundreds of short branching audio and video clips. Even though the program is automated, it feels like interacting with a real person. Every user has a unique experience that is tailored to their specific needs and is responsive to their input. As a result, users receive the type of help that is most valuable for helping resolve their work conflicts.

Cartreine points out that, although conflicts happen in every workplace every day, there has never been a systematic study of any intervention for conflicts between co-workers in any industry. So, this appears to be the first study of a way to deal with conflicts between peers in the workplace. The project is now enrolling firefighters and EMTs at If the program works with them, it will go to the astronauts. The study is being conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, and is funded by NASA via the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. Media production and programming was done by The Troupe Modern Media of Windham, New Hampshire (

The Crew Conflict Program is part of a larger suite of interactive media programs developed by Cartreine, dubbed the “Virtual Space Station” to help astronauts prevent, detect, and manage their own psychological and social problems on long space missions. Other Virtual Space Station programs help astronauts treat their own clinical depression, manage chronic stress, and keep track of their mood and the amount of conflict in their crew. The depression treatment and stress management programs have already been shown to be effective in other studies.

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