Let’s preserve any lessons that are being learned by the fire agencies during the pandemic

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center could be the focal point for recording and archiving what what works and what doesn’t

Bureau of Indian Affairs Incident Management Team fire
Bureau of Indian Affairs Incident Management Team goes over their plan for the day. March 14, 2017. NIFC photo.

The actions the wildland fire agencies take this year to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic deserves to be recorded by historians. First, simply because it is historic. Wildland fire agencies have not experienced a situation like this in the last 100 years. Also, this is an opportunity to learn. Some of the actions being taken by the leaders in the land management and fire agencies will hopefully be effective, but others might not be, or opportunities could be missed.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana

Usually after serious accidents occur on fires there is an investigation or learning analysis with a primary goal of identifying lessons that will reduce the chance of future injuries or fatalities. While this pandemic and the response to it are still unfolding is an ideal time for analysts and historians to get in on the ground floor to begin to observe, record, and find out why decisions are being made and the effects of those actions. It is important to document the first, second, and third order effects.

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center could be the focal point for organizing the effort to record and archive what what works and what doesn’t.

Analysts could be embedded with Area Command Teams, the National Interagency Fire Center, Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups, Incident Management Teams, and dispatch centers.

Taking on the ‘woke’ call-out culture

Woke Culture Obama
Screen capture from the Guardian video below.

On October 14 I wrote about criticism and critiques, exploring how in the wildland fire world they can provide a very valuable learning experience or there can be cascading negative repercussions. The outcome depends on the venue in which it is presented as well as the social maturity, motivation, knowledge, and diplomacy of the person expressing their opinion.

That article was followed a few days later by spotlighting Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena”.

When I heard about Former President Barack Obama speaking during a panel discussion on October 29 about the “call out culture”, I thought back to those two articles. Mr. Obama may have been referring to criticism related to social issues or politics, but the concept can also apply to discussions about firefighting and forest management — even to issues as meaningless as aggressively calling someone out for not using the most current version of firefighting jargon approved by the U.S. Forest Service, which I saw happen recently (but thankfully not on Wildfire Today).

Below is a transcript of portions of Mr. Obama’s discussion, and after that, a 2-minute video clip from the event:

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff — you should get over that quickly.

“The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and, you know, share certain things with you.

“I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of, the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people and that’s enough.

“Like if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself because: ‘Man, did you see how woke I was? I called you out.’

“That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you are probably not going to get that far.”

Theodore Roosevelt — on criticism

Theodore Roosevelt criticism quote

Earlier this week the topic on Wildfire today was “Criticism and Accuracy”. Here is a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt about criticism, part of a speech delivered April 23, 1910 at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France.

Accuracy and Critique

Critique vs accuracy venn diagram

When a wildland fire incident has a controversial outcome it will often be pointed out by those who are knowledgeable on the subject, or by someone who is directly or indirectly affected.

I understand how venting can be cathartic. As long as it is done in private, no problem. If it is done in public there can be cascading repercussions, and therefore more responsibility. At worst, it can be self-serving, cruel, damaging, and counterproductive. But if everything said is completely accurate, and the result can benefit mankind, then the greater good might be served in many situations. At Wildfire Today, I know that sunlight can be the best disinfectant. Helping shine a little light on lessons learned by firefighters through information about reports being released or critique from various sources, might reduce the chances of someone else learning a lesson the hard way — with unpleasant consequences.

Years ago in a comment section on Wildfire Today someone made statements about another person. It was slanderous, not true, and damaged the reputation of a very honorable and skilled professional. Since then I have strived harder to have factual information on the web site. There are times when that objective is not met, but it does not stop me from trying.

Even the best intentioned formal investigations of incidents may occasionally miss the mark of being accurate. Other times the report an investigation team releases might purposefully deceive, or lie by omission. I certainly do not have all the answers, not by a long shot. In cases like these, and others, attention is needed by the hive mind of the wildland fire community.

Critique not meshing with accuracy can keep me up at night.

21 issues frequently identified in firefighter entrapment reports

Can lessons actually be learned?

Horse Park Fire
The Horse Park Fire in Colorado, May 31, 2018. Screenshot from the Hotchkiss Fire District video.

The 43-page facilitated learning analysis about the entrapment on the Mendocino Complex of Fires was well-researched and skillfully written. Six firefighters received burns and other injuries when they had to escape from the fire by running through unburned vegetation.

The intent of the analysis and hundreds of others like it is for firefighters to gain knowledge from the dozens of identified lessons learned that were meticulously documented, hoping that they will not be repeated by those who read the report.

That sounds very straight forward and simple.

But will reading about something that occurred on a fire months or years ago and hundreds or thousands of miles away actually influence someone’s behavior, performance, or decision making ability? Intuitively, we may say, “Yes. Of course. Learning about something that went wrong on an incident will keep us from making similar bad decisions later.”

A comment left by Paul regarding the article about the facilitated learning analysis was interesting:

Nothing “new” in the “Lessons Learned”. After decades in the fire service, makes me wonder if Lessons can be really be learned (and applied) at an organizational level. Seems they are constantly learned at the personal level.

Paul makes a good point. Those of us who have read numerous after action reports have seen almost all of the identified lessons many times before. Below are 21 issues mentioned in the Mendocino Complex report that were identified on the August 19, 2018 incident-within-an-incident.

  1. Interpersonal communications
  2. Communications system (radios & repeaters)
  3. Organizational structure
  4. Inadequate briefings
  5. Span of control way out of whack
  6. Inadequate knowledge about the real-time location of the fire
  7. Crew resource management
  8. See something say something
  9. Play the what-if game
  10. Turn down assignment
  11. Interagency rivalry
  12. Inadequate lookout ability due to terrain
  13. Metro firefighters and those from a different fuel type thrown into a complex wildfire situation
  14. Escape routes
  15. Safety zones
  16. Not knowing the real-time location of firefighting resources
  17. Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting
  18. Burn victims not being sent to a burn center
  19. Very long travel times to fireline assignments
  20. Personnel shortages on Incident Management Teams and Unable To Fill resource orders on fires affecting tactics and safety
  21. Failure to declare an Incident-Within-An-Incident

Will identifying these issues still another time in a well-written document help prevent them from recurring? We have always assumed it will. But if so, why do the well-intentioned reports continue to list many of the same items?

In a perfect world an important lesson to be learned would be described once in a report. It would then become global knowledge in the firefighting world and the issue would never again have to show up in an after action review.

If these documents and formal classroom training is what Paul refers to as the “organizational level”, does he have a point that the most frequent way firefighters learn is from personal experience?

How do we increase the effectiveness of lessons learned reports?

Is there a different, or innovative method that could transplant these lessons into the personal mental “slide shows” that experienced firefighters consult and refer to when they are faced with a tough decision in the field?

Without doubt, someone will say all we have to do is abide by the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and 18 Watch Out Situations. The Orders have been around for 62 years. Someone else just saying “follow them” will not magically make it happen. That has been said millions of times in the last six decades and still, between 1990 and 2015, an average of 17 wildland firefighters were killed each year. Continuing to do the same thing while expecting different results is not realistic.