Where is the Learning?

[This article originally appeared as Travis Dotson’s “Ground Truths” column in the Winter 2014 Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Travis Dotson

Analyst, Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

OK, first off, let’s get one thing straight: “Ground Truths” is the world according to Travis Dotson. That’s all. Just like some incident reviews are the world according to that author or team. I have no power over anything other than maybe what people talk about in line for chow. Some people like reading my rants. But, then again, people like watching monkeys at the zoo. So, if you want to complain to my supervisor about what I say because it’s different from what you think, go for it. But keep in mind, I’m not writing policy or even influencing it. I’m just a knuckle-dragger with no education who stumbled onto a keyboard.

Now, my thoughts on reports/reviews/investigations—whatever you want to call them. I have one big beef with reports, and it’s not even with reports themselves. It’s how much emphasis we put on them.

Learning from an event is not the same as writing OR reading a report. That’s my only issue. Learning from an event is a very involved process. The report is just one part of that process. And, in some instances, it’s not even necessary.

I have learned a lot from the events surrounding July 6, 1994. And not one of the things I learned is a result of just reading the report. Everything I’ve learned has come from discussion with people I know and respect, walking the actual ground, hearing from those who were there, and participating in the Staff Ride. The report is just context.

Now there are reports I think we learn instantly from, but they’re not the ones we focus on. The reports I immediately gain new skills or behaviors from are the super simple two-pager types with concrete, actionable lessons:

That stuff makes sense immediately. It sticks with me and I put it into practice when faced with a similar situation. These are the type of reports I think we learn the most from.

How much we learn from an incident (especially a high-profile fatality) is a different deal. That process involves questions, discussions, simulations, and most importantly: time—which requires patience. (See my previous “Ground Truths” rant on Patience.)

So please don’t confuse learning from an event with just writing OR reading a report. That’s not how it works.

If you’re writing reports, focus on telling the story in detail. Include pictures, videos, quotes and firsthand accounts as often as possible. Remember, your report is a small (but important) PIECE of the process.

When you read reports, don’t expect the lessons to be spoon-fed to you on paper. That’s not where the learning is. Learning comes from the intentional interaction you engage in after the reading.

Learn on, Tool Swingers.

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