The Conditions We Create

[This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Travis Dotson

Analyst, Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

Why is Opportunity a pillar of learning?

Because it plays a critical role in supporting our learning culture. If we as a workforce don’t consciously identify and exploit opportunities for learning as part of everyday work, we are failing to foster the constant growth required to navigate the dynamic environment in which we operate.

Easy to say fancy words. But what does “exploit opportunities for learning” look like around the console in Dispatch or out on Division Delta?

Sometimes it’s very simple. Like taking the time to say: “Hey, come over here. Let me show you something” during the morning rig check. That statement often sets up a “lesson session” of some sorts. Maybe it’s a quick tip on getting the saw to fit just right in the compartment, or maybe a real eye-opener on why it’s important to actually check the batteries on the AED.

Either way, it’s always an option to bypass the learning moment for the sake of efficiency. But taking the time to foster learning is how we improve the culture we have and build the culture we want.

Exploiting learning opportunities on the fireground can be more difficult. Especially if you don’t even recognize the situation as an opportunity to begin with. Big deal firing show? Who gets the torch? Likely one of the saltier folks who knows what to do without much direction. Fair enough. But viewing this as an opportunity for someone might inspire you to throw an up-and-comer in with them to shadow for a bit and then take the torch with some oversight.

We don’t want to put folks in too far over their head or complicate a crucial operation for the sake of training. But we do want to constantly be on the lookout for any chance to plug our people into new experiences. Like anything else, finding a way to fit learning in is a matter of practice.

Opportunities are everywhere. We have to get good at seeing them in time to act. Once you make a commitment to learning as a value, chances to live out that commitment are revealed with regularity. Remember, this applies to yourself as much as anyone you might be mentoring. If the operational tempo allows, don’t hesitate to ask if you can follow along, get some instruction, or take a swing at whatever is happening that you could learn from.

Whether it’s running the pump, giving the briefing, or helping out in the Finance Section—look for ways to expand your own knowledge set.

On page 12 in Learning in the Wildland Fire Service, notice the descriptive text associated with the pillar of Opportunity: “We create conditions for learning”. Creating conditions for learning requires creative action. How you view an event or situation really drives whether or not any learning will take place—for yourself or anyone else.

As outlined in Learning in the Wildland Fire Service, these are the tenets that support the pillar of Opportunity:

  • Be Consistent – Make learning part of everyday operations for yourself and your team.
  • Create the Climate – Make time for learning a part of all operations.
  • Embrace Failure – Approach unintended outcomes with learning in mind.

These tenets are the “how to” in relation to maximizing opportunity.

Be Consistent

We all know the value of consistency.

A related sentiment is the popular saying: “train like you fight because you will fight like you train.”

If you save learning for specific occasions, you may forget to include it or not allow it the time that it requires.

This can be as easy as getting in the habit of asking: “How can we incorporate learning into this day?” This may lead to an official trainee assignment, pile building 101 before project work, or taking more than six minutes for safety.

Create the Climate

Climate matters—for all sorts of stuff, including learning.

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This is the section on “Command Climate” from Leading in the Wildland Fire Service (Learning in the Wildland Fire Service’s companion publication):

Command Climate

Command climate refers to the environment within the influence of a particular leader or chain of command.

Team members develop a perception of the command climate based on their understanding of how they are expected to perform, how they are treated, and how they must conform to their leader’s individual style and personality.

Fire leaders strive to create command climates based on trust in which people feel comfortable raising issues that may be problems and engaging in healthy debate over potential courses of action.

Establishing a positive command climate demonstrates respect for our teams and subordinates and generates far-reaching benefits: unity of effort, increased initiative among subordinates, and more timely error mitigation.

A positive command climate not only helps to avoid error but also enhances the team’s ability to recover from error when it occurs. Direct communication with open interaction among teams and their leaders—a key attribute of an effective command climate—is the first line of defense against error chains.

Good command climate is characterized by open communication, mutual trust and respect, freedom to raise issues and engage in debate, clear and attainable goals, and teamwork.

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Not coincidently, a healthy command climate fosters a healthy learning environment.

Embrace Failure

This is least intuitive of the tenets. A charge to embrace failure might first be interpreted as somehow lowering high standards. However, this is not at all the spirit of this tenet. We must remember the overriding pillar is Opportunity. This core value reminds us to remain focused on learning in the midst of failure.

Emergency response is a dynamic endeavor. The consequences of failure run the spectrum from no impact to catastrophic. Regardless of outcome, every failure holds valuable lessons. But discovering and sharing them can be impeded by our approach and attitude.

We all experience communication failures on a regular basis. Each instance is an opportunity to investigate our own part in the break down. Evaluating the difference between what was intended and what was received without slipping into blame is good practice for keeping learning as the focus.

Genuinely approaching unintended outcomes with learning in mind can be difficult. The wildland fire service has made an intentional effort to pivot away from a blame-focused accident review culture to one focused on understanding and sensemaking.

Individually and collectively, we have great influence on the cultural conditions we operate in. Our pillars of learning remind us to put conscious, intentional effort into creating conditions that support learning.

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Learning to Learn from Accidents

[From the “Desire and Responsibility to Learn” section of Learning in the Wildland Fire Service.]

Accidents—and the reviews and investigations that follow—have been part of the wildland fire service since the time before the pulaski. And over the years, the focus and the tone of accident reviews have changed.

In the wake of the Thirtymile and Cramer fire investigations, a shift in post-accident reviews began to take shape. This shift was also occurring in other high-risk industries as well. We all want to figure out why our employees were hurt or killed and what—if anything—can be learned to prevent a similar occurrence.

Beginning with a firefighter entrapment review on the Balls Canyon Fire in 2005 and a Peer Review the following year on the Little Venus Fire in Wyoming, a fundamental change emerged in the way accidents are reviewed and lessons are captured. In 2007, the first Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) Guide laid the foundation for today’s learning-focused accident reviews. 

Prior to this effort, accident reviews tended to describe “errors” and what firefighters should have seen, understood, or done. This recent shift makes an effort to understand how those involved “made sense” of the situation given the information available at the time.

This view seeks to acknowledge and describe the conditions, pressures, motivations and restrictions present in the situation. In this view, a full accounting of the conditions allows for genuine dialogue regarding potential lessons and learning.

In a learning organization, every member of a team is responsible for leading themselves in learning and sharing what they know with their peers.

Firefighters are responsible to help their captains and chief officers design effective learning opportunities. Captains and chiefs are responsible for creating a command climate where learning is valued and learning initiatives from firefighters are encouraged.

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