The power of stories: Sharing lessons learned is critical to firefighter improvement

Humans are hard-wired to share stories; we must harness this instinct and use it to better the fire service


Our job is different.

The fire service is a unique environment to work in and learn to perform in. It can take a long time for a firefighter to gain enough experience to excel in our chaotic environment. The difficulty lies in really understanding what is going on around us, processing vast amounts of information, and making decisions in a time-compressed environment. Pilots, avalanche technicians, and military personnel also work in this type of job environment. These fields are all examples of experiential environments – and the jobs tend to be challenging to learn, and tight-knit teams form within them.

How do people in these fields learn, apply that learning to their work, reduce errors and become proficient – faster?

Work in our field for a while, and you will realize that stories are told around tables or tailboards all the time. We respect those with many more years of service, and should seek them out to hear their stories.
Work in our field for a while, and you will realize that stories are told around tables or tailboards all the time. We respect those with many more years of service, and should seek them out to hear their stories. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)

Learning our trade – kind and wicked environments

Economist Robin Hogarth coined the terms wicked and kind to characterize different learning environments.

  • A kind environment is one where you get immediate, accurate feedback on decisions, allowing you to easily and quickly learn and improve performance. He used the example of learning to play tennis. The court, net, ball and gravity all remain constant during a match. You and your coach can quickly see the results of different techniques or stokes and improve.
  • A wicked environment, in contrast, does not provide immediate feedback, and that feedback may also be inaccurate. We may assess that a snow slope is stable but only realize later that we misunderstood the data when it fails and impacts a road full of cars. A pilot may misinterpret what their instruments display in an emergency and lose control of the aircraft. A soldier or firefighter can make it back from an assignment and feel that they have done an excellent job, as everyone returned safely when, in reality, they missed signs that they were nearly killed. This can lead to ingraining bad habits and being accidentally successful instead of consciously successful.           

When we start a new trade, we spend a lot of our time learning. We are constantly challenged to learn new things, first through an initial fire academy, then into a probationary period and ultimately across our careers. We learn both the art and the science of the job. Often the easiest part of the equation to conquer, the science encapsulates the facts and knowledge points we master. Commit them to memory, and learn to perform the hands-on skill steps correctly, and you move on. We also have the advantage of often working in a kind learning environment. It's easy to realize that you made a mistake on a knowledge item, or possibly an instructor corrects you when you perform a hands-on skill incorrectly. This allows us to learn the proper lessons and correct our weaknesses.           

However, it can be a shock once you start your probationary period and begin to respond to calls. The uncontrolled, unpredictable number of variables we encounter challenges the learning process. We begin to make mistakes when situations are slightly different than what we learned in training. We may struggle to understand what technique to apply to a particular situation and when. It can feel like it takes eons to become comfortable and ultimately begin to think that you can handle things without constantly facing new problems. This is because we are no longer learning in a kind environment; it’s a wicked one. We are not always getting immediate feedback on our decisions, and sometimes the feedback is simply incorrect. This is the “art” portion of learning the job in an experiential field. It takes many hours of experience to be able to understand the lessons.          

Complicating this process is the varying level of experience we receive. Call volume, types of calls, a busy vs. quiet response area, the types of buildings in your area – these are all factors that contribute to different experiences for two people with the same amount of time in the job. That difference means they will see situations differently as well and judge risk differently. It can also mean that others may not have known about a lesson learned in a close call or near miss with an individual. This dooms us to continue to make the same mistakes and repeat the same incorrect tactics that those before us did.           

So what can we do? Fires, avalanches, and military operations are, by their nature, unpredictable, open-ended problems with hidden pitfalls, and they will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future. We can't change our job environment into a more kind and predictable one. We can change how we learn and pass on lessons learned, and we can do that with stories.

The power of storytelling

We, as humans, are hardwired to listen to stories. As kids, we listen to our parents or our grandmas and grandpas tell family stories, then pass those stories onto our kids as we grow older. For millennia, humans have used stories to convey important messages, traditions, culture and even to navigate.

In her book, “Wayfinding,” M.A. O'Connor writes that the Aboriginal people of Australia used stories to navigate for thousands of years using dreaming tracks or songlines. The stories could allow for people to navigate a virtual highway, sometimes up to 2,300 miles long. They could represent constellations or landforms, and by retelling the story or song, one could put in order the landmarks needed to navigate a journey. These journeys took place across what, to the uninitiated, looked like a featureless landscape. The stories were shared carefully, focusing on telling the stories correctly to ensure that storytellers passed the correct information to the next generations.

"Dreaming tracks aren't etched into the land; they live in the memories of individuals who inherited the routes from previous generations, who inherited them as well, creating one of the oldest chains of human memory," O'Connor writes. Hawaiian and Native American peoples also used stories to preserve creation stories, help the next generations learn their culture, and navigate great distances. Across many different cultures and periods, we have proven time and time again the power of storytelling.           

The fire service is excellent at telling stories. Work in our field for a while, and you will realize that stories are told around tables or tailboards all the time. We respect those with many more years of service, and should seek them out to hear their stories. These stories bind us into teams typical of experiential fields. They help pass along methods of handling situations and illustrate times when mistakes were made, allowing others to learn from those mistakes. They can help us understand the art side of the equation and be an experience leveler, helping us all make the journey to proficiency at the same rate.         

A colleague of mine recounts the development of the after-action review (AAR) for the military. He says its roots are in the tradition of soldiers sitting around campfires at night, discussing the day's events, and talking about what worked and what didn't. Later, this practice was formalized as a powerful tool for learning. Today, there are several ways we can share our stories, like via Firefighter Near Miss.

A note of caution

We are fortunate in the fire service to also have a tradition of sharing stories. However, the stories you tell can be good or bad. We need to remember how powerful stories are and use our powers for good. When we trade in gossip or use a story to make someone look foolish after a mistake, we are doing lasting damage to this process.           

This can also happen if we leave out details that might make us look bad or try to make the story into more than it is. If we tell stories about how successful we were working on an incident or using a particular technique when it was performed unsafely or we were accidentally successful, we can ingrain bad habits and traditions. This can mean more people are doing the same dumb things and paying the price rather than improving and working safer. This can explain why some departments or groups within an agency seem to continue to see bad outcomes or fall behind. They are telling the wrong stories and reinforcing bad behavior.

Put it into practice

The first step is always remembering when we hear a story to focus on what happened and less on who did it. This will help us hear the lessons and not get bogged down in the personalities. When we hear a story about an incident or training where something went wrong, it's tempting to say, "I wouldn't have done that." The thing is, the people who were involved likely didn't intend to screw up either. They made a mistake, maybe because of learning the wrong lessons or because they misread the situation. All of us have experienced this to some degree. Listen to the story, imagine you were in their shoes, and picture what you would have done at the decision points. This is using the story to learn lessons and hopefully change behavior. That last part is essential because it didn't do much good to hear the story if we can't change behavior and decision-making.

We also need to be able to share stories. Any organization that focuses on improvement will tell you that failure will happen and should not be looked at in a purely negative manner. We need to understand that the chaotic, wicked environment we work in will have some failures, and we should seek them out as opportunities to learn and not avoid or hide them. Too many times, when something happens at station X or department Y, it stays there. It is hard to share mistakes and be vulnerable, but it's the only way to allow others to learn from that same mistake without having to make the same mistake.

AARs offer a great way to capture lessons learned, both positive and negative. Large incident AARs can be formal affairs, but at the crew level, the best AARs are conducted on the tailboard or apparatus cab right after an event. A few tips can make these even more effective.

Ask four questions:

  1. What was planned? (or what was the SOP if there was no formal plan)
  2. What actually happened?
  3. What caused things to happen?
  4. How do we want to do it next time?

When we do a quick AAR, remember that it's important for the supervisor or person conducting the AAR to speak last. We have probably all been in a meeting where a chief officer says, "Let's talk about that last fire. I think it went really well, what do you all think?" This can make it hard to voice a dissenting opinion.

The solution: The person in charge states the questions that need to be answered, and they go around to the people involved. Everyone can have a short time to answer the questions, and no one else interrupts them. This way, by the time it's your turn, the outcome that maybe was giving you some heartburn may make more sense, as you will have understood the decision or actions from the other viewpoint of the others involved. Avoid defensiveness and be open to what can take the team to the next level. The supervisor or facilitator can then wrap it up with their thoughts on the three questions.

Share your story

Understanding the environments in which we work and learn, all while striving to do a better job of learning from others' experiences, is critical for our job. It can lead us down a path of fewer fatalities and more effective agencies. It only happens if we share the right stories, though, so share your story today and help protect the next shift.

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