A Lessons Learned Center Creation

By David Christenson, Retired Assistant Manager and current CEO of Christenson & Associates, LLC, April 15, 2019

April 10. 2019 I spoke to the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management about my personal professional journey. A question arose, “How did you build the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center?” I promised I would write about it. This is my response.

I had the honor and privilege of helping to build the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center from its beginning. Two of us began in 2002 to gather ideas and experiences of other LLCs. We visited the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) and contacted the US Coast Guard LLC as well as the Department of Energy (DOE). We learned that many LLC architects in previous decades originally had the belief that if you put together a data base of lessons people would use it. About 80 % of those efforts failed unless they changed their approach to supporting groups of people that had already demonstrated a sincere interest in learning and continuous improvement. Those LLCs evolved beyond a focus on technology and became sustainable when they engaged the people in their organizations and asked them to help build a useful learning center.

We began to seek information on becoming a “learning organization” with the personal help of Dr. David Garvin, a Harvard University Business School professor that had studied many organizations in multiple domains. His 2000 book, “Learning in Action: A guide to putting the learning organization to work,” gave us a valuable approach to building LLC foundations, understand types of learning, and appreciate leading learning. He defined a learning organization on page 11 as one “skilled at creating, acquiring, interpreting, transferring, and retaining knowledge, AND at purposefully modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.” 

We had a blame culture that shamed people for getting hurt or killed, so people were reluctant to share accident reports, admitting failure. The community had to learn to share experiences and learn from events of all kinds in new ways. The previous learning focus only on failure to avoid failure, was expanded to creating a safe place for people to discuss how work really takes place by the experts, the people that did the work. Ideas and knowledge were exchanged openly and operational intelligence began to create improvements.

Partnering with like-minded efforts, like leadership development, the LLC was able to challenge legacy systems where policies and procedures needed to adapt to the new philosophies. Systems began to evolve from a focus on compliance to rules, to risk-based dialogue, and eventually organizational learning evidenced by continuous improvement. After Action Reviews became more of an opportunity to learn and improve. Staff rides often become a joint project organized, carried out and supported by both the interagency leadership development group and LLC staff. 

Managing the Unexpected workshops with High Reliability Organizing (HRO) academics and practitioners were provided at national and regional venues. These often included serious accident location staff rides. HRO processes began to be taught by LLC staff in Incident Management Team education and advancement courses for certification.

The initial investment in 2002 of two fulltime staff positions with an annual operating budget of $200,000 has evolved to fulltime staff of 5 that serves about 300,000 people in an interagency, multi-facetted community of Federal, state, county, municipal, and volunteer firefighters. They draw and contribute lessons and effective practices in fire aviation and land operations for individuals, small teams and large-size, long-duration incident management team events. 

  • The online incident review database contains hundreds of reports and learning reviews. 
  • Thequarterly newsletter brings stories from across the country of successes, challenges to assumptions, and ways to improve. Ideas and knowledge flowing into the LLC are transferred to large training facilities as well as small unit leaders for implementation in briefings and local exercises. 
  • A rapid lesson sharing programspeeds lesson distribution to less than 48 hours making valuable information almost immediately available. Contributions from the field are analyzed by LLC staff familiar with the processes and follow up questions are asked if needed within 24 hours. A short lesson product, often including pictures to help illustrate the concern, tip, tactic or procedure, is generated and quickly posted on the website.
  • Information collection teams sent out by the LLC visited several large wildland fire and non-fire events during their operations to quickly collect knowledge from multiple teams assigned to incident management teams while the stories and memories were fresh.
  • Communities of practice passionate about a sub-area of interest, skill development, or training and education are able to congregate virtually to continue developing relationships begun at meetings, incident responses, or exercises.
  • A Deep Smarts Team collectedinterviews throughout the wildland fire community asking people recognized to have special expertise how they did what they often referred to as “just their job.” The collection is a substantial contribution to the LLC’s You Tube channelof video learning products.
  • Podcast audio recordings, Blog discussions and TEDed videos have been added to the suite of learning products through the LLC in recent years as technologies evolved and customers expressed an interest.

Located physically at the National Advanced Fire & Resource Institute, the LLC is actively involved in the many training and education courses offered at the institute. Recent, as well as historical case studies, are included and keep course content fresh. Return on the investment in the LLC is published annually to the interagency National Wildfire Coordination Group.

The US Wildland Fire LLC (www.wildfirelessons.net) has been studied by other nations involved in wildland firefighting and crisis management. The Australia, New Zealand Bushfire CRC and LaTrobe University researchers found several lessons in how to create and sustain a LLC through our experience (Bushfire CRC 2007). Eventually they created their own LLC system for all their emergency responders. Canadian and European firefighters have visited the US LLC website regularly. Our LLC is also connected to the US Department of Homeland Security Lessons Learned and Information Sharing (LLIS) website for knowledge transfer across all US emergency response agencies.

Probably the most significant accomplishment has been a change in our culture. The wildland fire community in the USA eventually began to recognize that learning and continuous improvement was more than just nice to do if, and when, people had spare time. Beyond taking formal training classes on tactics and procedures, people realized that informal communications, peer learning, coaching and mentoring must also receive much more opportunity in psychologically safe learning environments. Products from the LLC are used. People report their professional lives have changed and continually improved. Learning and improvement have become a critical component of the way the community operates all of the time.