Igniting a Culture of Learning
Dr. Rebekah Fox is an associate professor in the Communication Studies department at Texas State. She’s also part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rapid Lessons Sharing team, a group of experts who work together to record and learn from the unintended situations that firefighters encounter while fighting wildfire.
During a massive wildfire, local fire stations — generally trained on how to manage fires within buildings, not across hundreds of acres of land — are not always equipped to manage an ongoing incident. Additionally, they must continue responding to local structural fires. Instead, multiple national and regional agencies work together to control the situation using Incident Management Teams. Their collaboration is based out of an incident command post, which can sometimes be comprised of more than a thousand people. Incident Command Teams include incident commanders, safety officers, technical staff, medical staff, public information officers and firefighters, along with the resources they control: helicopters, engines, tanker trucks of water, communication equipment and other specialized tools.
These teams are highly experienced, highly coordinated systems that necessarily exist in highly dangerous conditions. Fox’s role is to interview team members with the goal of learning from their experiences.
“My job is to travel to different incident command posts,” Fox explains. “Maybe there’s an accident — a tanker truck falls off a winding mountain road down a cliff. I interview all the people involved and try to determine if we can transfer the lessons learned in a particular situation to others who might find themselves in similar ones. How can we learn from unintended outcomes to create a safer working environment?”
If, during a tanker truck roll-over, a driver is unable to find their command-issued radio and instead calls 911 from a cellphone, how will local 911 dispatchers communicate that information to the incident command team? What types of information need to be communicated between local resources and national teams to handle an “incident within an incident?”
What name will clearly communicate a specialized rescue team’s purpose and skillset to the people who need to call for different types of help?
Is a firefighting helicopter allowed to perform medical duty as an air ambulance, or must it stay assigned to its original task?
Rapid Lessons Sharing (RLS) teams pose these types of questions in their reports as a result of what they encounter in the field. “One advantage of these types of teams is that we aren’t a part of the ongoing effort to manage the fire,” Fox says. “We are there to focus on learning. This frees up the other team members to focus on the fire and not on producing a learning document. We also bring a bit of an outside perspective, which allows us to ask questions that people inside the situation might not ask because they assume everyone already knows the answer.”
The RLS teams are pairs of specialists, one firefighter and one expert in learning and teaching. “I’m not there because I’m a firefighter,” asserts Fox (though she qualified in 2015 as a Type II wildland firefighter). “I’m there because I’m a communication scholar.” Her expertise in rhetoric and narrative — how we tell stories and explain our experiences — is valuable. Stories help us learn and hold on to information. And the choice to learn from incidents, rather than to look for blame, is important itself. Through Rapid Lessons Sharing reports, the Forest Service aims to find and fix system-level problems that may set someone up for failure. Fox is passionate about that goal: “I want to improve the Forest Service culture of learning, and that means helping more people see how their communication shapes that culture.”
In summer 2018, Fox was dispatched twice for a total of 26 days to the West Coast. One of the incidents that she worked on was the Crescent Mountain Fire, near the small Washington town of Twisp.
A group of experienced hikers (two adults, five children and three dogs) were unexpectedly caught in the path of the fire. With their overland escape route cut off, the hikers chose to swim to a small island in a nearby lake, hoping that they’d be at least somewhat protected there from the approaching fire. They had a device for sending an SOS signal, but unfortunately it didn’t function exactly as they thought. Nevertheless, friends of the hikers contacted emergency services asking for help, and incident command got involved in the search and rescue.
Getting the hikers out of the fire’s path required coordinated efforts between the county sheriff’s department and the Forest Service, including swift risk-management decisions and a series of complicated transportation logistics (most dogs aren’t accustomed to riding in helicopters). In the end, everyone was safe.
Rapid Lessons Sharing teams come into situations like this in order to collect information about how things were handled. As soon as it was safe, Fox and her learning team partner talked with the hikers themselves, the search and rescue coordinator, the helicopter crew and other emergency personnel who responded to the interrupted SOS call. After recording these experiences, they wrote a report covering the incident. Reports like this one, generated quickly and shared across the entire Forest Service organization, improve on best practices and can prevent future injuries or deaths.
Fox first became involved in fire communication during graduate school, when she took a class called “Power and Control in Organizations.” The class’s case study focused on a 2003 fire in Idaho, an incident that had major policy implications for the Forest Service. Fox and her colleagues presented their communication analyses at a conference on firefighting, where members of the Forest Service were intrigued with their interest in wildfire and communication. From then on, Fox followed a series of research opportunities into the position she now holds. She has been on the Rapid Lessons Sharing teams since 2015.
Beyond the life-and-death impact that Fox’s work has in the field, it also applies directly to her training of the next communication professionals. “I want my students to see a real application of the concepts that I’m teaching them,” Fox says. “They see me putting theory into practice.”