By Persephone Whelan
West Zone Fire Management Officer – Huron Manistee National Forest
Ever gone into a class or refresher and felt like it was a total waste of time?
If you have heard of the phrase “death by PowerPoint” then you might understand what I’m throwing down here. The past several years I have been plagued with the desire to make our yearly fire refreshers more interactive, more thought provoking, and more interesting.
While we have made some attempts, our refreshers continue to fall into the same deep educational rut: someone stands up in front of the others and talks and talks and talks. Often times, it feels like a sermon where instructors ask questions but then immediately answer them, preaching to the participants the dangers of complacency, erratic fire behavior, and gosh darn it you better have situational awareness. We use the 10 and 18s as the foundational text upon what we preach.
What’s the Point?
What is the point of our yearly refresher? To refresh! To knock out the cobwebs. To share information and discuss. This spring I had the privilege of attending a staff ride workshop where we learned how to build staff rides. The cadre for that class teased us with the idea that doing a staff ride doesn’t have to be for a fatality event. They told us to consider using staff rides for all kinds of different training or classes like saw refreshers, burn boss refreshers, or even wildland fire refreshers. This was my “AHA!” moment. And from that moment on I began scheming.
The design idea was simple: build a mobile framework for a refresher than can be utilized in a variety of locations. For example, on the south end of the Zone we took the framework and applied it to a prescribed burn we accomplished in 2015. For the north end of the Zone we took the same framework and applied it to a prescribed burn we accomplished in 2016.
The premise was: it’s not about the location in which we provide the refresher/staff ride, it’s all about the discussions, the ideas, and the questions shared with the groups. We implemented our idea on March 9, 2017. We identified two pre-work items: the Twisp Fire video and the Two More Chains issue on “The Big Lie” essay. I sent out multiple emails explaining that people would need to come prepared to be in the field by having the appropriate equipment and gear to stay warm and dry.
An Eclectic Mix
The refresher began at the District office. The group of participants represented an eclectic mix of experiences and backgrounds. In one corner, we had the retired Type 2 IC, the FBAN with centuries of knowledge (OK, maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but the guy is wicked smart!), Public Information Officers, Liaison Officers, and several who work as Divisions and Safety Officers. In the other corner we had firefighters with a range of experience from 1 year to 10+, Engine Bosses, Squad Bosses, tool swingers and hose draggers. Oh, and did I mention it was a mix of BIA, Park Service, Forest Service, Contractors, University representatives, and ADs?
Knowing full well that most people wouldn’t do the pre-work (sent out to everyone via email prior to the refresher), we had the Twisp River video playing as people shuffled into the conference room. Everyone did introductions and then the Line Officer stood up to give his expectations for the impending fire season. I then launched into an explanation about why our fire refresher would be different. This speech covered how I hated droning PowerPoint presentations and much preferred experiential learning – and this is why we were going into the field. People went from a general faked attentive look to a spark of interest.
We broke into four groups and assigned group facilitators. They arranged transportation to the nearby prescribed fire unit where we would host the staff ride fire refresher. I won’t lie, I felt very nervous and almost apprehensive. There is a lot that goes into planning one of these and I didn’t feel very prepared. I was wondering what we were missing, what could go wrong, etc.
It’s About the Conversations
As we walked out to the first stand, the group was animated. People were talking about the prescribed fire unit we were walking past, last week’s initial attacks, wondering what we were doing, etc.
Before we got started, I had one more speech to share with everyone. It went something like this: “At the Battle of Shiloh Staff Ride our group facilitator had a story I think will help you all understand what we are trying to do today. His story was about the Marine Corps Commandant and how he had gone through the Gettysburg Staff Ride many, many times. In the back of my mind I wondered what the heck? How did he not pick up the lessons learned the first couple times? My group facilitator told us, every time you do a staff ride it’s different. The reason for this is because it’s not about the staff ride location. It’s not about Gettysburg or Shiloh. It’s about the conversations, the dialogue, the different perspectives and the people you are there with. This fire refresher staff ride is not about the prescribed burn we are standing in. It’s about the conversations and the people in your groups.”
And with that, the wildland fire refresher staff ride began. Each stand started with a brief narrative about the phase of the prescribed fire implementation we were at, then the main group split into small units and had discussions centered around the learning theme for that stand. Three main learning themes were presented: Current Issues (utilizing the Twisp River video and the 6 Minutes for Safety discussion about Wildand Urban-Interface Watchouts); Avoiding Entrapments (utilizing the 6 Minutes for Safety discussion about bias for action vs freelancing); and Hazards and Safety Issues (utilizing the Two More Chains issue about “The Big Lie” essay).
After a set time, we would move to the next stand and do it again. There were a total of three stands, plus an integration stop. At the very end, we brought everyone back together in one main group to reflect upon the day and give a quick 30 seconds for participants to share their thoughts.
The Ultimate Success
The positive feedback was overwhelming. Everyone loved the format. The only suggestion for improvement was to provide more time at the small groups to discuss the topics. For me, as the main facilitator, it was thrilling to walk past the small groups and eavesdrop on their conversations. Everyone seemed engaged, providing their own perspective and discussing a wide variety of topics.
More than once, I found myself resisting the urge to input my own opinion—but stopped. The intent was not to overrule others’ thoughts on these themes. The point was to share and engage in an open dialogue. We wanted to get people to think and reflect.
Now, multiple times in the weeks that followed, I have been stopped by many people who tell me about something they have been reflecting on since the refresher. For me, this is the ultimate success.