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Guest column: Wildland Fire Metareview: an important learning tool for our agency

Official portrait: Jaelith Hall-Rivera in black suit jacket with Forest Service lapel pin, posed in front of American and Forest Service flags; Cynthia West in blue suit jacket with Forest Service lapel pin in front of neutral background.
Deputy Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera, State and Private Forestry, and Acting Deputy Chief Cynthia West, Research and Development

As part of our quest to be a learning organization, it is important for all levels of our organization to learn as much as we can from accidents and incidents. To facilitate that learning, we must provide tools that help us talk about and make sense of the lessons we learn. We would like to introduce a new learning and discussion tool from the Forest Service’s Innovation and Organizational Learning team: the Wildland Fire Metareview.

After the 2015 Twisp Fire, agency leadership directed the learning team to look across multiple years of incidents and accidents to see what lessons could be learned by taking a “meta” approach to systematically reviewing past events. Looking across multiple incidents allows themes to be detected in ways that single accidents don’t allow. Their review examined accidents and incidents, including fatality incidents, in the Forest Service over a 10-year period (2007-2016). Chapter 3 of the metareview includes the quantitative and qualitative analysis of this data.   

From their analysis, five themes emerged. To dive deeper into the learning around these themes, in 2019 the learning team conducted five focus groups comprised of a cross-section of Forest Service employees who work in wildland fire management and academic subject matter experts. The focus group findings are detailed in chapters 4-12. The format is intentionally presented in an open way that is intended to facilitate discussion and individual and group learning. Each chapter highlights information from the meta-analysis and focus groups and then broadens the conversation by including learning challenges to prompt discussion among your local work group.

Out of the quantitative and qualitative work of the previous chapters, chapter 13 introduces an ongoing learning strategy.  

As you work through the discussion tool and learning challenges, you will see the themes that emerged from the metareview effort:  

  • Fatalities and injuries: Why are they continuing to occur? 
  • Fiscal incentives: How does the current pay structure affect operational strategies and risk management? 
  • Society: How do social and political pressures play into the wildland fire system? 
  • Ecological soundness: How do ecological health and land management factors currently play into wildland fire decision making and strategy planning processes? 
  • Communication/work environment: What do current successes and failures look like in the context of communication and the wildland fire work environment? 

All these are great questions and ones that as an agency we continue to grapple with.

We recently made positive strides in the area of fiscal incentives—by implementing the pay raises funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and working with U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the U.S. Department of the Interior on the policy for the new wildland firefighter job series. 

We are starting to place emphasis on firefighter mental health through enhancements to our Work Environment and Performance Office programs, Employee Assistance Program contract improvements and suicide awareness trainings, as well as the joint federal effort to develop a comprehensive wildland firefighter health and well-being program made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. We look forward to continuing this conversation with the wildland firefighter community as we work to build and solidify the well-supported, more permanent wildland firefighting force needed to address the wildfire crisis. 

We view this metareview as one important step in our learning journey. This learning tool should be viewed in combination with other interagency wildfire safety products, such as the annual interagency National Wildfire Coordinating Group's safety gram and the Lessons Learned Center’s annual “Incident Review Summary.” These learning products require ongoing engagement at all levels of the organization as we continue to build on our safety journey.

We hope you take time to use this metareview learning guide to facilitate conversation among your work group. This fall and winter, the learning team will host webinars for the fire community to introduce the content and demonstrate how this learning tool can be used to transition from singular incident learning to ongoing, multi-format, iterative, shared learning.  We hope that you will share your insights with your work group.

Each of us sharing our unique learning is a critical component of being a learning organization. Let’s continue to learn together.

Editor's Note: Provide feedback about this column, submit questions or suggest topics for future columns through the FS-Employee Feedback inbox.