Fire and Rescue, lessons learned

Mar 15, 2011

To make ground operations safer during a fire, the Kingston Fire and Rescue (KFR) department has implemented a 'Learning from Our Experiences' program that will share information between various crews within its organization. After all, safer operations on the ground during a fire means that all firefighters go home at the end of the call. The question is - will it work?

Kingston Fire Chief Harold Tulk.

Like any organization, KFR has its share of good and bad experiences – both during actual fire response and in training. Most crews will debrief themselves on how to improve operations, but the information is rarely shared outside of those crews, and only the crews who were actually at the incident are usually involved in the process. Errors and other incidents are reported to fire service health and safety committees and the chain of command, however, even the information from these committees is rarely shared throughout the department, increasing the risk of repeating the same bad response. To help prevent injuries and save lives, a better method of sharing ideas must be developed.

As a former member of the Canadian Forces, I have been exposed to a process that the army calls ‘lessons learned’, an effective method that promotes learning from all incidents to improve operations and – most importantly – to help save lives. In a nutshell, the Army collects lessons from unit debriefings and evaluates what worked and what did not. These lessons are then distributed to military personnel. This ensures that procedures are improved and that mistakes do not re-occur when any unit deploys on operations. Could this be adapted to a fire service?

In late November 2009, I presented the Fire Chief with the idea of a modified CF Army Lessons Learned model for the fire department. Chief Tulk, former military himself, understood the importance of a learning organization and instructed me to work with Training Chief, Don Corbett, to draft a proposal for implementation of such a program.

We contacted the CF Army Lessons Learned Center, located in Kingston, for tips on the process. The challenges we faced in transforming the army model really demonstrated the sharp difference in cultures between the military and emergency services. In the CF, everyone falls under one set of rules and regulations with a common mission. KFR, on the other hand, is comprised of career and volunteer members who do the same job but have different labour rules. For starters, we realized we would need a representative from both the volunteer and career sides to engage both sides equitably. Then, we had to figure out how ideas and suggestions could be implemented in a composite department. The KFR would likely be the first emergency service to implement a lessons learned process with the goal of information sharing to save lives. We decided to keep the core process of information sharing from the CF model, and expand upon it to add information from other fire services. We also wanted to improve communications and operations within our own department. A proposal was established and presented to the chief, with the goal of achieving the following objectives:

  • Confirm training;
  • Ensure that classroom training transfers effectively to the fire ground;
  • Prevent mistakes which eventually lead to accidents;
  • Allow command to make timely decisions that can evolve with continuing improvements;
  • Allow input from the frontline to improve operations through a process of information sharing improves techniques and adapts to evolutions of all types;
  • Establish “Lessons Learned” as central collection point of information on how to improve operations;
  • Examine mini debriefings process as it impacts operations (radios, rehab, etc); and,
  • Ensure the process leads to a safer work environment.

The Trial Period
In September 2010, Chief Tulk agreed with the outline and authorized a trial period. As the program rolled out, it became clear that getting ideas from the front line to a central collection point was very important, particularly in respect of injury prevention for fire fighters. However, there was confusion by most frontline staff on exactly how the goals of the program would fit into the current structure of KFR, and how new ideas would be submitted and implemented within the chain of command. We decided to focus the lessons learned program as an information sharing process that would allow firefighters to learn from their own collective actions to stay safe during the job. We also expanded the program to include corporate knowledge from senior firefighters. Capturing corporate knowledge was an important part of the program as senior firefighters will, by nature, share their experiences on what does and does not work to help improve operations. Also, with the high number of senior firefighters retiring in the next few years, capturing corporate knowledge will be crucial to preserving their years of experience.

Kingston Fire and Rescue training exercise

Streamlining the concept
At the next briefings, we had further modified the program to four key objectives:

  • Allow command to make informed and timely decisions on evolving situations;
  • Encourage input from the front lines to improve operations; provide a process to share information on near misses to prevent future mistakes which eventually lead to accidents;
  • Institute a process of mini debriefs to ensure anything that impacts operations is examined. i.e. radios, rehab, etc;
  • Ensure the process leads to a safer work environment.

The revised objectives helped staff better understand the program and how it could benefit them. It became clear that sharing information among members, and having input, would improve operations and help their team. Members would submit their observations to a KFR Lessons Learned Center, located in the training department, and internal publications from the ­Center would be dispersed to all staff. Observations and suggestions for improvement (from the fire ground, the fire hall, etc.) would be submitted by staff on a special form to be sorted and screened to determine which deputy chief or committee would be most appropriate for actioning that specific suggestion or observation.

Possible suggestions could range from a ­simple daily ­evolution in the fire hall to a change in a Standing Operating Procedure (SOP). For example, an SOP that works 99% of the time at most locations may not be effective at a specific location – a different operating procedure could potentially be implemented for that location only. Changes such as these become crucial information for any new crews coming to that location, and the Lessons Learned Center could provide valuable research and supportive information in order to change an SOP. Recommendations for changes would, of course, be presented to the Fire Chief for his final decision, which would be communicated within the organization; staff would also get a response on the status of their submission. This exchange helps to build an open dialogue of communication from the frontline to the upper echelon of the organization.  

Tom Hoppe, a member of Kingston Fire and Rescue, holds an MA in Leadership and training. He has advised, taught, developed and provided guidance on leadership in the emergency services and rehab programs. Contact Tom for further information on the Lessons Learned program, at
© FrontLine Security 2011