Fantastic Failure: Facilitation Flops in a Post-Fire World

By: Annie Schmidt Hilary Lundgren

Topic: Meetings / Events Wildfire recovery

Type: Fantastic Failure

You know when something is going really, really wrong? Like, you know it is going wrong and even though you know, you find yourself paralyzed and unable to correct the course, so then it just gets even worse? Mm-hmm.

So, let’s talk about facilitation. A friend likened facilitators to ducks — serene on the surface and paddling like mad under the water. Good facilitators prepare beforehand, set ground rules, moderate speakers and time, keep the focus on the participants, and above all, work to achieve meeting objectives. We know what strong facilitation looks like. We have participated in several meetings with smart, talented facilitators who made it all look easy. We have even managed, on occasion, to facilitate effectively ourselves. This story, however, is not about one of those times.

As you may know, Washington experienced intensely damaging wildfires in 2014 and 2015. As part of the Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network’s response, we hosted a forum focused on what happens after a fire. Before the forum, we had already learned that talking about mitigation in communities that have recently experienced loss can be a significant challenge. The last thing that people who have experienced home loss often want to hear about is how to make a home more fire-resistant. We asked a group of survivors what we could do to be more responsive to their needs, and they suggested we (both as a staff and as a community) become more informed about how trauma can impact a community and recommended this guide from the Dart Center (the guide is originally intended for journalists; PDF, 924KB).

But we still had questions that we thought both we as practitioners and our communities needed to understand: What happens after a fire? How does it impact our people and our place? How and why do practitioners get involved in post-fire work? We all want communities to be working toward adaptation, but how do we effectively do this work inside of communities that have experienced the loss of life and/or homes, etc.? We decided to plan a forum focused on community impacts and recovery in order to explore the answers to those questions.

Sounds great, right? However, during the forum, we made so many mistakes that it is a wonder people didn’t just get up and walk out. And as it turns out, we were pretty close to that outcome.

So what exactly went wrong? Well first, we (both Hilary and Annie) prepped the speakers thoroughly on the topic and the meeting objectives, as well as what we wanted them to touch on … but we didn’t establish a nonverbal cue to move along. So, when they were talking about serious, deeply emotional things, there was no respectful and effective way to signal that presenters needed to refocus on the topic or to move the presentation along. As result, many of our participants were more deeply immersed in emotion than they were expecting, and that made meeting everyone’s initial objectives more difficult.

I (Annie) was trying to find a place to insert a break or even a prompt, but there was no air time to get a word in and no obvious, easy or seamless way to make a transition. Out of respect for the speakers, who had already experienced enough trauma and had the strength to share their story with us, I did not want to interrupt — but I also felt the need to protect the other participants. My eventual transition line? “OK folks, well, that wraps up this portion of the discussion. Why don’t you all grab a cookie on your way out to the vans?” Um … yeah. The shell-shocked participants were extremely quiet in the vans heading out to the field. Quiet and confused, and probably more than a little emotionally unsettled.

Fixes for Next Time

A simple, noninvasive, gentle hand signal, established in advance, would have really helped. We have since invested in remote-controlled, under-the-counter puck lights from a local hardware store. With one click of the button, the small and unobtrusive lights go on and folks know that it is time to transition. It is a terrific system that we were definitely not using when this particular event went sideways.

Two lights and a remote control, an example of a facilitation time-keeping tool

Simple enough, right? Credit: Annie Schmidt, Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

Know Your Audience; Know Your Pinch Points

The second problem was not understanding the history of those in the room and anticipating the associated sensitivities. All practitioners and presenters are people too. All people come with history, experience and emotion. If we had developed pre-work for the attendees, either through a short survey or questionnaire, we would have had a better idea of what topics may have been emotionally sensitive. That information could have helped us do a better job of catering the content and structure to the participants. Asking out loud, at the start of a discussion “Who here has ever been evacuated from a wildfire or other disaster?” could have helped, but that too can be problematic as people can be hesitant to raise their hands.

In addition to trying to integrate more pre-work, we have also developed a “refuge room” concept. Anytime we know we are going to be talking about post-fire impacts in a way that even might be emotional, we set up a room for participants to use if they need to step out. We also try to talk in detail about what is coming so that there are no surprises (again, great plan, developed in response to a great facilitation failure).

Now, anytime we know we are going to be talking about post-fire impacts in a way that might be emotional, we set up a room for participants to use if they need to step out.

Know Your Presenters

Traditionally, we are coming at this work from a wildfire practitioner viewpoint, and we typically invite other wildfire practitioners to present. By default, that usually means we’ve heard them speak before. But in post-fire work, we are not always asking traditional partners to share, because the players change in post-disaster recovery. People who work in post-fire are often more community- and social service-centric and they are not always coming from a fire standpoint. We need to build a deeper relationship with these folks and understand their different motivations and connections, especially when we’re playing the role of facilitator or coordinator. We need to spend time with our partners, be present at meetings, make phone calls, have coffee, help them with a project, and attend one of their presentations beforehand.

Post-Wildfire Facilitation Recovery

We did do some things well after the event. We spent time on the phone with participants, making sure they were OK. We apologized for the unintended emotional blitz – reassuring them that it was not our intention to blindside anyone. All of those follow-up discussions brought us closer with the participants, and we are seeing post-fire work move forward in the communities represented at the forum.

Leveraging Social Service Partners

In hindsight, we obviously would have done a lot of things differently. Seeking out partners who were more adept and experienced with the emotional side of recovery than we were would have been a good decision. In particular, these partners could have helped us design the forum, develop the agenda, and even facilitate. Social service organizations, long-term recovery groups and grief counselors are all part of the community adaptation process and would have been great to include in a more meaningful way. FAC practitioners don’t need to be doing all of the work in the recovery sphere — but we can make space for that work and find partners whose efforts complement and enhance our own. While many of these folks were present at the original forum, if they were offered a more official organizing/facilitating role, they could have likely provided valuable assistance. It isn’t enough to have partners present in the room —we need to collaborate with them to be effective!

The New Normal

This failure feels particularly relevant right now, given the new normal of wildfire impacts. As more wildfires take acres, homes and lives, the “after the fire” discussion becomes increasingly necessary. How do we work in these communities after the fire? How does recovery lead to mitigation, including the use of prescribed fire or managed wildfire? What can we do to make sure that recovery transitions to mitigation in an effective and positive way? How do we support each other through that process? How do we engage in ways that matter to our communities, without engaging beyond our training or comfort level?

The Chumstick Coalition developed a video that is designed to help facilitate that conversation. It contains images of loss, though, so it too has generated some unintended emotional impacts. Please take a moment to review the facilitation guide (PDF, 276 KB) before watching/screening the video.

As we experience more unprecedented fires in our communities, we will be called to action in uncommon and occasionally uncomfortable ways. The road to adaptation leads us through many spheres of work, including pre-fire mitigation, effective response and community recovery, and it is not linear. If you are facing the daunting task of working toward mitigation and resilience in a community that is also recovering, know that you are doing important and meaningful work. Hopefully, knowing this story will help you do it more effectively.

Editor’s note: This post is part of FAC Net’s Fantastic Failures blog series. Learn more about the series and how to participate.

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3 thoughts on “Fantastic Failure: Facilitation Flops in a Post-Fire World”

  1. Terry Lawhead says:

    Such vital work, providing informal or professional therapy. Far exceeding the more technical aspects of these initiatives, as important and necessary as those aspects are to addressing solid planning and preparation. I so respect the emphasis placed on the emotional feelings of the circumstances this work revolves around and the sensitivities expressed. Thank you.

  2. Eric Miller says:

    This self-reflection makes you, and others around you, stronger for an uncertain fire future. Great article!

  3. Rob Gross says:

    Great to read your honest appraisal and recognize the shortfall of the effort. I can’t agree more that in these settings we need more emotional support. The recent post-fire symposium at Sonoma State University (Santa Rosa, CA) neglected to have support at that meeting and one speaker, a Cal Fire Administrator, told his story and his “wounds” were evident as he expressed trepidation even leaving his family for the Tubbs dispatch – after the Valley Fire in 2015 was so destructive and too close to home. I felt his pain and it also hit me hard, just like the endless helos and fixed wing tankers involved in the suppression so commonly these days. Just hearing them overhead is hard and when I heard the Cal Fire review I almost bolted out of the room, three times during that talk! Just weighing out was it better for me to just sit there and be tormented by re-living the helpless overwhelmed-feeling of the big blazes OR I asked myself perhaps I should just tough it out. I never left the room, but I did breakdown to tears twice – his account and the video cam footage of first in were simply too much, too soon, and too real. I thanked the presenter afterwards and told him it helped see a season firefighter be similarly effected.

    Later when asked in a participant questioner I spoke my mind, suggesting any post-fire meeting after the grandeur of the recent infernos should consider local mental health councilors or Chaplains or better yet representation of trained Crisis Response Teams such as L.A. Mayor’s Office select team that is only deployed by City Law Enforcement, Fire, or Emergency Medical. These folks are trained and experienced at helping and should be requested.

    Don’t forget the value of the tranquility of the wilds and nature in helping sooth and heal such traumas over time. Learn about PSTD, and if you have any question about such just ask any of our country’s warriors who are unfortunately too well versed in this common response to all sort of trauma. Theirs being experiencing war.

    Listen. Don’t talk. Ask, don’t tell. The many impacted folks have deep and sometime elusive needs. Just be a good and reserved, quiet support. The need may not diminish quickly either.
    Thank you for the frank and honest article. That is tremendous.

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