Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Staff Ride - Building the Future from Our Past

“After South Canyon, we realized we needed to teach leadership. We knew we needed to do this in a low-stress and low-risk environment. To better enable people to perform in high-risk situations, we started looking for ways to emulate our [wildland fire] decision-making environment in a low-risk way. To maximize this, we’re now using staff rides and tactical decision games.” ~ Tom Boatner

Staff rides were developed by the Prussian Army in the early nineteenth century. In the 1970s the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps turned to staff rides with great enthusiasm and now they are considered essential instructional techniques in advanced military schools and in field units.

Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program (WFLDP) staff rides follow the framework used by the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps. In fact, U.S. Army staff ride experts, Lt. Col. Eric Carlson and Dr. William G. "Glenn" Robertson was instrumental in establishing our program. (You might have seen Dr. Robertson's publication "The Staff Ride.")

The intent of a staff ride is to put participants in the shoes of the decision makers on a historical incident in order to learn for the future. A staff ride are not tactical-fault finding exercises. Participants are challenged to push past the basic question of "What happened?" and examine the deeper questions of leadership and decision-making: "What would I have done in this person's place?" "How detailed should the guidance from a superior to a subordinate be?" "Can a senior leader make use of a competent but overzealous subordinate?" "What explains repeated organizational success or failure?" The study of leadership aspects in a staff ride transcend time and place.

Refer to the Wildland Fire Staff Ride Guide for complete information.
Wildland Fire Staff Ride Guide cover
What Is the Difference between a Staff Ride and a Site Visit?

In order to called a staff ride, the study of the incident must consist of three distinct phases:

  1. Preliminary Phase—The purpose of this phase is to prepare the participant for the visit to the site of the selected incident and is critical to the success of the field study.
  2. Field Study Phase—If the preliminary study phase has been systematic and thorough, the field study phase will reinforce or modify intellectual perceptions of the incident and surrounding events. The field study culminates all previous efforts by participants to understand selected historical events, to analyze the significance of those events, and to derive relevant lessons for professional development. The importance of the field study is that it is the most effective way to stimulate the participant’s intellectual involvement and to ensure that any analytical conclusions reached at any point in the staff ride process are retained.
  3. Integration Phase—The third and final phase is a formal integration opportunity that allows participants and cadre to “bring all the parts together” in order to reflect on the impressions and lessons learned. 
Staff rides should not be confused with simple visits to an incident location. In the military, when terrain and hypothetical scenarios (but not history) are used as teaching vehicles, it is called a “Tactical Exercise Without Troops.” Further, a visit to the site of a battle – or fire – involving little or no preliminary systematic study on the part of the participant is a “historical tour,” not a staff ride. Historical tours can stimulate thought and discussion, but are limited by the lack of participant preparation and involvement. Finally, the site visit is the primary factor that distinguishes a staff ride from a traditional case study or any other virtual exercise.

National Wildland Fire Staff Ride Library

Presently, the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee has sponsored the development of 14 staff rides. Additionally, at the leaders of organizations level, fire leaders can participate in the L-580 Gettysburg staff ride. 

Map of nationally-approved staff rides
Map of nationally-approved staff rides
Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge

Students of fire are encouraged to learn from their history. Regardless if you can attend a staff ride, there is a lot of information contained within each staff ride. The preliminary phase begins with YOU!

Take a moment to visit the Staff Ride Library on the WFLDP website. This is the 20th anniversary of South Canyon if you are looking for staff ride to research.


For more information regarding staff rides, including facilitation tips and a local staff ride archive, visit the WFLDP website.

Refer to the National Wildland Fire Training website for staff rides sponsored in various geographic areas. Course number: N9024 - Wildland Fire Staff Ride.

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