Petie's Picks: Vicarious Learning Through Case Studies

By studying the responses of the past, both incidents that went well along with incidents that have had tragic endings, we can become safer, more efficient, and wiser.


By studying the responses of the past, both incidents that went well along with incidents that have had tragic endings, we can become safer, more efficient, and wiser.

A great and insightful cartoon strip by the name of "Calvin and Hobbes" ran its course and ended a while back but not before it dispensed a great deal of wisdom. A notable entry that applied to us first responders had the usually ignorant young boy named Calvin ranting incessantly to the great listener and realistic stuffed-tiger sidekick named Hobbes. Their exchange went like this;

The first frame had Hobbes pushing Calvin in a small wagon.
Calvin: It's true Hobbes, ignorance is bliss!
Once you know things you start seeing problems everywhere...
and once you see problems you feel like you ought to try to fix them...
and fixing problems always seems to require personal change...
and change means doing things that aren't fun! I say phooey to that!

Next frame, Calvin and Hobbes are now both in the wagon and flying downhill on a path.
Calvin: But if you're willfully stupid, you don't know any better, so you can keep doing whatever you like!
The secret to happiness is short-term, stupid self-interest!

Next frame, Calvin and Hobbes are now out of control.
Hobbes: We're heading for that cliff!
Calvin: (With hands covering face), I don't want to know about it!
Both: (As they go over the cliff) Waaaugghhh!

The last frame, Calvin and Hobbes have crash landed onto the ground and are laying there injured.
Hobbes: I'm not sure I can stand so much bliss.
Calvin: Careful! We don't want to learn anything from this.

The sarcastic humor is pure genius by the cartoonist Bill Watterson and, it is easy to see that his cartoon is a metaphor for life and an important point for all of us. The paramount lesson is that we need to learn from our mistakes in order to avoid them in the future. This sentiment was perhaps best communicated by the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, who in his 1905 book, Life of Reason, wrote "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". So, it behooves all of us to review responses within our industry and in fact many national standards and regulations require incident reviews. Hazwoper, for instance, found in 29 CFR 1910.120-paragraph q, requires a formal critique of all hazardous materials responses.

The power of vicarious learning is self-evident. There is just no way any of us can know everything that is required in the business of firefighting or hazardous materials response on our own. There is simply not enough time for us to make all of the mistakes that have been made. That is the value of learning from case studies! By studying the responses of the past, both incidents that went well along with incidents that have had tragic endings, we can become safer, more efficient, and wiser. We can indeed learn to avoid pitfalls along with better techniques in handling tomorrow's emergencies.

The tried and true method of trial and error can also work to our benefit by studying the past. Who can deny the powerful lessons and historic precedents of; " the incident at a cold storage facility where an ammonia environment ignited claiming the life of a hazmat team member and severely burning another? " the incident at a tank farm where a flammable liquid vapor cloud ignited explosively killing one responder and injuring several others? " the incident at a manufacturing facility where a water-reactive, flammable solid exploded severely burning numerous responders and leaving them with impaired hearing? The study of these incidents should be required of any serious student of hazmat response. It would also seem reasonable to state that ignorance of these events would be an insult to the memory of the victims of the above tragedies. Learn what happened to them and apply the lessons on your own responses.

It simply behooves all of us to devote time in our training to case study review and reinforce generic hazmat response concepts such as;

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