The Difference Between Lessons Observed and Lessons Learned

Though successful exercises are good, it’s many times the failures that provide the real learning opportunities.

by / January 11, 2010
FEMA installs electronic signs along the side of the road to help direct residents to its Disaster Recovery Centers. Mark Wolfe/FEMA

We learn from others by reading case studies, after-action reports, results of audits and investigations, and from personal experience. In the personal experience category, I favor learning by participating in disaster exercises. Though successful exercises are good, it’s many times the failures that provide the real learning opportunities.

Most of the time the after-action report that says “lessons learned,” actually means “lessons observed.” We read, we listen, perhaps we even experience the event, yet we don’t learn from others’ mistakes or from the ones we make ourselves.

As adults, we’re programmed to learn from other adults. It’s one reason that when you do training for adults you should allow time for small group discussion. Having an “expert” up front doing the instruction and sharing his or her knowledge pales in comparison to one peer looking another peer in the eye and saying, “Let me tell you what I did that I’ll never do again.” It’s at those moments we learn best when learning from one another.

I really believe in “institutional knowledge” when it comes to emergency management and disasters. The experience of going through a disaster is seared into one’s brain. When a mistake is made, there’s a long-term impression that’s indelibly fixed on your memory. I’ll give you a great example.

When issuing a news release that provides a telephone contact number for the public, that number needs to be double-checked, even triple-checked before the news release is sent. I have been burned more than once.

During a large-scale power outage due to a huge windstorm, we provided a 1-800 number for the public to report damages. Someone transcribed it wrong, and it was some form of “adult” call line. Not the first time a number was wrong in a news release, but there had been nothing like that before.

Later in the same disaster we had the great idea of putting up reader board signs along the heavily impacted areas, since people didn’t have power and couldn’t get radio and TV announcements for a phone number to call and report damage.

Road crews were wonderful about getting the reader board signs deployed and operational. But — you guessed it — the number on the signs was wrong. We made two mistakes in one disaster.

People rarely remember what they read or are trained on in preparation for a disaster. What they do remember is what they did for the last disaster exercise. This is why it’s very important that people do things correctly during a disaster exercise. If they follow a flawed procedure, but they get away with it, not only has a lesson not been learned, a negative learning experience has been reinforced by “success.” Disaster exercises are the great learning laboratory. If you want to “learn lessons,” have a robust disaster exercise program.

People also forget how they do things during exercises and actual events. Not only does time heal all wounds, but it also makes people fail to remember how to operate in an Emergency Operations Center. If you’re only doing one functional exercise a year, it will be difficult for people to retain what they learn from one year to the next.

What are the lessons to be learned? Read, study and try to assimilate information from others’ experiences. But in most cases, these will be just lessons observed. The way to learn and remember the lesson is by doing and creating your own learning experiences.

[Photo courtesy of Mark Wolfe/FEMA.]

Eric Holdeman is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management and now blogs at

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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