Innovations
May 7, 2012

Fighting fire with innovation

The Ontario Public Service has been in the business of putting out fires – literally – since the late 19th century.

The history of fighting forest fires in the province has been a history of innovation that continues to this day. Two decades after Orville Wright flew the first airplane, the Ontario Provincial Air Service was conducting patrols using a “flying boat.” Today, we are evaluating how night vision goggles can help us detect and manage fires.

The Ministry of Natural Resources’ Aviation and Forest Fire Management Branch is a model of innovation, the result of strategic leadership, support for frontline staff, and effective partnerships.

Strategic leadership
Senior management’s role in creating an environment for innovation goes beyond setting strategic direction; senior managers also promote the development of a learning culture. The Aviation and Forest Fire Management program has a long history of reviewing what happened, learning from it, and setting goals for improvement.

That means consistently evaluating what we do. In the case of a large forest fire, reviews take place even while the fire is still being fought, so improvements can be made on the fly. New ideas are vetted through line managers and shared quickly and widely.

From the frontline fire crew to the Ministry Emergency Operation Centre, firefighting teams regularly take a few minutes to conduct an “after action review.” It asks four questions:
What did we set out to do? 
What actually happened?Why was there a difference?What are we going to do next time?
These simple questions demonstrate to staff that the organization wants to improve and needs their help to do so.

Of course, senior management must also manage the risk inherent to innovation. It is important to encourage people to take chances and try new things. Strong management skills ensure that lessons are learned from projects that are failing – and that such projects are halted. It also allows us to support and plan for the transition of good ideas from theory into practice.

Supporting people
Motivated, well-trained staff will naturally try new things to improve their work. When people are committed to organizational goals, they will look for ways to innovate. The branch staff are extraordinarily dedicated to the ministry’s forest fire management goals, so nurturing continuous improvement to support those goals is not difficult.

One way we promote innovation is by providing annual funding to a Fire Equipment Working Group to support the development of new ideas from frontline staff. That team – and the entire branch – know that, every year, there will be money available to evaluate new ideas and make them happen.

Leveraged partnerships
Partnerships introduce a diversity of ideas and perspectives not always available within the ministry. For decades, we have been leveraging partnerships with universities and the federal government to enable greater innovation. The branch has a very small research and science capacity, yet continues to implement new science and technologies by working with partners.

For many years, branch staff have worked with the Canadian Forest Service and the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto to develop science and mathematical models. They offer skills not available in my ministry, and we provide researchers with a “living laboratory” in which to refine and evaluate their work.

More recently, we have begun partnerships with the University of Western Ontario, Carleton University and York University (to evaluate night vision technology).

At Carleton’s School of Industrial Design, undergraduate students are evaluating and recommending modifications to operational forest fire management equipment. After four years, this partnership is changing not just the equipment staff use, but also the way they approach procurement. Previously, staff selected from the products available. Now, staff and students set new standards for hose packs, safety gear, rain suits, and much more.  

While short-term research contracts can provide access to consulting skills, partnerships that promote innovation require a long-term view and benefit for both parties. Such partnerships offer us the most current thinking, new ideas and new approaches to problem-solving. They give students the opportunity to test their theories and experience a real-world setting, which can only help them as they enter the workforce.

Conclusion
Back in the 1920s, a public servant was able to convince the leaders of the day that forest fires could be better found and fought by air. This was even before Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart were making their famous flights – long before we took flight for granted. That public servant’s innovation forever changed the way my ministry fights fires.

It’s impossible to say what public servants in generations to come will see as the great innovations of our time. All we can do today is build a culture of innovation, knowing that there are great ideas, large and small, to be found and nurtured in our organizations.

David Lindsay is Deputy Minister of Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources.

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