By Barry Bouwsema
The fireground is a dynamic environment with rapidly changing
conditions. It is in this demanding worksite that the fireground
commander must make many rapid life-and-death decisions: Is an
offensive or defensive strategy required? Is the roof stable enough for
ventilation? Will building conditions allow for interior search? and
the list goes on. Studies have shown that level of experience in the
fireground commander is a large determinant in whether an appropriate
decision will be made.
By Barry Bouwsema
The fireground is a dynamic environment with rapidly changing conditions. It is in this demanding worksite that the fireground commander must make many rapid life-and-death decisions: Is an offensive or defensive strategy required? Is the roof stable enough for ventilation? Will building conditions allow for interior search? and the list goes on. Studies have shown that level of experience in the fireground commander is a large determinant in whether an appropriate decision will be made.
Alan Brunacini identified that the fireground commander must quickly prioritize problems and develop solutions (Brunacini, 1985, p. 6), but how does a fireground commander actually accomplish these objectives? In his book “Command and Control of Fires and Emergencies” Vincent Dunn identified that the U.S. Marine Corps routinely utilizes the experiences of the FDNY fireground commanders to teach the process of making life-and-death decisions (Dunn, 1999, p. 9). By utilizing the experiences of the fireground commanders, the skills of rapid decision making can be taught.
On the subject of decision-making processes, Dr. Gary Klein has investigated the subject of recognitionprimed decisions (RPD). According to Klein, “fireground commanders will make 80 per cent of their decisions in less than one minute” (Klein, 1998, p. 4). It was discovered that emergency-scene decision-making relies heavily on experience, especially when the fireground commander is faced with a time-pressure situation. In RPD, the decision maker is assumed to generate a possible course of action in response to the emergency and then compare it to the constraints imposed by the emergency situation. The first course of action that is not rejected following the rapid comparison is then selected as an appropriate decision. The RPD decision-making model combines two ways of developing a decision; the first is recognizing which course of action makes sense and the second is evaluating the course of action through imagination to evaluate if the actions of the decision make sense. When making an RPD the FGC will not consciously consider a plan B until a mental simulation of plan A has discovered that plan A will not work. For example, a FGC may initially order a pump crew to stretch a 45mm hand line into a fire. While the crew is performing the required task, the FGC commander begins a mental simulation where the line is stretched into the fire and an interior attack initiated. If in the mental simulation he visualizes the attack line having little to no effect because of the volume of fire, he will change his order and initiate plan B, where a 65 mm line is put into action. The decision-making evaluation often happens at the “speed of thought” and would seem to be an almost unconscious action. RPD proposes that the FGC will make a fireground decision based on pattern matching as the current problem is compared to similar problems encountered in the past. The solution to the problem presents itself from past experience in how similar problems were previously solved.
The difference between being an experienced or inexperienced fireground commander plays a major factor in the RPD decision-making process. An experienced commander will be able to rapidly process the needed information to make an appropriate decision. Having the ability to gather the necessary information for a sophisticated judgment in a short period of time has been termed “thin slicing.” The mind unconsciously filters a few select factors that really matter from an overwhelming number of variables (Gladwell, 2005, p. 23). The veteran FGC can take in and evaluate a large amount of information without experiencing information overload; conversely, a novice FGC will not be able to take in and process the same amount of information in the time necessary to make a critical command and control decision.
Through experience, the FGC can evaluate the decision by imagining potential roadblocks that would prevent a successful outcome. The inexperienced FGC will need more time and more information to make a decision and may also lack the experienced needed to identify potential problems. Experience FGCs have developed a higher level of expectations on how the fire scene will progress. Using pattern matching, the FGC will be able to identify if the fire is fitting or not fitting within the prototypical response expected from the fire scene. If the events are not typical, the FGC must determine why not and possibly change his course of action to accommodate changes in the fire scene. The inexperience FGC will not have the mental bank of data to draw from to help identify when the sequence of events is not progressing according to expectation. There may be a change in the fire situation and the novice FGC may not recognize it because he has not developed an appropriate expectation due to a lack of experience.
The RPD paradigm of decision-making applies to fireground command because decisions on the fireground are under time pressure conditions and experience of the fire commander plays a large part in determining if the appropriate decision will be made. Today’s new generation of fireground commanders deserves to be given opportunities to develop this experience through training and mentoring before being asked to make these life-and-death decisions.
In my final leadership column I will be commenting on errors in decision-making by fireground commanders and the ways to avoid these critical decision errors.
Brunacini, A. (1985). Fire Command. College Park, Maryland: YBS Productions.
Dunn, V. (1999). Command and Control of Fires and Emergencies. Saddle Brook, New Jersey: PennWell Publishing Company.
Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York, New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Klein, G. (1998). Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.