By Marc Revere
Published Monday, June 27, 2011
In the first part of this article we looked at the situations of two commercial airline flights that faced severe challenges: United Flight 232 and US Airways Flight 1549.
Captain Denny Fitch was on Flight 232 as a passenger. Fitch, like Captain Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549, was a senior pilot and a flight trainer. When he entered the cockpit to see if he could assist the crew, his first thought was, “Today I’m going to die.” He thought this because in all of his training, he’d never seen a situation like the one facing Flight 232: “I was dumbfounded. What occurred was unheard of and there were no procedures.”1 In contrast, Captain Sullenberger was dealing with the known where policies and procedures fit the situation given the time constraints. This is not to minimize his actions or his bravery, but as he himself noted, the situation he faced was one for which he’d trained for in simulations.
In the fire service, we deal with a lot of “knowns.” We have apparatus checks, rules and regulations, SOPs and SOGs, performance evaluations, NFPA standards, the incident command system, RECEO, PAR checks, CAN reports … the list can go on forever. In fact, in preparing for this article, I found two separate manuals on how to fill out forms in the fire service!
These forms, these processes, are designed to make our life easier—if we follow the rules, check the boxes, things should proceed safely and effectively. But such tools do not prepare us for adaptive change.
Recognizing Adaptive Challenges
The first part of adaptive leadership is knowing when you’re facing a situation where the rules no longer apply.
You should recognize an adaptive situation when:
- You’ve thrown all fixes and know-how at the problem, and it persists;
- Conflict persists. Typically you’ll see or experience this at an incident command post where there is a multi-jurisdiction event but not a unified command. Classic examples are mass-casualty incidents, or incidents involving trains, airplanes or vehicles on the interstate;
- A crisis occurs, which usually happens when conditions requiring adaptation have gone unchanged and festered (the economy is a good example); or
- When people’s hearts and minds need to change—not just their preferences or routine behaviors (the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s 16 Life Safety Initiatives are an excellent example).
Reacting to Adaptive Situations
In the fire service, adaptive challenges occur on the fireground, but they occur even more frequently in leadership. The following points are designed to guide leaders through the unknown in personnel issues, politics and policy decisions. It is in this arena where leaders at all levels spend a great deal of time focusing on vague, and often times irrational issues.
Once you recognize that an adaptive process is required to solve the problem at hand, ask yourself a series of questions:
- What are the facts, assumptions and (possible personal) bias? On Flight 232, the DC-10 was not supposed to be able to fly without hydraulics. On Apollo 13, the landing craft was not designed to return to earth, let alone power the astronauts on the return trip.
- What exactly is the problem? Oftentimes, members who live with an issue for a long time have come to see only one solution, and aren’t even understanding the issue at hand. Can the problem be restated in other terms?
- Whose problem is it? This is important, for we are in the business of solving problems and we naturally think most problems are our responsibility. Just asking this question may point you in the right direction.
- Is the information accurate? And does it have to be solved now? What will happen if we do nothing? This is analogous to hazmat operations—some situations are self-neutralizing. Most issues require some form of intervention; however, remaining silent on the issue or not acting should be considered.
- Do I have to make this decision or does someone else? If so, are there any political landmines or will there be any fallout (staff, labor, public, etc)?
Making a Decision
Crew resource management (CRM) teaches leaders to be less the “fighter pilot” and more the “bomber pilot”—with a 50,000 foot view. It provides a framework to process all information and formulate action plans. The leader retains ultimate authority and guides the crew to render more efficient and correct decisions
CRM uses the Acronym DECIDE to explain how leaders should make decisions:
- Determine the problem.
- Evaluate the scope of the problem.
- Consider available options.
- Identify the most appropriate option.
- Do the most appropriate option.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of the action.
Applying the DECIDE acronym can assist you in adaptive situations. You’ll find it most helpful in areas outside of the operational arena. Using a non-fire service example, let’s apply this method.
Example: Your college-bound daughter tells you she needs a new car to go to school. As is the case for most decision-makers, a desired solution has been brought to you but the problem has not necessarily been identified.
- Determine the problem: Does she require transportation? If so, when and where? Will she live on campus? Will she have a part-time job on or off campus?
- Evaluate the scope: How much of her desire to have the car is practical, and how much of it is about freedom and independence, prestige and keeping up with her girlfriends?
- Identify options: Public transportation, walking and campus buses should all be considered as alternatives.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. It’s all about asking the right questions and factoring in the appropriate options and effectiveness. Bottom line: Does she need a car or does she want one?
Sharing the Knowledge
It is interesting to note that adaptive solutions often become technical answers. Once an adaptive path is taken, future problems in this area become technical in nature since they have been solved—but only if they are known. Think of the lessons learned from BLEVEs in the 1970s, hazmat incidents in the ’80s, swift-water rescue incidents in the ’90s and large, abandoned building fires during this century. In all these cases, first-time experiences resulted in adapted solutions, which were then analyzed and codified in after-action reviews. Those lessons were then passed from department to department with the intent of increasing the chances that everyone goes home.
There are three requirements for ensuring that a solution to an adaptive challenge is “known.” First, understanding when you’re in the adaptive arena. Second, sharing the lessons learned from the situation with others in the fire service. And finally, the very reason you have read this article—committing to lifelong learning. It’s essential to our success so others will be successful as well.
1. (1992) Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232 [film]. In OVGuide.com. Viewed April 2011 from www.ovguide.com/movies_tv/crash_landing_the_rescue_of_flight_232.htm.
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