Decision-Making on the Fireground: September

Decision-Making on the Fireground

It was early in the morning and we were responding to a fire in a heavily occupied apartment building. Dispatch had received several phone calls indicating that people were still trying to get out of their apartments. I was the officer sitting in the right front seat of Engine 33, where I could see the black column of smoke rising in the distance. I started thinking about the building we were responding to and what we were going to do when we got there.

This was a two-story apartment building with 11 apartments to a floor. The building formed an “L” shape, with the two separate structures connected by a breezeway. The roof was constructed of lightweight wood trusses that did not include any fire stopping. The roof continued in an “L” shape, covering both sections of the building. It was a continuous open compartment that enabled fire to travel quickly through the building.

Engine 33 entered the parking lot of the apartment building and what I’d been anticipating was now a reality: Fire was venting from the front door and from a window of an apartment on the second floor. Heavy fire was venting from the roof above the apartment. Thick, dark smoke was charging from the overhang and filling the entire second floor and I could see people still running down the stairs trying to escape. People were running through the parking lot. This was a serious event that was becoming chaotic very fast. I was the first officer on scene and I would make the initial decisions that would begin our operations—hopefully in the right direction.

Based on previous training and experience, I found myself using a simple, naturalistic approach to decision-making based on four factors:

  1. Information
  2. Experience
  3. Knowledge
  4. Urgency

Because of the urgency of the situation, I identified two objectives to focus on initially: Remove the civilians from danger and contain and control the fire. I jumped from the engine and quickly briefed my two crewmembers. The driver/operator would prepare for a water supply and position dry hoselines and wait for other arriving units. The firefighter and I would complete a quick 360-degree assessment of the building and begin search and rescue in the apartments nearest the fire on the second floor. These were serious decisions that could have dangerous consequences, but this was a critical situation that required quick, deliberate and goal-oriented thinking.

The Next Step in CRM
How do firefighters make decisions? Perhaps you’ve never asked yourself this question. After all, human factors training, including situational awareness (SA), task management, communication and decision-making, is relatively new to the fire service—traditionally, most fire service training has focused on long-established hands-on tasks and tactics, and not the decisions that get you there. It’s time the fire service concentrates more on the mental side of firefighting.

From the beginning, this Firefighting-360 column has taken a broad look into the multi-disciplinary approach to the study of how the human machine interacts with its environment, technology, and, most important, other humans. Previous FF-360 columns have told the story of crew resource management (CRM) programs that seek to train firefighters in a range of skills to better meet the confusing and complex challenges on the fireground. CRM was defined ( as “the effective use of all of our resources,” emphasizing that how firefighters think and act will determine organizational effectiveness. Other topics I’ve covered include:

The FF-360 goal is to enhance the safety and performance of firefighters in complex and chaotic situations. Studying decision-making is the obvious next step.

Probably the most important area of CRM with application for firefighting operations is the research on improved decision-making. Firefighters in all roles and operating at every level need the ability to think and act clearly and rapidly in an environment saturated with stressors. They need to be able to bring thinking to action. World War II commander General Patton once complained that many officers were “seeking too hard for an approved solution that will avoid the odious task of thinking.” In today’s complex and chaotic world, we need thinking firefighters and teams.

It’s All about Choices
We make decisions all the time, in all facets of our life. Some are conscious, after deliberation—“Do I schedule training for this morning or this afternoon?”—but many actually occur without any real conscious effort (subconscious)—“Do I stretch a hoseline and contain the fire or do I search the apartment first?” Many studies have shown that during stressful situations, people are sometimes required to make several decisions per second. Firefighting is fast and furious and it definitely falls into the category of a stressful situation.

Decision-making is really all about choice. Presented with a number of options in a given situation, you make a decision about which option to take. A number of factors will determine which option you will take, including the available information, previous knowledge, personal experience and the urgency of the unfolding situation. Perhaps most important is the way in which we look at the options available. In all, we must make a decision. Theodore Roosevelt, president and adventurer, may have said it best: “In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” The point: We need to do something.

Decision-making is the ability to choose a course of action using good judgment based on available information. In the next few columns, we’ll look at the decision-making process and the brain’s dual processors (conscious and subconscious) and how this relates to risk management. We’ll also examine common decision-making errors and explore how to improve decision-making in complex and chaotic environments. I hope you’ll make the decision to read the next FF-360 column!

Until next time, get prepared, be ready, and stay safe!


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