“Strategy is a mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a bias for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.”
--Col. John Boyd, USAF
For most of my career, I’ve read and studied firefighter behaviors when operating in dangerous and chaotic situations. I’ve discovered there are numerous descriptors and attributes (situational awareness, task management, communication, decision making, teamwork, followership and leadership) that are required for us to work in an environment filled with challenge and uncertainty. The fireground demands that we are adaptable, agile and able to perform safely and effectively, and to meet those demands we must build these attributes both individually and as teams.
The unfolding challenging and confusing circumstances of the fireground can lead us to misread the situation. The problems we encounter are difficult to understand and control. Combined with a lack of understanding of how we perform under stress and with the cultural propensity to simply act, we are sometimes unable to perform effectively.
How do we get better at this? We focus on improving our ability to quickly and effectively:
- Observe (read);
- Orient (understand);
- Decide; and
- Act on the fireground.
Can Boyd’s OODA Loop help create a more harmonious and focused fire service, one that’s better able to operate in a bewildering and challenging world?
High-Tech vs. Mindset
With the abundance of high-tech equipment available to us today, it’s no wonder we often overlook the most important factor in successfully bringing order to chaos: our mindset.
Throughout history, the ability to think strategically and apply tactics has improved safety and increased effectiveness. If you don’t believe this, talk to any seasoned firefighter. It’s not the tools or technology that make the difference; it’s the people and their ability to think and do. As Boyd said, it’s “People, ideas and hardware—in that order!”
The number one factor for conquering chaos is our ability to observe and stay oriented to what’s going on around us. This is also known as situational awareness (SA). We hear a lot of talk about SA today, but do we really understand and practice it? Situational awareness is the harnessing of all of our senses, including our intuition, to read (observe) and understand (orient) ourselves, the people around us and the situation unfolding in front of us. We need to start practicing and applying SA to everything we do, from training to operations, so we’re never caught unprepared in an unexpected situation again.
We cannot predict everything that will happen, but we can learn to read situations better, so that we understand when something bad is about to happen. We do this by continuously interacting with our environment and the changes that are taking place, and then adapting to them.
Continuously observing and staying oriented isn’t easy. It requires that we work hard and focus our efforts on reading people, the situation and the environment. Observing the environment and continuing to remain oriented to it is part of the decision-making cycle Boyd called the OODA Loop. Learning to control the first two parts of the Loop (observe, orient) will help us make more accurate assessments of the situation, which will in turn lead to faster and better decisions.
Making Better Decisions
On the fireground, we’re often forced to make decisions with little or no information and even less time. This time deficit can occur for many reasons, but it’s usually the result of an unfolding and rapidly changing event that decreases the time available to make a decision, or an unprepared or complacent mindset that misses critical information or cues. In either case, decision-making is hampered because of limited information and the time available to process it. We must be prepared through training, education and experience to make and act on time-sensitive decisions.
Let me be clear: An over-abundance of policies and procedures providing a step-by-step process is not what we need. We need to be better at “bringing thinking to action” when under pressure.
An example where we might use Boyd’s OODA Loop would be when we drive an emergency apparatus code 3, which combines both mental and physical skills. Here’s how it works: While driving to an emergency incident, we’re constantly making subconscious and conscious decisions as to what traffic around us may or may not do based on turn signals, brake lights or approaching traffic signals. If we observe a brake light in front of us, we orient to it and make a conscious decision to either slow down or change lanes. Once we make that decision, we act accordingly to avoid an accident and to continue our response. If we practice the OODA Loop, we drive defensively, not offensively.
Let’s say a vehicle in front of us suddenly moves into our lane. Because our situational awareness is high, we observe the unexpected change and quickly make an intuitive, subconscious decision. We take a decisive action and immediately brake or maneuver to a safe part of the road to avoid an accident. If we had not been paying attention—if we were looking at a map, talking on the radio or were distracted in some other way—we may have been involved in, or at least caused, an accident. Why? Because there was a gap in our OODA Loop causing us to miss critical information.
Decide & Act Under Pressure
Boyd’s OODA Loop is used in many high-risk fields, such as law enforcement, and in other areas including sports and business. This article only touches the surface of its application to the fire service; I could go on and on with numerous examples to explain the importance for firefighters to use the OODA Loop. I’ll continue to highlight some examples in future columns.
In the meantime, study the principles of observation, orientation, decision and action. There are numerous published journal articles, conference articles, monographs, graduate theses, blogs, videos and books exploring critical decision-making in dangerous and chaotic situations. Here’s a few to get you started:
- John Boyd, Military Strategist. Wikipedia.
- The Strategy of a Fighter Pilot by Keith Hammonds. Fast Company.
- Colonel John Boyd, Biography. You Tube.
- Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, by Robert Coram
- Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd Applied to Business, by Chester W. Richards
If we learn to understand Boyd’s OODA Loop, we can master the power of implicit decision-making and we’ll be more adaptable, agile and able to perform safely and effectively under pressure.
Until next time, get prepared, be ready, and stay safe!