"Science with its 'dust free' environments and 'laboratory conditions,' has given us a pattern for approaching the natural world of things: we stabilize the environment, bring together a number of elements, and observe the results. We call those results 'facts.'" — Thomas Cloakley, Command and Control for War and Peace
Using all three of these decision-making models gives fire officers the best chance of making the right life-and-death decisions
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I sat through a simulated event. There were pictures in front of me of a structure fire. I had a pencil and a radio and one of those paper command sheets that encourage the fine art of box checking. In the scenario one of my crews experienced an emergency soon after I arrived on scene.
A few days earlier I was present at a real call. A real call that was possibly a big deal but probably not. I found it difficult to manage, not so much because there were a lot of people in some danger, but rather because the potential for some people to be in a lot of danger was high.
The difference between the two events was striking. In the simulation I was faced with a once in a career high-stress event. In the simulation it was quite likely that two firefighters were in the process of dying right in front of me.
However, in the sanitized world of simulations I did not find my self under any stress. My voice was not cracking; I did not feel the characteristic tightening of the shoulders and gut. It was just a game.
"Facts are very comfortable things to deal with because they are so stable. What was a fact yesterday will be a fact tomorrow, so long as the environment stays the same." — Cloakley
Crucial part of practice
I realize that simulations are more than games. They are a crucial part of practice and can provide critical insights into how one might behave when faced with the real thing. They are not to be taken lightly, but then they are not real in the same way that toy cars are not real cars.
A few days earlier I was present at a real call. It was not so real that it made the evening news, not real enough to warrant a mention in the local newspaper. But is was real in the way that makes your shoulders tighten, your perception narrow and your heart rate increase just enough to fog over your processes.
What I think I learned, or perhaps re-learned, is that nothing can simulate the physiological and psychological effects of being placed under critically stressful conditions. In real life people don't answer the radio, or if they do you might miss the transmission.
In real life the time pressure compounded by the temporal distortion is made worse by the lack of good information and topped off with excessive amounts of useless information, creating a potent recipe for disaster.
"…Unfortunately, that kind of fact-oriented approach does not work very well when we're dealing with people and people issues. Human dynamics are simply too complex." — Cloakley
I am a big fan of written control objectives; I believe in them. I preach control objectives to my subordinates.
However, in that real moment I found that I did not so much as write control objectives as I projected them in understated ways, cloaked in the thin veil of tactical orders. In many ways I was just doing stuff.
Seeing the big picture
Compared to the available research on such things, what I did was hardly different from what most people do under stress, but this time for some reason it felt more real.
What I think I learned is that it is always harder to step back and consider the big picture when you are tied up in the little picture. The world of real incidents cannot be summed up in simulations and it cannot be reliably dissected in post-mortem evaluations. This makes execution hard and it makes evaluation harder.
Colonel John Boyd is reported to have said: "When thing went wrong at the Pentagon, really wrong, you'd always hear some bright guy in a business suit complaining that a country able to land a man on the moon should be able to carry out an operations on the earth: raid Hanoi, drop into Tehran, whatever. I always pointed out to these smart alecks that as I recalled, the moon didn't hide, move around under its own steam, or shoot back."
Maybe that is difference with real incidents — in many ways they hide, move and shoot back.
About the author
Charles Bailey is a career Battalion Chief in Md. with nearly 20 years of active service. His hope it that firefighters everywhere will begin to ask hard questions about their operational behaviors and obligations to society using sound science mixed with common sense. Charles won the award for Best Web Column/Trade at the Western Publishing Association’s 2011 Maggie Awards, which honor the best print publications and websites in the Western United States. You can contact Charles with feedback at Charles.Bailey@FireRescue1.com.
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