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3 decision-making tools to keep your crew alive

Using all three of these decision-making models gives fire officers the best chance of making the right life-and-death decisions

A fire officer leads the crew into what was called in as a standard room-and-contents fire. Upon advancing the hoseline on the initial attack, the officer starts to have a very bad feeling. Suddenly, the officer orders the entire crew out of the house; a minute later, the ceiling and floor collapse into the basement.

What led this officer to make a life-saving decision for the crew?

The decision may not have been linked to anything that the officer specifically saw or experienced in the fire — not just the color of the smoke, the intensity of the heat or the feel of the floor. More likely this officer had enough experience to understand how multiple factors can come together into a recognizable pattern. Based on that feeling, that informed intuition, the decision was made.

In his book Sources of Power, Gary Klein described this form of decision making. He called it Recognition-Primed Decision Making (RPD). This decision-making model is distinctly different from the other two established models.

Conflicting model
The oldest model, which is known as classical decision making, is one that says a decision maker should analyze all options, and then make the optimal, informed decision as a result. This model assumes a number of things — that you have access to all the information you need, that you have the ability to process all the information available, and that you have plenty of time.

The administrative model, which was developed in opposition to the classical approach, challenges all of these assumptions.

It says that decision making is inherently risky, and that human beings by definition do not have the cognitive ability or the time to make fully informed decisions in most cases. They are limited by having too many options and the pressure to make a “good enough” decision given time constraints and incomplete information.

The third model
There is a third way. In recognition-primed decision making, people do use information, but it may not be consciously accessed and listed as in the classical model. Memory and intuition come into play.

People who engage in RPD recognize patterns, not just individual facts. When this process works well, informed decisions can be made very quickly.

There are drawbacks of course. These go back to the limitations that define the administrative model of decision making. People generally do not have all the information or experience they need, and they may not interpret the information they have in the most accurate way.

One person’s intuition may be just a bad feeling that is not specifically linked to real risks. One person can get it wrong, and either over- or under-commit resources.

This is where the team comes in. Good officers understand that their crews are their most essential resource. In critical situations, the fire crew needs all the eyes, ears and informed intuitions of all members.

This is not to say that in the middle of a fire you are going to take a vote on what to do — far from it. But it does mean that as a leader, you understand that other members of your crew might have a recognition-primed insight that you may not be having.

The best officers know that everyone benefits when they foster an environment where it is possible for any member of the crew to speak up if that person has something critical to contribute.

This type of decision-making environment must be created far in advance of any emergency scene where it might be needed. It is also important that individual biases about whose input might be more valuable are set aside.

Recognition-primed decision making, at its best, is inclusive. We never know exactly what others know or see. Sometimes the most vital insight can come from the most surprising source.

Train to make decisions
A couple ways to enhance the process of RPD is to do scenario-based training where the purpose is to creatively consider options rather than just seeking the right answer. Allow crew members to take on roles outside their comfort zone. Encourage collaboration and discussion among crew members, and don’t discount “crazy” ideas.

Most of all, you want people to get real experience and to take an active role in assessing situations rather than just following after the authority figure.

Good officers use all their resources, and use all three decision-making models in making the best choices for the safety of their crews and their communities. Sometimes you will have the time to list and consider all options, and sometimes you will have to make a “good enough” decision based on what you know at the time.

And then there are times when you will trust your gut and make a decision based on factors you cannot even name at the time. And sometimes, this type of decision could be the difference between life and death.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.