4 steps of sound fireground decision-making
Borrowing the decision-making techniques of a military master can improve fireground decisions
If you search “OODA Loop” on the web, there will be several hundred references to the term from historians and writers in the military, government, academia, and business regarding its application to their field of interest.
The OODA Loop was developed by Col. John Boyd. He was a legendary Air Force fighter pilot who subsequently developed the F-15 and F-16 fighter planes. He also was perhaps the greatest military strategist since Sun Tzu authored, “The Art of War” in the sixth century or Carl von Clausewitz wrote his unfinished work, “On War” in 1831.
So what does this have to do with the fire service, you ask? Well, the OODA Loop is a simple way for a chief or company officer acting as the incident commander (IC) to determine the strategy and tactics needed to overcome our common enemy — fire.
OODA stands for: observe, orient, decide, and act. The Loop simply indicates this is a continuous process, but not one that always gives equal time to each step.
In the observation phase, the officer needs to size up the fire — but not just where and what it is on arrival, more importantly in which direction it is probably going to spread, and what potential impact that will have, especially on the firefighters.
Observation not only calls for the IC to have a 360-degree view of the incident, but to keep eyes continually on the critical areas of the fire with the use of the incident command system and then keeping a 360-degree perspective to keep tabs on most everything — from the probable to the unlikely.
It also calls for as much known information as possible: size, construction, occupancy, contents, fire load, initial responding resources, estimated time since ignition, access, emergency egress, potential dangers, estimated time for the arrival of additional units, and the list goes on.
The orientation phase combines the IC’s observations with his or her previous knowledge and experience in similar or in other closely related situations that have occurred throughout their fire service career.
It is equally important for the IC to remember how hard it was when they as a firefighter had to carry a fire line up an interior staircase to a third floor apartment on fire as it is to understand the need for sector or division officers to handle a quickly expanding incident.
This is also where playing the “what if” game comes into play. When the IC has played “what if” at this exact or at a very similar location in a non-stressful, non-emergency environment (this could include using some form of computer simulation), then orientation becomes a complex integration of fact, experience and theory that may be approached somewhat differently by each IC.
Using some of the most current research, the IC may decide that compartmentalizing the fire by controlling the entry door and delaying ventilation while setting up the fire lines may be the initial objective.
Decide and act
Setting the strategy — defensive (initial exterior big fire line attack to disrupt the fire) or offensive (an interior attack with a standard fire line while continuing to control the fire’s need for fresh air) — is only a part of the decision phase.
The object is to disrupt and extinguish the expanding fire in most cases by applying more than enough water to overcome the thermal dynamics and sufficiently cool the area that the fire currently holds and where it is probably heading.
The act phase is putting the strategy into tactics — the how to accomplish these almost simultaneous tasks given the resources and staffing currently on the scene, those still responding and those additional units that can also be requested. Act for the experienced ICs also sets certain benchmarks in their minds that they must see being accomplished in a given time.
While in this second round of observation, the IC’s criteria has to be something more concrete, for example a change in the color of the smoke from black to gray to white with a corresponding decrease in the heat, volume and push of the smoke being emitted.
But it is also a time when the IC must receive progress reports and to look for such ominous signs as new smoke appearing at a roof line or heat detected in void spaces.
Here is where the time element of the OODA Loop may usually compress. Given a lack of progress on the fire or the appearance that it may have changed its direction of spread, the IC has already anticipated various possibilities and formulated a back-up plan for each probability to either augment or change the strategy.
This compressed decision-making becomes the second action phase. In essence, during the time allocated by the IC to see progress on the fire, he or she has revisited both the orientation and decision phases and merely has to pull the trigger on the back-up plan to act. This may be to change from an offensive to a defensive strategy, reposition the existing firefighters, or call for more resources.
Even as the IC is taking additional action steps, he or she is also subconsciously setting the criteria for the implementation of a third action phase, if necessary, or for the relief of the on-scene crews when they will become fatigued.
The OODA Loop is a tool for us to understand and use in a complex incident to gain the situational awareness we need to make faster and better decisions to mitigate an emergency. Like any tool, it needs to tried and tested to know how it will work for you.
For those who would like to read one of the best books on the distinguished career of Colonel John Boyd and learn more about the creation of the OODA Loop, I recommend the biography written by Robert Coram in his book, “Boyd.”
This article, originally published in 2014, has been updated.