The fire chief's brain: Friend or foe?

The human brain plays tricks on itself to cope and that can lead to dangerous fireground decisions


Scientists now understand that while observing and making decisions, the human brain will compensate — or fill in the gaps — between what a person knows and what that person thinks he knows.

So it begs the question: Are the decisions we make valid and accurate, and can they be trusted when it comes to keeping firefighters safe?

Those unconscious adaptations the brain does poses a safety threat to firefighters. That threat is compounded when the decision maker lacks the proper input, processing, training and experience to make the best decision in a given fireground scenario.

The fire suppression is not black and white. Decisions sometimes include gray areas and have to be made without adequate information or adequate time for processing, calculating the consequences, recognizing changing conditions and having the staff to carry out those decisions.

We also know that errors, violations of policies, procedures and standards are commonplace. It happens every day in the fire service. The challenges in decision making is the recognition and recovery phase from bad information input or processing.

Lasting lessons
Near misses, or recovering and escaping unscathed from a bad decision, can be the stuff of fire department legend. The problem is that that bad decision can influence future decisions.

For example, because the firefighter survived, he may have a false sense of security and think, "I did it once, I can do it again." But that only works if the circumstances were exactly the same.

The ability to make the correct crisis-condition decision comes from education and training. Those skills acquired through training and education give firefighters the best chance of not creating or of reducing the consequences of potentially disastrous situations.

Research has shown that the methods and techniques used to educate adults are significantly different than those used for children. The key to lasting adult education is competency-based training.

By using combinations of adult-learner techniques and strategies, instructors can create training experiences that firefighters are more likely to retain and apply on the street.

Changing environment
On the street, complex high-hazard situations can lead to accidents that occur relatively infrequently but whose consequences can be devastating. Many accidents in the fire service occur infrequently enough that incident commanders and firefighters can be misled about the dangers they face.

Changes in the fireground environment can significantly increase the threat to firefighters. One example of this newer threat is modern building construction. Lighter, faster, cheaper are in many cases is the mission of the builder. Those three words add risks in our environment.

An example of the additional risk is the number of firefighters who fall through floors. Firefighters fall through floors because of lighter, faster and cheaper building construction. They also fall through floors because they fail to recognize the causal factors the fire is having on the structure.

When accidents occur, is it due to human failure or process failures? The answer is never easy. On the fireground there are so many contributing causal factors, and the incident commander must recognize the differences.

No incident commander consciously makes decisions that they believe will get a firefighter injured or killed. But, incident commanders continue to make decisions with limited information and recognition skills. Their brains fail to process that a situation, while similar to previous experiences, has different factors that require significant shift in strategic decision making and tactical implementation.

Gut instincts
"Trust your instinct or your gut" is an often-used phrase. I have used it in teaching incident commanders the decision making process. However, the "trust your instinct" characteristic is only as valuable as the individual's previous input.

No previous knowledge or skills input, no instinct.

The "trust your instinct" reaction can also be very misleading. Again, that's because the human brain is very good at masquerading what it thinks it knows as what it actually knows. There are also things you may think you don't know, but actually do know.

The challenge is to know when the information is deceptive or distracting. When looking at accidents, there is strong evidence that supports the theory that similar situations keep creating the same unsafe acts. 

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