What the fire service can learn from cop decision-making

Critical decisions need to be made quickly and reliably; here's a look at similar models used by police and the airline industry that the fire service can adapt


By Phil Stittleburg

Fire service personnel, particularly command personnel, are routinely required to make a number of critical decisions quickly. These decisions are often based on limited and frequently inaccurate or incomplete information, and can result in serious consequences for those affected by them.

Incident commanders should be trained to recognize that they should not waste time looking for the perfect decision.
Incident commanders should be trained to recognize that they should not waste time looking for the perfect decision. (Photo/City of San Jose)

We all recognize that these fireground decisions have a direct impact on firefighter safety and how important they are.

However, we are not in the only profession faced with such challenges. The military, law enforcement, health care and airline industries have all confronted the same issue and searched for effective decision-making models.

One of the early decision-making models was developed by the airline industry as the result of a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation following a 1978 airline crash. Initially referred to as cockpit resource management, it later became known as crew resource management, or CRM.

In this system, knowledge, skills and decision making are emphasized, with decisions being made by a team rather than a single commander.

One goal of this team-based decision making is implicit coordination. In order to achieve this, the team members must share an understanding of each other’s tasks.

The disadvantage in this approach is that the team members are all focused on the same task, thus diminishing the broader situational view that the team could offer. Although this model has application to the fire service in many situations, our authoritarian organizational structure often discourages its use.  

Furthermore, while team-based decision making holds great advantages by virtue of drawing on the total wisdom of all of the team members, it can also be time consuming. Consequently, it is not always appropriate for the fireground.

For those decisions that are time critical, incident commanders should be trained to recognize that they should not waste time looking for the perfect decision. General George S. Patton is reputed to have said that “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.”

In 2003, the International Association of Fire Chiefs produced an excellent publication on this topic entitled “Crew Resource Management.

5-step process

Of course, CRM is not the only decision-making model out there. Some law enforcement agencies use another model called the Critical Decision-Making Model, or CDM, much of which can be adapted to the fire service.

The first of this five-step process is information gathering. This begins as soon as the dispatch occurs and involves asking what do I know so far, what else do I need to know, and what can I expect.

The second step involves risk assessment, an analysis of what could go wrong and what may happen if it does. At this point, the responder must determine if the resources currently deployed are adequate and if not, what else is needed. Meanwhile, information gathering continues.

Next, the decision maker reviews the department SOPs and decides if and how they apply.

In the fourth step, the decision maker reviews the options at hand, once again, considering if more information and additional resources are required. The responder must ask, “What am I trying to achieve and what choices hold the greatest promise of success with the least potential for harm.”

In the final step, the plan is executed, the impact is evaluated, and the determination is made if the incident has been controlled. If not, the process is repeated.

We often talk about avoiding reinventing the wheel, but frequently confine our search for solutions to our own profession. A wider view can lead to the discovery of solutions formed outside of our usual sphere of experience that can be adapted to what we do with considerable benefit.

About the author
Phil Stittleburg joined the volunteer fire service in 1972 and has been chief of the LaFarge (Wis.) Fire Department since 1977. He is a past chairman of the board of both the National Volunteer Fire Council and the National Fire Protection Association. He is legal council for NVFC, LaFarge Fire Department and the Wisconsin State Firefighters Association. Phil is also a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board

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