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‘In an instant’ decision-making: Ensure your snap decisions are sound

Making the right decision in the heat of the moment is the result of how you manage 3 factors – time, threat and control


Los Angeles firefighters transfer a demonstrator to an ambulance during a protest.

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

“The World Turned Upside Down” – a 1640s English ballad protesting policies of Parliament, later reported to be played by the defeated British Army as it marched out of Yorktown in 1781, and one of the highlights of the critically acclaimed Broadway shows “Hamilton” – certainly defines the times we live in.

Hardly a day passes without images and stories popping up in media feeds showing or portraying people making poor decisions. These images and stories reflect a moment in time, but they capture our attention in a way that elicits endless “SMH” emojis as well as incredulous declarations about the professionalism, lack of training, and/or “common sense” exhibited by those in the spotlight.

The visceral, and often apoplectic, responses emerge from the benefit of hindsight, but do give rise to a higher question: How did the person (or people) portrayed in the story get themselves in the predicament? Quite simply, it boils down to a deeper examination of how well prepared we are to deal with the “in an instant” event.

3 factors impacting decision-making

Preparedness is everything. After all, events do not actually happen “in an instant.” They are part of an elastic, undulating continuum of events that build on each other, ebbing and flowing in intensity. What we see in our feeds is an instant, not the entire play out of the before, during and after. Our attention spans have been driven to eight-second intervals to help our brains decide what is worth spending time on and what is worth. Even as you read this, your mind is processing whether you agree, whether it is worth proceeding and whether there is something to come that will help you be better prepared for your next “instant.”

As we consider our “in an instant” events, we’re going to concentrate on three factors that influence decision-making in the first responder world:

  1. Time
  2. Threat
  3. Control

When you consider any number of the events you have watched or experienced over the last year, these three factors come into play. Without dwelling on any single event, we are talking here about complex events like the pandemic, civil unrest as well as the last emergency call you ran or personnel problem you faced.

1. Time: Increasing information compresses time

Let’s first consider four time-centric statements that you’ve probably heard on the fireground:

  • “What’s taking them so long to deploy that line?
  • “That patient went downhill fast!”
  • “Did you notice how quick the situation devolved into chaos?”
  • “It seemed like hours before help arrived.”

Each of these statements involves a decision-making model. The emergency services field is built around time – response time, reflex time, turnout time, timed evolutions, time on scene, the first five minutes, the total EMS interval, daily work schedule. These elements are deeply ingrained in our written and spoken language as well as our training regimes, not to mention our psyche.

When fireground commanders are evaluated, time-compression is injected into the assessment process to simulate how emergency scenes unfold. Compressing time (i.e., introducing information requiring evaluation over a short period) adds stress to the commander being evaluated, as it presses them to arrive at a decision quickly and before all the questions can be answered. Delaying responses to orders generated by the IC being assessed elongates the timeline, which adds stresses. Time is, therefore, a threat to the commander’s plan to make battalion chief.

2. Threat: Complexities grow, fueling stress

An assessment scenario has the benefit of ending without serious physical injury. An ego may be bruised or a stress headache may be incurred, but those involved generally walk away unscathed.

The same cannot be said for the real world. Enduring rocks, bottles, trash cans, insults and other assaults from citizens while attempting to fulfill the mission of protecting life and property can throw a firefighter’s brain into as much chaos as is swirling around the response. Firefighters know and accept the threats associated with fire control, but injecting the unanticipated is where the stress levels rise and firefighters are thrown off their game, so to speak.

Law enforcement faces its own set of difficulties dealing with the structure fire during civil unrest. They are already pressed with their own missions of maintaining the civil order crowd control, looting, and having objects of all varieties hurled at them. Add the function of protecting the firefighters as they go about defensive strategies, and the protectors of the protectors reach a critical mass, while the firefighters struggle with all the complexities of being thrown into an ambiguous, chaotic situation elevating emotions of fear, anxiety and anger. As these feelings mount, first responders can be driven to take what may be perceived as irrational action.

3. Control: Making sense of chaos

First responders are driven to take control and make things better. That drive is the force that elicits timely response, quick action and taking risks. A struggle ensues, however, as the first step to control is making sense of the chaos. Attempting to control a situation without a proper assessment leads to two outcomes: control secured by sheer luck or tragedy. Failing to properly sort through the chaos, evaluate the threat, and comprehend the impact of time’s unstoppable march can change lives in an instant.

How the brain processes threats

Making the right decision is the result of a proper combination of managing time, threat and control.

Threat is processed in two parts of the brain. The primal (fight or flight) processing is conducted in the amygdala, located in the brain’s base. When a threat is perceived, the amygdala, still rooted in humans not being at the top of the food chain, starts yelling one of those messages to the frontal lobes.

Evolution added the frontal lobes. Thinking, reasoning, decision-making and planning take place here. The frontal lobes intercept the screams from the amygdala and put them on hold as the higher-developed cortex determines if danger is truly present and what actions would be appropriate.

Even with this higher developed functionality, errors in processing can still cause failure. In short, we have not evolved to a level where our threat analysis is refined to perfection. As such, human error is the leading cause of lives changing in an instant.

3 methods for effectively controlling threats

Fortunately, as the brain has evolved, so too has humankind’s ability to handle danger. The evolution is not perfect, but three highly successful methods for being more effective at controlling threats in a time-compressed environment are readily available for first responders to employ.

The first method promotes personal improvement. The second promotes taking advantage of all resources. The third creates an environment where the skills of the first two can be practiced and refined without costing lives or property. Let’s review each.

1. John Boyd and the OODA Loop

One of the most frequently cited human deficiency in uncertain situations is a miscalculation of the level of threat. A renowned fighter instructor, Colonel John Boyd, developed a process known as the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop, which pilots could use to gain the upper hand in combat. Because combat is an extreme form of conflict, and conflict can be used as a term to describe any effort to overcome the effects of human error, Boyd’s OODA Loop philosophy is a perfect tool for first responders to study, master and practice as they work to control emergencies.

The most critical element of Boyd’s work hinges on orienting. He theorized (and repeatedly proved) that the first person to orient in a conflict would have the upper hand and win.

Learn more about Boyd’s revolutionary approach to improving your ability to handle what’s going on so you can make the best decisions in this War Room podcast.

2. Crew Resource Management

The emergency scene is not resolved in a singular manner. Firefighters respond as crews, EMS operates in teams of two, and law enforcement calls for back up. There are multiple sets of eyes, ears and experience.

Dr. Robert Helmreich, a professor of psychology and human factors expert, investigated aviation crashes and determined the leading cause of mishaps revolved around the aviation culture and human error. He developed a program, cockpit resource management, to overcome the culture (omnipotent captain, subservient crew) and minimize the impact of human error.

The success of Dr. Helmreich’s work transferred to other industries with similar results. The philosophy, since renamed Crew Resource Management (CRM) to widen its reach, has been successfully integrated into surgical suites, railroad work, the military and in pockets throughout the fire service.

CRM is a force-multiplier because it promotes taking advantage of everyone’s eyes, ears and experience to support the leader’s decision-making. The result is all members of the crew provide input, the leader is vigilant and open to the input, leading to the crew avoiding errors that can lead to catastrophic consequences. Practiced conscientiously, crews arrive at the scene of an incident, observe and feed information to the leader, who processes the information, then acts. The incident is resolved calmly and professionally without the crewmembers suffering from their frontal lobes being hijacked by the amygdala.

3. Simulation-based training

The final method creates a simulated environment where the learned skills of OODA Loop and CRM can be practiced and refined without lives hanging in the balance. Simulation adds experience that cannot be disputed. When we drill, we often create the simulation environment to make the simulation more realistic. The result of realistic training and practice is better performance when time, threat and control are converging in a highly charged environment.

In sum

The explosion of social media posting has created a platform where human performance is spotlighted in all of its raw drama. When first responders are not properly prepared to handle a situation, failure results – and the world knows before the crew gets back to the station and writes the report. Lives are lost, careers are ended, social indignation becomes strident, and rebuilding the public trust becomes a seemingly insurmountable effort.

Professionals in any field know the value of training and preparation. We know the environment we work in. It changes in an instant. In its worst iteration, it starts out innocuous and end toxic. In its best iteration, it presents great peril, but ends harmless.

Knowing this range, first responders need to prepare themselves in advance and be prepared for all contingencies. Improving our personal information absorption process through Boyd’s OODA Loop, practicing the principles of CRM and applying the tenets in simulations will help provide the best protection from becoming the next poster children for human failure at a moment in time.

Fire Chief (ret.) John B. Tippett, Jr. is the director of fire service programs for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). Tippett began his career as a volunteer and later career firefighter in Montgomery County, Maryland, and served as a firefighter, company officer, battalion chief, adjunct instructor, member and ultimately task force leader of Maryland Task Force 1, one of FEMA’s urban search and rescue teams. He retired from Montgomery County as the department’s safety battalion chief after 33 years to take a position as the first deputy chief of operations with the Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department following the Sofa Super Store fire, where he assisted in the department’s recovery from the fire. He served one year as interim fire chief. Tippett continues to be an active firefighter with the North Beach (Maryland) Volunteer Fire Department. Tippett holds a bachelor’s degree in fire science and a master’s degree in emergency services management from Columbia Southern University. He has worked extensively on firefighter safety initiatives throughout his career, including introducing Crew Resource Management to the fire service and the Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System. Tippett earned his chief fire officer designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence in 2012 and was re-certified in 2015. He currently serves as an at-large board member of the IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Section, and is a certified health and safety officer through the FDSOA. Tippett was the ISFSI Instructor of the Year in 2006.