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Are your officers ready for the realities of go/no-go decision-making?

Go/no-go decisions are often the toughest for ICs managing expanding incident types


Rescue officials work near the rubble in the aftermath of an explosion in Baltimore, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020.

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Fire officers must be experts in split-second risk/benefit analysis. While many of these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, some can be considered ahead of time through policies, procedures and preplanning.

One of the heaviest risk assessment determinations that an incident commander (IC) must shoulder in their career is the go/no-go decision – decision-making that applies to far more than fire incidents to encompass the ever-expanding spectrum of incident types.

The weight of these risk/benefit analyses prompts many questions:

  • How can you be sure that your people will make the right decision when the time comes?
  • Are the members of your department informed and supported by policies and procedures that guide them in risk management and decision-making?
  • Do your policies and procedures give direction to your officers on risk assessment?
  • Is there any reference to crew resource management (CRM)?
  • Has your department issued standing orders regarding specific locations or incident types?

ICs’ go/no-go decision-making should be informed by a variety of inputs, as every incident comes with its own set of circumstances, and what works for one IC may not work for another. Regardless, effective risk management should be at the core of every decision.

Fire scene decision-making – beyond the fireground

Firefighters and officers are often adept at making go/no-go decisions at structure fires and other routine incidents. At fire scenes, we make these determinations based on our observations and the information provided to us. Some of this information begins in recruit training where we learn about things like building construction. Other information is gained when we are first assigned to a district and learn about our population, target hazards and water supply. Finally, we receive information from our dispatchers and from bystanders at the scene. Is the building occupied? Is everyone out? What was going on before the fire? Are there hazards inside that affect risk?

We observe smoke and fire behavior to determine if the conditions are tenable. If we arrive on scene and the conditions are not consistent with human life or if we believe that the likelihood of a firefighter injury outweighs the likelihood of a rescue, we make a no-go decision.

Making a decision not to send firefighters into a building may be the right decision to make; it may also be a decision that stays with the IC forever. Do you have resources available through an employee assistance program and a policy that supports their use? These are points we must consider to ensure that our people are supported and able to confidently make go/no-go decisions.

Training on decision-making

Managing risk is not always as simple as “risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, and risk nothing to save nothing.” We sometimes need to take a more calculated approach to minimizing risk.

Do you have a training plan that educates and informs your firefighters and officers on risk management? A new officer may not have the requisite experience to make recognition-primed decisions. This skill comes with time and repetitions.

In order to accelerate this development, training for fire officers should include drills that challenge their thought process on go/no-go decisions. This training should include photos and videos of actual incidents and be supplemented by simulations. Never before have we had access to so much raw video from fires and other emergency scenes. We should put these resources to work for us. The knowledge gained here can help to program that internal sixth sense or gut instinct.

Firefighters and officers should practice mindfulness and conduct mental rehearsals of potential calls. The first time you respond to an emergency of any type should not be the first time you consider it. These rehearsals should include anything from a one-room fire in a private dwelling to an expanding hazmat incident in an industrial setting. We must take the time to consider things like railroad incidents, active shooter/hostile events (ASHE) and natural disasters. How will they play out? Who will be involved? These rehearsals will help prime the IC to make rapid and effective go/no-go decisions.

All-hazards decision-making

Although often considered an all-hazards agency, a fire department may not always the best organization to mitigate a problem. Regardless, we are often called to the scene ahead of or along with other agencies. Fire service personnel can be faced with the need to make rapid and critical risk determinations about situations that are outside their traditional scope. Some examples of types of incidents include violent scenes, situations involving utilities, and certain types of hazmat or technical rescue calls.

The further outside of our comfort zone we venture, the more difficult decision-making becomes. A go/no-go determination can and should be made using recognition-primed decision-making (RPDM). This approach requires us to have a certain degree of experience in the subject matter we are facing.

So, what happens when the decision pertains to something outside of our usual comfort zone? How can we be sure we’re making the right decision? Clear and useful policies and procedures will assist your officers with go/no-go decisions in areas where they have little to no experience. Policies and procedures that include flowcharts or other job aids can help officers make key decisions about whether to proceed. Such tools can be laminated and kept in the apparatus so that the officer has them available immediately in high-stress situations.

Further, sometimes we must wait for other agencies to arrive before we can do our jobs. When firefighters are responding to vehicle accidents involving downed power lines, it is considered a best practice to have the occupants remain in their vehicle until the power can be secured by the utility company. This might place firefighters in an uncomfortable position because they feel a need to act. It can be difficult to be on a scene where someone needs help but be prohibited from helping them. Responders must have the self-discipline to comply with this policy, regardless of how simple the rescue appears to be. Electricity is invisible and deadly. While it is our responsibility to help others in need, we cannot do so without regard for the health and safety of our people.

EMS and tactical retreat

EMS calls can also fall into the go/no-go category. Let’s say an engine company is dispatched for an unknown medical problem but is updated while en route that the patient is having trouble breathing. Upon initiating contact, the crew realizes that their patient has been severely assaulted and that the assailant may still be in the house. They need to make a decision on whether to stay and treat the patient, rapidly remove the patient from the environment, or retreat to safety. If they retreat to safety, the patient will likely die. If they stay and treat the patient, they may become victims themselves. If they rapidly extricate the patient, they may cause more injury. What is the right call?

Does your department have a tactical retreat policy in place that outlines what to do in this case? If your members are not informed, they may not feel comfortable making a decision, but if the decision is backed by policy, it can alleviate dilemmas about how to proceed.

ASHE response decision-making

Mass shootings and ASHE response require action from all public safety agencies. In these cases, the law enforcement agency has the most experience in dealing with violent people. Fire and EMS agencies are best suited to provide medical care in the field. Agency leaders need to work with their counterparts to ensure that their policies do not conflict with each other or put responders at undue risk. These incidents are at the extreme end of both high-risk and low-frequency events, and all first responders should be operating with a heightened sense of situational awareness.

NFPA 3000: Standard for Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program outlines how each agency should operate at ASHE incidents and recommends the use of Unified Command and rescue task forces (RTFs). Because of the multi-disciplinary approach within the RTF structure, it cannot function properly without unified command. The failure to do so can lead to communication failure, resulting in confusion that can lead to rescuers being placed in harm’s way.

Regardless of how good or bad a policy is, it is no good to anyone unless it is communicated effectively and integrated into training. Policies and procedures regarding active shooter/hostile events need to be tested in multiple ways, from tabletop exercises to full-scale drills. Without this testing and the practice that goes with it, we are setting our members up for failure – and putting our community members at risk.

ASHE resources

In sum

The go/no-go decision-making process is one that all fire service personnel should hone, as it applies to every incident type. This decision-making should be backed by policy and based on experience whenever possible, and that policy should be written in a way that it is realistic and easy to follow. We must provide our firefighters and officers with the tools necessary to assess and manage risk, and we should ensure that they are always aware of the situations that surround them.

As firefighters, we are regularly exposed to situations that put us at risk, and we must decide whether that risk is worth the potential gain. Our lives depend on it.

Greg Rogers is a content developer for Lexipol with over two decades of experience in fire and emergency services. He is a retired battalion chief from the Ridge Road Fire District in Greece, New York, where he developed and implemented programs that improved service delivery and firefighter safety. He is a certified fire instructor with experience in emergency vehicle operations, engine company operations, and building construction. In addition to his fire service experience, Rogers has a background in maritime search and rescue and law enforcement with the U.S. Coast Guard and Coast Guard Reserve. Rogers holds a degree in fire protection and has studied at the National Fire Academy as well as the U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Academy.