More Decision Making Thoughts

By: Christopher Brennan

A structure fire is a dynamic microcosm; a world in and of itself, where the properties of Chemistry and Physics develop by consuming the structure. As Fire Service Warriors it is our Duty to quench this unrestrained chemical chain reaction. The fireground is a chaotic environment and we must make critical tactical decisions to bring it under control. If we are going to be effective in suppression fires in a manner that saves lives, and conserves property, we need to understand on an intuitive level what exactly is occurring in the building. We need to look at the fireground as a system. Systems are defined as, “an assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole” A structure fire is a system where the combination of: the chemistry of fire behavior; the physics of heat transfer and the movement of gasses in a container; gravity; and the type and quality of the construction of the building, all play a factor in how a fire will develop. In fighting the fire we are attempting to disrupt the natural chemical chain reaction that allows the development of fire, but in doing this we must consider the effects the other components of the system have on our ability, and the effect we have on each component of the system individually and as a whole.

This idea is nothing new. Fire Departments have recognized for many years how interdependent all of these factors are. We teach our folks the importance of coordinated fireground operations and the impact we can have on the whole operation if we do something at the wrong time. A mistimed horizontal ventilation opening in a building that is super heated but oxygen deficient can lead to a Backdraft; if we begin flowing water onto the seat of a well developed fire prior to opening the building up we can force steam down on our people and any victims that may be inside; if we have a basement fire in a building with a large open cockloft we need to make sure that the fire isn’t running the cockloft unnoticed.

The difficultly we face in this day and age is that developing a deep understanding of all of these interrelated factors takes experience, and experience takes time to develop. Statistics show us that we are seeing less structure fires. While less fires is a WONDERFUL thing for the communities we serve it has a negative impact on the ability for our Fire Service Warriors to gain the experience they need to synthesize all of this information into a usable whole. Firemen have a trade in the same way Electricians, Carpenters, and Plumbers do. We perform physical tasks to complete a job. This is blue collar work; we use tools and get dirty. We need to consider for a moment that it takes five years of being an Apprentice before an Electrician is considered skilled enough to be trusted on his own, and become a Journeyman. How many 90° Bends will an Apprentice Electrician make in that time; how many 2″x4″ Studs will the Apprentice Carpenter nail in place; how many copper joints will the Apprentice Plumber sweat? Each of these tradesmen will likely perform these skills thousands of times during their Apprenticeship, while being supervised and counseled along the way. They will be shown the skill in school and have to demonstrate competency before they are allowed in the field. Then, every year they will return to the schoolhouse to continue to develop their knowledge base and expand their understanding of how an Electrical “System” or a Plumbing “System” or a Framing “System” works. They will be measured and tested and have to demonstrate their abilities both on the job and in written tests. Sound familiar?

There are some key differences in the job of a construction tradesman and a Fire Service Warrior that we have to consider. How many structure fires will the average Apprentice Firefighter fight? How many times will you get to be the Nozzleman, the Outside Vent Man, or the Irons? Will your performance be discussed and critiqued in a way that allows you to learn not only from your experiences, but from the experience of the senior members of your department? In 2009 I personally responded to 25 working fires (I keep a log). That’s really not a whole lot when you think about it. Everything we do comes down to the weight lifting concept of sets and repetitions. The more perfect practices of a particular “rep” the better our form gets and the more intuitive the process becomes. How many fireground sets and reps are you getting? In those 25 fires I served in a variety of roles from Engineer to Nozzleman to Search Team to Ventilation Team. How many fires are you responding too? I know in my area that there are entire Departments that aren’t seeing 25 fires in a year. We simply do not spend time “in combat” on a regular basis to develop our experience base. What are you doing to make the most of the fires you are getting? Are you recording your lessons learned and thinking about how you can improve your fireground decision making and performance? As a department are you conducting drills and scenario driven training? We have to consider that with a reduction in working structure fires, unless we are spending significant time on the drill ground, and studying their trade, our Fire Service Warriors are not getting the opportunity to practice their skills, synthesize their experiences, and develop the confidence needed to make timely decisions.

In this Chapter I will use the words synthesis and synthesizing quite a bit. Synthesis is, “the combining of the constituent elements of separate material or abstract entities into a single or unified entity (opposed to analysis).” Synthesis, stated another way, is when we create something new out of a collection of ideas, images, signs, or symbols. Conversely analysis is, “the separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements (opposed to synthesis).” So, synthesis can be thought of as assembling a whole while analysis is breaking something down into parts. Think of a jigsaw puzzle. You start with a collection of pieces in a box. Individually the pieces have little or no meaning. As you begin to assemble the pieces however a new “whole” begins to emerge in the assembled image. Most people who assemble puzzles however engage in analysis as well. They study the picture on the front of the box so that they know what the whole is supposed to look like. In this way they are able to recognize patterns as they emerge and place them in relatively “correct” positions while finding more parts. When we are synthesizing into a new whole all the individual images on the fireground it is as if we are trying to assemble a puzzle where there is no top of the box picture, and even if there is some concept of what the finished product will look like, someone keeps cutting pieces into different shapes while we are looking at them.

It is obvious that the fireground is a dynamic environment. We cannot rely on a single mental image of conditions, or on one boilerplate plan for every fire. In order to make reasonably well informed decisions, we need to understand the role that Situational Awareness plays in our ability to stay safe on the fireground. We must recognize the role our personal condition plays in our capacity to make decisions. While it seems obvious to say, we need to develop a dynamic thought process that is an aid when we are analyzing the incomplete and imperfect information that is available on the fireground. In order to think in a dynamic fashion we need to have a solid foundation in our basic skills, the “Fundamentals” we discussed in Chapter Four. Without those “Fundamentals” we cannot have a reasonable Self-Confidence. As well known survival skill instructor Bruce Siddle has said, “Confidence implies a mental state which is void of fear, anxiety or self doubt.” If you do not have confidence in your skills and capability on the fireground you are more likely to be overwhelmed on the fireground. Being overwhelmed leads to the dreaded “paralysis of analysis”. Our decisions have real-world, life or limb threatening consequences. If you make a bad decision it can kill you or put you in a burn unit. That doesn’t include the likelihood of a bad decision resulting in the death of one of our “customers” or the unneeded destruction of property. For some people this very real factor inhibits their decision making ability. They worry about making the wrong decision and in the end delay or avoid making a decision all together. The United States Marine Corps, in their doctrinal publication Warfighting (MCDP-1), address this very real concern.

If we fail to make a decision out of lack of will, we have willingly surrendered the initiative to our foe. If we consciously postpone taking action for some reason, that is a decision. Thus, as a basis for action, any decision is generally better than no decision.


This same concept hold true on the fireground. Fire is our foe; it is our enemy. Our enemy has the capacity to seize the initiative if we allow it to through our inaction or delay. We need to acknowledge that decision making is a skill set that comes naturally to some and not to others. This is a realization of the wide variety of individual personal traits, not a value judgment. Just because you do not naturally make a quick decision doesn’t make you a bad person, or even a bad firefighter.

My wife hates the fact that I make decisions in 30 seconds or less. She thinks about options, analyzes, I would say agonizes, and in general hates to be rushed to judgment. When we first met she did not understand how, if I was presented with a list of three options, I would pick something before she even finished reading the list. I finally explained it to her like this: In my job I have to make decisions in a fraction of a second, and I have to trust my life with those decisions. When you look at life that way it tends to stream line the thought process. My wife is a First Grade Teacher. Unlike the world we operate in there is rarely an event that has to be handled instantly to avoid disastrous consequences. She cannot make a quick decision that fails to consider what the long term effects may be on a particular student. Her attitude is that she is there as much to teach her kids how to be students as much as it is to teach them phonics. With that understanding she cautiously evaluates options to see how they will impact the learning environment over the course of years. Our two styles are the difference between Strategic Planning and Emergency Operations. When we are developing long-range strategic plans, such as capital investment, or a potential reduction in service, we need to slow down the thought process and ensure that all options have be weighed and measured for their downstream effects. Conversely when we are focused on emergency operations, we will have to make decisions without 100% of the data, and do it in a timely manner. The 60% correct answer right now is often more effective than the 100% right answer two minutes too late.

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