Making Split-Second Decisions

Issue 10 and Volume 8.

A police officer responds to a report of a gunman inside a large local hardware store. Upon arrival, the officer is met by panicked civilians and workers who have fled the building. They tell him that a lone gunman—who looks like a kid—has shot several people and is still inside the back of the store. The officer, recalling the department’s recent training, knows that they must take immediate action to stop the gunman rather than waiting for a SWAT team.

After briefly interviewing the witnesses, the officer calls for back-up and carefully enters the store, continuously conducting size-up and building their situational awareness. The officer heads toward the muffled sounds of people crying and screaming in the rear of the store. As the officer turns a corner, they find a male suspect, approximately 12–14 years old, holding a gun in his left hand with a rifle slung over his shoulder. He’s also wearing a backpack and holding something resembling an explosive device in his right hand. This officer must now make a decision about how to proceed; however, if the officer is not mentally prepared to stop a youngster—or a mother or an elderly person—who is endangering others, they may hesitate at the moment of truth and become a victim themselves or allow others to become injured.

At this point, the officer does not have the opportunity to reason or debate in their mind what to do, weigh the consequences of their options, or convince themselves of what action they must take. Those ingrained human traits and emotions must take a back seat to their training.

What does this example have to do with fire officers? Everything. The environment might be different, but firefighters and EMS personnel are also routinely subjected to deadly threats—just usually in a different form: fire, passing vehicles, hazardous materials, etc. So as a fire officer, are you ready to make life-and-death decisions for yourself and your crew at a moment’s notice, without the luxury of time or rationalization and/or with limited options? The correct answer: You should be.

The Rules of Engagement
Our brothers and sisters in blue and in the military have engagement guidelines on the use of deadly force. Surprising to some, we in the fire service have similar rules. They’re called The Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting, and they’ve been adopted by the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section under the watchful eye and skillful stewardship of Chief Gary P. Morris. These rules are the standard for safety that tell us when to engage or not to engage in given situations. If you don’t know them, you owe it to yourself and your members to be familiar with them. Read the Rules here and check out section 3, p. 13.

Life’s Hard Lessons
During a recent telephone conversation that I had with a fire officer who faced a life-and-death situation, he stated that as officers and/or incident commanders (ICs), we must be prepared to make such decisions.

His story: He was leading a crew of four firefighters (including himself) in a race against serious injury or death as their hoseline burned through, his portable radio’s remote microphone melted, and they were forced to crawl through the extreme effects of a flashover and structural collapse. As they were scrambling, he had to remind himself to slow down his breathing and attempt to save air (in case he became trapped and needed it). He ordered one of the firefighters with a working radio to call a mayday. As he led the way down a zero-visibility hallway under high-heat conditions, he came to a doorway. Rather than jumping through it, he felt the floor and realized it was tiled, not carpeted. In tenths of a second, he made the decision not to continue following the tiled flooring and instead ordered the crew to continue on to the next room (a bedroom), where they ultimately escaped out of a third-floor window. Had they entered that tiled floor area, they most probably would have ended up trapped there—in a bathroom—unable to escape.

How did he do it? How was he able to remain relatively calm in what was no doubt a life-threatening event? He credits routine training—involving basic search techniques, air management, calling a mayday, and maintaining crew integrity—as the reason why his crew survived and his decision-making process was successful. He also encouraged his members and applied adaptive leadership under very dire conditions.

Prepared to Engage
Statistically, bad guys out-gun law enforcement officers because, traditionally, the bad guys know that they’re going to shoot; the good guys only find out when they’re being shot at. However, if the good guys assume that they’re going to be shot at and train for that occurrence, it won’t come as a surprise if/when it happens.

Nationally, new active-shooter guidelines and procedures stress and instill a mindset that if a seemingly unthreatening person starts threatening you or others (say a young, armed teenager, a female terrorist or a ticking ice cream cone) you must be prepared ahead of time to take action and engage (or, in case of the ice cream cone, not to engage).

In the fire service, we should train the same way. Take the worst-case scenario that could occur during any given incident. Go through the process of making decisions based on that outcome. That way, if the worst case happens, it won’t come as a surprise. We’ll be able to think more clearly and make better decisions proactively, if we don’t first have to convince our mind that 1) we really are in this bad situation and 2) we must engage.

Use Your Head
A couple of hours ago (while I was writing this article), my volunteer department responded to an “odor of gas in a house.” Upon arrival, there was a definite smell of natural gas inside the home. While other units responded, in my head I planned on what to do if the house exploded (e.g., keeping the homeowners and police away, locating primary and secondary hydrants, and determining who to call for assistance, where to order apparatus access and placement, and what action/PPE our members should utilize). We shut down the gas service, vented the home and notified the gas utility company. We instructed the homeowner on what we found and the actions taken before clearing the scene. All went well … this time.