Decision Making on the Fireground

Issue 9 and Volume 10.

Decision making can be a challenging task in any profession. It is all the more difficult when it comes to firefighting. Entering the fireground is a physical challenge but also a mental one that entails taking in large amounts of information all at once while attempting to make critical decisions. Various environmental factors, as well as considerations that are internal to fireground personnel themselves, have an impact on how information is handled, which in turn has a direct impact on effective decision making.

Geoff Sallis, assistant chief fire officer for Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue in the United Kingdom (UK), is currently Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in Applied Cognition, Knowledge, Learning and Emotion (CRACKLE) and is leading an ongoing project aimed at studying decision making on the fireground. The research involves observing Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) teams during training exercises and understanding how individuals and teams take and use information about the fireground situation. The project highlights two aspects that have an effect on decision making: situational awareness and information selection.

Situational awareness (SA) refers to the level of knowledge and overall perception of a situation, which is vital in making critical and time-pressured decisions. It essentially involves the degree of attention given to factors in the environment. A person with a high degree of SA is said to have a high level of perception of key aspects of the situation with which he is confronted. Importantly, the actual SA, which is the actual achieved awareness compared to the “ground truth,” may be different from the perceived SA, which is the person’s impression of, or confidence in, the level of his SA.

In one study, which Sallis headed in 2013, 20 UK firefighters and commanders were observed and found to possess good levels of actual SA. Their perceived SA was also found to be reasonably consistent across different situations. The concern, however, was that there was no significant correlation between their actual and perceived SA. “In other words, people may have had poor SA but perceived their SA as good, or vice versa,” the authors explained. The lack of alignment between the two could potentially result in important errors in decision making on the fireground.

Additionally, Graham Edgar and his team from CRACKLE have noted that, because perceived SA is consistent across situations, this could imply that people have a “resting SA,” or a default perceived SA, regardless of the exact nature of the situation with which they are confronted.

According to research conducted by Professor Dianne Catherwood in 2012: “Effective fireground decision making and situation awareness does not simply involve accumulating information to build good understanding of the situation but also requires the appropriate selection from the range of information on offer, either from the external environment or the internal knowledge base of the decision maker.” The differences, therefore, in how two firefighters filter information can lead to differences in their actions. They may be standing in the exact same fireground location, exposed to the same external stimuli, and provided with the same information by the incident commander, but they may come up with very different decisions as a result of information filtering.

The information selection process is influenced by bias, or the tendency to accept or reject available information. There are two kinds of bias repeatedly discussed in Sallis’ project, these being “liberal” and “conservative” bias. When a firefighter takes a liberal approach, he tends to accept information to be true. This increases the chances of making “hits,” which means correctly judging that there is risk in a given situation, but it also increases the chance of “false alarms” or perceiving risk where there is none. On the other hand, when a firefighter is more conservative, he tends to reject information, making more “correct rejections” where he correctly judges that there is no risk in a given situation but also making him susceptible to a higher frequency of “misses” or perceiving that there is no risk when in fact there is one.

According to Sallis, there is no correlation between bias scores across different situations, which means that a firefighter’s tendency to accept or reject information may vary between different contexts or over time. The flexibility of a person’s bias can be beneficial to decision making because, according Catherwood, there are specific situations where a particular kind of bias would be more appropriate and useful. The authors, however, also note that the existence of bias nonetheless poses a potential risk for making decision errors.

“The human brain can be a highly effective firefighting tool,” Sallis says, “but its limitations are ignored at considerable peril.” These mental limitations can be either perceptual (how sensory information from the outside world is taken in), cognitive (how well the brain can pay attention to and hold onto relevant information), or emotional (how feelings like anxiety and fear can compel a person to act, such as when one’s natural fight-or-flight response is incited).

The amount of information offered on the fireground can be overwhelming. These limitations affect how much information the human brain can process at a given time, which in turn greatly affects how bias can play out differently among firefighters and incident commanders.

Sallis’ findings in the decision-making project have also proven that SA and bias are two separate and independent factors. In fact, results confirmed that firefighters might have the same or comparable levels of SA but display different degrees of bias. He says, “Simply acquiring information or knowledge does not necessarily lead to effective decision making, and the lack of knowledge does not necessarily explain tendencies toward errors.”

Not only does this suggest that two firefighters with the same excellent level of knowledge about the fireground situation can reach very different decisions, but it also implies that fire and rescue members are susceptible to bias despite their work experience and seniority. According to Catherwood, “Fireground simulation studies have also shown that while experts make more competent decisions, they may also have a narrower focus on selected features of a situation, which could lead to errors such as misses in decision making.”

To facilitate the decision-making process on the fireground, firefighters and incident commanders must be well-prepared and well-trained in terms of information selection, attention, and working memory. Simulated command and control environments can help reduce risks in decision making on the actual fireground by minimizing the gap between actual SA and perceived SA and by determining factors that contribute to a firefighter’s patterns of bias.

Actual SA and patterns of bias can also be measured using the Quantitative Analysis of Situation Awareness (QUASATM), which is a test based on a set of statements that participants identify as being either true of false. The assessment makes firefighters aware of how bias affects their decisions, how well they gather knowledge about a situation, and whether there is a need to improve their SA.

In addition, there is a need to minimize the gap between actual and perceived levels of SA. According to Edgar and his team, firefighters demonstrate a consistent level of confidence in their SA across situations. Therefore, other than measuring and improving actual SA, perceived SA must also be tested, measured, and then compared with actual SA. This way, firefighters can identify ways to minimize the gap between the actual and perceived SA, thereby reducing the risk of making mistakes because of overestimation of or doubt in one’s awareness of the situation.

Sallis’ team is in the midst of developing a promising innovation in SA training in this particular area. Together with expert partners from Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, and Denmark, they are developing a project called FireMind that is aimed at creating an online portal to support training of decision making. This could be a great supplement to assist in reducing the misalignment between actual and perceived SA.

Finally, there is a need to determine the factors (perception, thought, or emotion) that contribute to an individual’s specific pattern of bias. This way, firefighters can understand the consistency of their individual bias and how it affects their decisions. According to Catherwood, the aspiration should be to achieve a balance between being liberal and being conservative where the level of bias is zero and effective decision making can be optimized.

Together with the understanding of their actual and perceived situational awareness, firefighters and incident commanders can approach training exercises with the goal of minimizing their bias tendencies and thus improve their decision-making skills in actual fireground situations.