My doctoral research originally set out to examine the factors that influence the decision making of firefighters when attending operational incidents.
This is because firefighters are the population of people who, once a tactical decision is made, will face the real physical risks and threats arising from that decision and may subsequently make some of the most critical of operational decisions.
I have long argued that current decision making research is biased and uses ‘firefighter’ as a generic term. Scientists and researchers have been using it incorrectly for years when describing firefighters in the role of Incident Commanders. I have always been and think it important to be explicit in the use of the term firefighter. I will only apply the descriptor to those operational personnel who are not supervisors, commanders and managers or considered to be the ‘nominated competent person’ representing the statutory duties of a Fire and Rescue Authority at an operational incident.
By more closely examining factors that influence the risk perception, judgements, decisions and behaviours of firefighters prior to and at their ‘moment of choice’; I believe we can reduce the frequency and severity of injury to firefighters. Closer examination of cultural and human factors could close a gap in knowledge and bring new understanding to what I believe to be missing from contemporary FRS research.
I have a simple hypothesis, that firefighters are not adequately prepared or trained to recognise the threat of injury to themselves and others arising from their judgements and critical decision making during operational incidents. But please don’t judge that to be a criticism. My objective is to influence firefighter training and development to improve practice and reduce accidents and firefighter injuries.
Some would argue that research into the psychological processes of decision making of FRS incident commanders in the UK is currently relatively limited. If that is the case, then specific research concerned with the critical decision making of firefighters who become the instrument of those decisions is nonexistent. I believe that by closely examining the factors that influence the critical judgements and decision making of firefighters at the time of injury we can close this gap in knowledge. Together we could, for the first time, establish evidence and add substance to the study of the decision making culture and behaviours of firefighters as opposed to just their incident commanders. We could influence change in the FRS and you could make a significant contribution to reduction in the frequency and severity of firefighter injury.
For many years I have been concerned about the role of operational decision making in firefighter injury and the lack of applicable academic substance that sits behind the two most popular models of the FRS. In 2005 Tissington and Flin published a paper that focussed on the preferred decision model of the FRS that we know as Dynamic Risk Assessment (DRA). In concluding their review they observed that “…no replicable methodology is reported for the origination of the model nor has it (to date) been tested empirically” (Tissington and Flin 2005).
This was the only time that science has scrutinised the efficacy of DRA. Yet, accident investigation reveals that even at those times when critical decisions have not been as expected, firefighters say they have used DRA.
My concern also extends to the application of the principle of Recognition Primed Decision Making (RPD) as it’s applied to the role of the firefighter. The original research conducted by Gary Klein and his associates in the mid-eighties described the research subjects as firefighters, yet they were fireground commanders, some with 20 years of experience, the people charged with the responsibility of making tactical decisions and not necessarily the firefighters who carried out the tasks arising from those decisions.
Let me explain my concerns………
In the early hours of 20th July 2004 with fire in a basement believed to be under control two firefighters descended to enable one of them, a novice firefighter, to gain experience. Framed by being in the ‘closing stages’ of the incident, failing to recognise the severity of the fire conditions and type of fire attack needed, they decided to press on with their task, both became disorientated and sustained fatal injuries.
One year later, in the early hours of the morning of 2nd February 2005 having been told by their supervisor not to enter a flat without water for firefighting, on hearing a call from within two firefighters unaware of fire conditions decided to force an entry. They were able to lead one of the occupants to safety after which a fire phenomenon engulfed them in flames and they sustained fatal injuries.
Soon after the report of this tragedy was published throughout the UK fire service, in the early evening of 2nd November 2007 at a vegetable packing warehouse fire, not mindful of the length of time being taken to locate a developing fire, anticipating their hose reel would be sufficient for a fire attack and to retrace their steps, a team of four firefighters decided to penetrate an incident to the point where they encountered a fire phenomenon. One made it to fresh air but sustained fatal injuries whilst his three colleagues succumbed within the building. With the initial incident commanders of this incident arrested we saw ‘risk aversion’ creeping into operational decision making of the UK FRS.
On the evening of 6th April 2010 unable to locate a fire in the lounge of a 9th floor flat, based on interpretation of ‘cues’ and their situation awareness two firefighters decided that the fire must be upstairs somewhere. On making their way to two bedrooms they decided it would be helpful to open windows. They were able to escape the fire phenomenon that followed but two of their colleagues sustained fatal injuries.
These vignettes do not expose the judgements or processes of decision making that the Incident Commanders at these incidents may or may not have used to arrive at the decisions that these 10 firefighters should be tasked to enter life threatening environments. They do reveal ‘something’ about the judgement and subsequent critical decision making of the firefighters involved which, let me be clear about, is not of their own making.
It is now widely acknowledged that the FRS in the last decade or so has, through community intervention and education, reduced the incidence of fire. This also means that exposure of operational decision makers to the real time experience of judgement and decision making at incidents involving fire is also diminishing. Contemporary thought surrounding RPD is that with reducing levels of real exposure, assimilation of recognisable experiences should be sought through simulation. The FRS approach to creating the repertoire of underpinning skills, knowledge and experiences has led me to the concept of ‘Four Dimensions of Recognition’. Recognition based on knowledge acquired through study and assimilation of theory, guidance, and research and similar sector relevant texts represents the first dimension. The FRS compensation for establishing, maintaining and in some way developing a practical repertoire is strongly biased toward simulation and/or self-test questionnaire. Whilst this two dimensional environment (2De) has great strengths it cannot expose people to the full range of environmental cues or spontaneous behaviours that come with expertise and a developed repertoire.
A further layer of compensation lies in the use of practical/physical simulation in the form of exercises. It could be argued that this adds a dimension of realism (3De). However, as with 2De this is a largely controlled, fail safe environment. 3De is also likely to be where health and safety constraints may reduce the level of real risk exposure and either omit or ‘dumb down’ environmental cues. The extent to which firefighters are able to develop a repertoire to enable critical decision making in either 2De or 3De is arguably much less than that of their supervisors, commanders and managers.
The demands of an incident environment and the presence of cues are a different reality at an incident. This fourth dimension of recognition (4De) involves a number of situational stressors that can influence the cognitive behaviour of a decision maker and his/her judgment and decision making. Success in the 4De is measured in the realisation of the benefits of a decision.
The consequences of failure are more extreme.
Quite recently the FRS has taken a path of closer scrutiny of the psychology of incident command which is largely influenced by the work of a serving officer and Psychologist Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton (Cohen-Hatton, Honey 2013). The FRS sector is placing considerable confidence, support and resource in this ongoing research which is also heavily weighted toward developing the repertoire of incident commanders. However, the vignettes above would indicate that the slips, lapses and/or mistakes of firefighters themselves have resulted in active failures or unsafe acts and their chosen course of action was taken independently of the influence of the command system in place at the time.
My earlier research suggests that Firefighters are the group with a weaker understanding of the application of DRA, and that the FRS may not be adequately sighted on their operational injury data which suggests that the greater proportion of injuries are occurring in the less hazardous environments of operational incidents, where supervisors and managers are more likely to be found. That and my current crusade indicates that there is a gap in understanding of factors affecting the ‘operational’ behaviours of firefighters, the cultural influence of the team environment, and influence of safety leadership, which adds weight to the importance and value of this research. It is critical that, with full anonymity and without fear of over reaction, Firefighters can share their experiences for the benefit of others.
Once an incident commander, influenced by their recognition and understanding of environmental cues, makes a decision to deploy firefighters into unsafe conditions the decisions and behaviours of those firefighters can only be ‘remotely supervised’ by the quality of the briefing they have been given and the subsequent reliability of communication equipment. The effect of the personal protective equipment firefighters now wear reduces the natural senses to perceive the environmental cues of the hostile environments they enter unlike the fresh air environment in which the incident commanders’ decision was made.
DRA is considered to be the most applicable heuristic or decision making model of the FRS and since its introduction has become firmly embedded in the culture of the FRS. The reliability of DRA as a rapid decision making heuristic for firefighters when they are making critical decisions without supervision has not been adequately examined. With your help this research project will not just add to the generalisation of judgement and decision making research. It will instead make a long overdue contribution to the understanding of the critical decision making of firefighters.
Please help me make this possible.