FIRE’s Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett explores the human psychology behind decision-making in the first of a series of papers on the topic
The Covid-19 virus has come back with vengeance in another wave of misery across the world. The death toll for this dreadful disease continues to spiral. Comparisons with the outbreak of the Spanish Flu epidemic around the end of World War I bear even greater scrutiny. We do appear to be living through a piece of history; albeit with some better tools to deal with, chart and control the outbreak.
Whilst lockdown has a terrible cost to the economy, especially for the services industry, it has opened new horizons for some via the Internet. One benefit of this odd situation of working mainly from home is the opportunity for many to do some much-needed skills updates. This is a time for people to enjoy some personal space to do continuous professional development, trading commuting time for the opportunity to stretch the mind and through doing this build resilience into their ability to do their jobs, ultimately making decisions in complex situation instinctively.
We at the Fire Knowledge Network are trying to encourage that process by making available some reading material that tries to increase understanding in the critical area of incident command. In doing this we start from a number of well-established building blocks. The first of these, which has been widely adopted across the Fire and Rescue Service, is Dr Gary Klein’s model of decision-making derived from research work in the United States known as the Recognition Primed Decision Making (RPDM).
Recognition Primed Decision-making
When considering Klein’s work, which has stood the test of time from its origins in 1998, it is important to lay emphasis on the first two words. ‘Recognition’ being the point at which an experienced commander approaches a fire and uses prior knowledge to make a decision on the best course of action. ‘Primed’ being the means by which the process of assessing the incident works inside the brain. Much of this uses a feature of human reasoning that is both an asset and a liability – stereotyping.
This is one of many cognitive biases that humans employ to deal with day-to-day life. When meeting new people, we all want to quickly grasp where anyone we meet sits in our social structures in society. Initial impressions are formed depending on the context of the meeting. For example, someone is seen driving into the car park and parking their car. The person getting out of the car, looking around, the way they are dressed and then marching purposefully towards the entrance to reception provides additional pointers as to the personal characteristics of the person. Within minutes an appreciation of that person has been formed. Yet not a word has been spoken. These cues about a person’s character are absorbed subconsciously. A model of what the person is like has already been formed.
Gary Klein recognised that this same basic approach to characterising people is also at the heart of decision making in the Fire Service. The 16 basic character types that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI) reveal have also stood the test of time. It turns out that human beings are not that variable. We can be classified into a relatively small number of types.
This also applies to many of the situations where firefighters are called upon to deploy and tackle a fire. While exceptional events will always be outliers, such as Buncefield, they are infrequent. Most tasks involving firefighters are relatively routine and can be taken from a menu of incidents where people build expertise over a period of time as they attend incidents, such as motorway accidents, barn/gable fires, house fires and industrial fires – which on occasions can be significant.
The recent fire in Kent at an industrial facility in Ashford on September 15 could be seen for miles around and saw 16 appliances deployed to the scene. Fortunately, such events are rare and can be regarded as an outlier on the statistical distributions that analyse calls-outs.
The challenge for the Fire and Rescue Service is to make the response to all incidents, even those that are infrequent and pose significant operational challenges, the same. A robust approach to command ensures that people having to make decisions feel empowered to do that irrespective of the scale of the challenge they face.
Dr Klein recognised that while many of the incidents can be managed using short cuts and cues to quickly move through the decision process, others where an individual commander lacks direct experience, pose altogether more difficult challenges. Stereotyping is all well and good when the training base is high; it quickly runs out of steam when an outlier occurs.
The RPDM model addresses this issue at the front of the decision-making process. As the situation is appraised, which starts in the cab en route to the incident and is further confirmed or denied on arrival at the scene, commanders ask themselves (subconsciously), ‘have I seen this kind of event before?’
Of course, there are two outcomes to this question. The more difficult one is when the answer is ‘no’. In that case Dr Klein provided a means by which this should be addressed. His model speaks of diagnosis, feature matching and story-building. In effect the commander has to reach into their experience and diagnose what is happening and do situational assessment in real-time.
This is the hard part. In the military world of the Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA) loop it is the orient part – the hardest part of any decision making. Orienting oneself to a situation using one’s own, or in conjunction with others (taking care about groupthink), to decide what is happening. We shall return to this crucial part in greater detail in another part of the series.
If, on the other hand, they have seen the situation before then RPDM moves to look for relevant cues that continue to support the initial diagnosis. This is an important break on another key cognitive bias. The ability of a person under pressure to only look for cues that support their initial diagnosis, rejecting conflicting evidence that does not fit.
This is known as scenario-fulfilment. This is an extremely dangerous path as cues may be missed that should be taken into the risk assessment. A false confidence can also be built up if information is provided by people who claim to know important insights about the location where the incident is occurring. It is axiomatic that the commander should always be wary and seek to validate sources wherever this is possible. A step-by-step approach to validation, where caution rules, is understandable even if that appears to be initially indecisive.
Where decision making is cautious the approach to fighting the fire must not become fixed. It needs to be kept under review all the time. Dr Klein recognised this with the loops in the decision-making process that keep any actions taken under review. Commanders should never think of decision making as a linear event from start to finish. Loops enable the basis of decisions and any underlying assumptions (that may have been made subconsciously) to be kept under review.
Humans make decisions in what is called our working memory, the part of the brain that allows us to process information and evaluate options. But controlled experiments have shown, and are easily demonstrated, that under pressure working memory can become overloaded quickly. Delegation of authority is an obvious strategy that enables the danger of working memory overload – with its attendant risks of command inertia.
In practice, commanders, who may like to get into the weeds of a problem, should try and delegate the specifics of dealing with an incident whilst using their working memory to maintain a model of the approach being used while leaving the detail to others. They should re-appraise that situation of things do not appear to follow a predicted course.
Dr Klein’s model also provides for this kind of situation. Klein referred to this element as “expectances”. Things that are supposed to happen if the current strategy is working. In many cases this situation is fine. But as ever some fires, with their own unique signature or set of circumstances, can evolve in ways that are unexpected. For commanders, situations where they are being surprised is a major indicator of a need to re-evaluate the strategy quickly. Deviations from what is expected should be a huge prompt to do something different.
Despite its relative age, with respect to developments in the roll-out of the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Protocols (JESIP), Dr Klein’s work is still a valuable look into the approaches available to commanders in the Fire and Rescue Service.
What this article has tried to do is to provide a human overlay onto RPDM to show why it will remain relevant in the future. Anything that naturally taps into the cognitive biases that human beings use to get through their lives will have longevity.
The important part, for those days when CPD can be put into the calendar to get some variation into what might otherwise become groundhog-day, is to recognise that its always a good idea to understand the ways things work in a layer of detail below that which might appear to be obvious. That deeper knowledge and understanding ensures that commanders understand, and when that knowledge is deeply embedded in their brains, instinctively know what the right thing to do is and are quick in making decisions that can deliver good outcomes when under pressure. That is the way to build instinctive commanders that are able to step up when the pressure is on.