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Fire Ground Decision Making-First Solution Vs Optimal Solution

As first responders we are tasked with arriving on the scene of some sort of emergency or problem and being responsible to come up with a solution.  Whether it’s a fire, EMS call, entrapment or water emergency our success is largely determined by how fast we can decide what needs to be done, get the resources and execute the plan.   Colonel John Boyd refers this process as the OODA Loop.  The OODA Loop is made up of 4 parts: Observe, Orient, Decide and Act.  The faster we do this the more likely we are to win.


But how do we make our decisions?  The two main processes for decision-making are Comparative Analysis and Recognition Prime Decision Making.  Both have their place in the fire service.


Comparative Analysis is the most common way of making decisions.   It is when you look at a problem or situation, weigh all of the possible solutions and then add up the pros and cons to each.  In side-by-side comparison the best or optimal choice is picked.  Comparative Analysis is most often used in the low stress environment when time is not a limiting factor.  This is often a slow process but a thorough one.  It’s a good process for deciding on PPE purchases, rig specifications or determining SOG’s. 


Recognition Prime Decision Making is the alternative way of decision-making.  Whether we realize it consciously or not it’s the way most of us make decisions on the emergency scene when we are in the heat of battle.   Gary Klein wrote about this in his book “Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions.”  RPDM has been talked about in the first responder and military world for over a decade. We often refer to RPDM in the context of filling up the slide tray or flash drive in the training environment, so that when we are faced with a situation we will have a lot of options to choose from. 


One problem with that is what is known as Hick’s Law.  Hick’s Law essentially says that the more choices a person has, the longer it will take them to make a decision.  Consider you and your wife go out to eat to celebrate your anniversary.  When you look at the menu it has 3 pages of Steak, Fish, Chicken, Pasta and an array of Vegetarian Options.  Now contrast that with a wedding you attend the following weekend.  Your options are Chicken or Fish.  Everyone gets a baked potato and grilled veggies. You will likely decide what to eat at the wedding much quicker than the anniversary dinner simply on the number of items to pick from.


If our goal is to speed up decision-making, how then can filling up my slide tray make me any faster?  The full context of RPDM is often not explained and herein lays the key.  The critical part of RPDM is singular evaluation.  This is when we allow each decision to stand or fall by itself.  We see a familiar situation, we visualize the solution, we look for weaknesses in the plan and we execute the plan or move on to the next option.  We define success as first solution to the problem, not optimal solution.  If a victim is down on a flat roof of a building does it matter if I use a stokes basket and do a “Ladder Ramp” or whether I chose the “Ladder Fulcrum”?  The answer is no.  If the problem is solved quickly and safe then we have met our objective.


So next time you are sitting in a chair in the comfort of air conditioning watching a video or viewing pictures and are tempted to critique others actions or "one-up" their tactics, remember that the decision making processes used are not the same.

When we train from this point on we need to make “First Solution” the main objective.  When you watch fire videos select the ones that show pre-arrival and stop it when firefighting begins.  Doing this will allow one to make fresh decisions rather than trying to optimize what you see others doing.  And lastly, if you critique an incident you must ask them what were the options that were eliminated rather than comparing one solution to others.










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