What a great two dollar word. Title of a new movie? One of the symptoms of TMB? The ability to see the future through walls? No, I discovered the term in a book: Klein, Gary (2001) Sources of Power, How People Make Decisions by Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. He wrote extensively on RPDM (recognition primed decision making). Metacognition happens to describe something I've been doing lately: thinking about thinking. The formal definition of metacognition is an awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes. I've been pondering the decision making process as it relates to fireground operations and command. Reading articles and talking to folks about this subject led to other readings, including this book. Random thoughts and other stuff to follow. I heard long ago, the brain is the only organ that studies itself. That's about a random a start as you can get.
I've heard for many years about RPDM, and how it applies to fireground command decisions. It was described as a set of slides in your collection of mental images of previous incidents. For those who don't know what slides are, they're small, partially transparent pictures on a piece of plastic that are projected on a screen for presentations and for boring people with your vacation pictures. The modern equivalent is images on your hard drive (pretty soon that will be old-school - and become your images in the cloud), and will describe these images as such going forward. The basic concept is about making time-compressed, critical decisions very quickly. Fireground commanders have little time to make initial decisions. The purpose of the above book was to study this process. Fireground commanders, along with military, medical, and others were studied and interviewed to explore how this works, and how they can be successful. The typical way important decisions are made are not quite so rushed. While the need to act the next day might seem to be a lot of pressure for some executives, a first on scene fire officer literally has seconds to make some critical decisions, and go into action. How, and why, are successful outcomes derived from immediate decisions made with little information?
Recognition primed decision making is encountering the problem (a house fire), quickly comparing it to images on your hard drive (other house fires you have responded to), and implementing a solution that worked successfully in the past in a similar situation. Comparing to the classic decision making process - recognize the problem, gather information, come up with a number of solutions, pick the best one, evaluate the results. Mr. Klein's explanation is that these are different types of processes. Quality decisions, with a higher level of successful outcomes, become better with more experienced decision makers. Duh. The more images you have on your hard drive to compare, the higher probability you will be able to throw down a solution that has a better chance of success. No argument at all with those conclusions. I see how this works in my own experience running incidents, and observing others. More experience equals faster and many times, better decisions.
What do we do with all this? Less fires overall, many retirements of those who have hard drives full of experiences, folks promoting to places that require immediate decisions in hazardous situations with very little significant experience - how do we bring those people up to speed? It would be great if everyone could run dozens and dozens of working fires, in a wide variety of occupancies. Fill that hard drive up, pull up the correct template, start the attack (or not, as indicated). If only Star Trek was a do-able reality, with the holo-deck. "Computah - three story, commercial occupancy, fire on the second, two victims". We do have simulation software, and it does a pretty good job, but still.... Our promote-from-within practice is a proud and very admirable part of our culture. Problems can occur when there aren't the reps necessary to develop expertise. The right training and education help greatly. The bright and talented folks learn well with limited experience, but mistakes are made along the way, and more are likely with less available experience. Not an empty hard drive, just not much in that folder yet. Like getting the top job, and hiring folks with little or no experience in the hugely important actual areas of responsibility. Or taking a captain and promoting him directly to assistant chief. Should anyone be surprised when mistakes happen? Luck can keep any tragic mistakes at bay. Having arguably the best work force in the world (firefighters) helps, too. As an industry, occasionally we succeed in spite of ourselves because we straight-up overpower challenges. To paraphrase a little, it's hard to know what you don't know. Outcomes here are so critical, that getting the test before the lesson has some bad potential.
My thought is just a little different from Mr. Klein. I agree with the way he says it goes, but I would break it down a little bit differently. Especially when teaching the process for the newer fireground commanders. The classic problem-solving process is really the basis for RPDM. It's a simplified process built initially for speed, not necessarily accuracy. The more experience you bring, the higher the probability (but not 100% sure) for a successful outcome. One of the components for success is that ongoing, constantly revised, decisions must be recognized, defined and executed along the way. As we agreed about this at the kitchen table this morning (along with solving a few other world problems), fireground size-up - the initial, RPDM process - must be an ongoing activity throughout an incident. And not just done by the IC, but each BC, Captain, firefighter on the incident. The "how" part of this was a lot of our talk.
We pre-build in lots of the parts of the process to solve emergency problems.
1. Define the problem. It's always life safety, incident mitigation, recovery (as we know it at fires: rescue, fire control, property conservation). The problem is presented to us with the goals already defined. Fire, flood, explosion, auto accident - the barriers to the previously decided desired outcomes.
2. Gather information. This is a little tricky for us. Dispatch information, preplans, occupancy knowledge sets us up. Once we arrive, the expectation is an immediate (if not sooner) solution. This expectation is from the public and our peers. Our initial size-up provides a two-dimensional look at a 3-D problem. Even with a 360 (if not physically prevented, or mentally resisted because we want to get busy), is still only a quick, limited snapshot of a dynamic event with a huge potential for different factors. This is where RPDM makes sense. A template exists for most all given situations (or not - airplane into a house, anyone?), drop it on top of a similar situation and anticipate similar outcomes based on previous similar actions. If you've seen it, or at least been trained well, this is your first move for number three.
3. Choose the best action from a number of possible solutions. One of the interesting things the book points out, is that the fireground and military commanders typically put their very first solution that they come up with into action, differing from the classic approach. Very little comparison of alternate possible solutions. One thing that makes this possible, is that we already have a fixed response on hand, or on the way. Whether it's a 3-1 structure assignment, a battalion of tanks staged, or whatever, our tools are known. Lay/pull lines, throw ladders, etc. Standard actions looking for a standard outcome. Not the "every problem is a nail, because my only tool is a hammer" approach. Rather, an experience based approach to what's needed at a typical fire, complete with tiers to upgrade for larger unanticipated problems. YMMV, because a town of 50,000 that's two miles from mutual aid has a different overall tool box than a major metro department.
4. Deploy the solution. Enter on the alpha, hit from the exterior, make the immediate exterior rescue, search the rear - whatever the quickly chosen actions are, given the system's resources - the mechanics.
5. Evaluate and revise. Here's where our tabletop this morning intersects with this novella. While you evaluate the results of the chosen actions, it's critical that information is continually gathered as the incident progresses, to be sure we're doing the right things, at the right time, in the right place. Since we begin these actions with a limited amount of information, we must evaluate interim outcomes and plug in new information as we get it throughout the incident. Of course, yet another wrinkle is that as an incident ages (especially fires), the critical factors can change (the building loses it's ability to resist gravity).
What we were discussing was who (company officers, sector/group/division officers), how (radio, face-to-face, hand signals) and when (every two minutes, whenever anyone feels the need, or some other scheme) information is communicated. Size-up (aka information gathering) should be an ongoing practice throughout any incident. What our instruction needs to include is what is it we're looking at (the factors), deciding what's important at that given incident (the critical factors), and when/how do we communicate that intel to the decision maker (known as the IC at most fire department incidents).
I think our learning/instruction can take a baseball approach when developing incident commanders. A second baseman knows he's going to get some ground balls. See it, grab it with your glove, throw it somewhere. Not much to that. By the time an infielder is in college, he's probably taken 10,000 grounders in practice. Muscle memory, footwork, glove stuff. Is that all it takes? Not even close. OK, next would be situations (situational awareness?). Slow roller, double-play situation, can't do that, go to first. Hard hit, DP, toss to the shortstop. Close to the base? Step on it, avoid the runner, throw to first. One out, lefty hitter, middle of the lineup? And so on. Not even talking about fitness, type of glove, cleats, etc. To study, and then execute, something with so many fluid and ever-changing factors, it needs to be broken down into parts, and then re-assembled. We can teach building construction, fire behavior, medical procedures, other technical stuff. We (usually) take the equivalent of 10,000 grounders - throw ladders, lay lines, search drills. We hope that happens, anyway... To my point, we should break down the decision making process in a similar way to it's elements in the context of the using RPDM. We know that pressing, time-intensive problems (like say, a house fire) requires information-deficient, but very quick initial decisions. Since many won't ever have the opportunity to run hundreds of working incidents, this may be a good way to provide some of the pieces and parts needed to use the idea of the RPDM process, and expand upon it to make quality decisions as experience accumulates when - to be a little dramatic, but real - lives are on the line.
I found the book very interesting and informative. There's far more detail and examples included. For you scholarly types, no citations here - hey, it's a blog. It also showed me that a previously unknown word exists to describe what I was doing. That's something that doesn't happen every day. There are plenty of other words out there to describe some of the stuff I do, but this was a new one for me. It also described in some detail the art of the science of running emergency incidents. Using an art analogy, we've got a bunch of tools and a big block of stone. We use those tools to quickly and carefully remove all of the excess, and we end up with a sculpture. We know what the tools are, we know what the problem is complete with goals, we've imagined the outcome and do everything possible to get there. All that was required was the chipping away. I continue to metacognate (I just made that word up).