Features, Leadership

The Art of Making Decisions

National Volunteer Fire Council

By Kenn Fontenot

Writing for National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)

Decisions, decisions, decisions! We make decisions in our personal lives every day: what to wear, what to do, what to eat, what programs to watch. Most of these have little or no long-term impact on us. However, sometimes we do have to make a decision that will have a greater impact, such as a job change or maybe a move to further a career.

How do we make these more significant decisions? The traditional problem-solving procedure is to define the problem, generate several viable solutions, select the most appropriate one, implement the solution, and, finally, evaluate the outcome.

In the fire and emergency services, we generally make two types of decisions: administrative and operations. Both can be tough to make and both can have consequences that are far reaching. Whichever is the case, YOU MUST MAKE THE DECISION!  

Before we delve deeper into the art of making a decision, let us consider why making a decision can be daunting.

Some decision makers are concerned that the decision they make will be wrong or the outcome will not bring the desired result. Making a decision that may put firefighters in harm’s way or have a major impact on a department is scary. I have seen what I call “paralysis by analysis.” Mental paralysis occurs when decision makers receive so much information that they cannot make a decision and instead take the route of making no decision, hoping that the issue will resolve itself. At an emergency incident, this is the worst possible situation. With an administrative issue, there normally is more time in which to make a decision. However, not doing so is a dereliction of duty and an abdication of the office.

Decision making at emergencies needs to be timely, efficient, effective, and safe. An officer must quickly consider a large number of factors and decide on a sound action plan. Dr. Gary Klein stated in his book Sources of Power that we make “highly stressed, time compressed decisions based on incomplete information.” Experienced commanders consider the factors and quickly make decisions based on prior incidents. Klein refers to this as “recognition primed decision making.” Experienced officers have encountered similar situations before, have made tactical decisions to handle them, and have filed this information mentally for use again if the same type of situation arises.

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Inexperienced officers sometimes struggle with operational decisions; they have not been involved in making as many tactical decisions as experienced officers. With so many factors to consider before arriving at a decision, it may take some extra time before making a decision. This is because these officers have not seen enough incidents that they can instinctively reach a sound decision.

With the declining number of structure fires, experience is harder to come by. Realistic-as-possible emergency scene training (computer-based training, videos) will help new officers make better operational decisions. The more an officer does this type of training, the more muscle memory develops; they acquire recognition primed decision making. The more operational decision-making mental muscle memory you develop, the more you become unconsciously competent—you can perform the skill with little or no thought. This means you will be able to make better and quicker decisions because you have already practiced them.

Administrative decisions are sometimes easier to make but may have as dramatic an impact on the organization as operational ones. A big difference is that generally there is sufficient time to consider several options and generate different possibilities before arriving at a final decision.

Sometimes a major issue needs to be resolved within a very short time frame. A short time frame does not prevent an officer from making a decision; it just does not allow as much time to consider and evaluate as many options.

One situation that has caused me angst is when member(s) want a quick decision about a certain situation that may not be critical. The issue for me: is this a real problem or just people blowing off steam? Doing nothing is iffy; the situation may resolve itself, or it may escalate and become a major problem. Deciding the proper approach is very difficult. On the one hand, you do not want to over-manage. On the other, you may want to keep the department from chaos. Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Personally, I like to take an inclusive approach to administrative decisions. When appropriate and if time is permitting, I prefer to seek input from others both within and outside the department. Having input from members of the organization and/or outside stakeholders allows for varying views and may uncover options I have not considered. More importantly, having member input allows for buy in by the people most impacted by the decision. However, certain situations may not allow for input from others. The decision lies solely with the officer. Someone else or a group cannot make the decision. YOU must make the decision. When faced with a tough decision it is important to remember that sometimes making the wrong decision is better than making no decision at all.

Recently another fire chief and I were discussing leadership. I asked him how he arrived at administrative decisions. He said it was simple: “I make the decision that is best for the department. Sometimes it favors the membership; sometimes it favors the city or county. In all cases, it must be what is best for the department.”

Consider the following to help you make good decisions for your department.

  • Gather as much information as possible.
  • Will the decision solve the problem?
  • What is the impact of your decision?
  • Is it appropriate to ask for member/stakeholder input?
  • Know that you cannot please every member of the department or outside stakeholder.
  • You can modify your plan if necessary. Do not fall in love with your plan.
  • If you make a bad decision, own it, and learn from the experience.

Making a decision, whether operational or administrative, can be uncomfortable for many officers. With basic firefighting skills, the more you practice, the better you perform the skill. The same is true in decision-making. The more you practice “The Art of Making Decisions,” the better decisions you will make.

Remember this important lesson about making decisions: “The road is littered with dead squirrels that could not make one.”        

Kenn Fontenot is the Louisiana director for the National Volunteer Fire Council, a charter member and first fire chief of the LeBlanc Volunteer Fire Department, and retired captain/safety officer for the Milton Volunteer Fire Department. He is a principal member on the NFPA 1001 standards committee, is the retired chief of training for St. Landry Fire District #3, served for 14 years as the regional fire training coordinator at the Louisiana State University Fire and Emergency Training Institute, and is a past president of the Louisiana State Firemen’s Association.

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