Are Your Critical Decision-Making Skills Evolving?

By Peter Bryan

This is an article about critical decision making, excluding the decisions made on the fireground and at the emergency scene. They include decisions pertaining to a team’s behavioral norms necessary for functioning effectively.

We typically base the decisions critical to the operation of our agencies on reality and the systems we have come to trust, including fiscal predictions, assumptions, and probabilities; however, the fiscal crisis that began in 2008 has forced the fire service to significantly change its decision-making process. Since our environment greatly influences our decision making, the process is evolving as we adapt to today’s reality and challenges. The “great recession” that began in late 2007-early 2008 is still affecting some local governments, resulting in additional reductions in anticipated revenues, deficit budgets, and the use of reserves or transferring funds. Agencies across America are still facing fire station closures. Labor contract issues and the ability to meet fiscal obligations have become “recurring challenges.” The revenue deficit continues to grow in some communities. And, costs, both personnel and operational, continue to grow, increasing each year for most departments.

Figure 1. Level of Input and Decision-Making Participation

The effects of these conditions on our communities have varied greatly; but for most areas, they have included the following:

  • Reduction in service.
  • Station closures.
  • Brownouts.
  • Increased response times.
  • Reduced personnel on apparatus or available for response.
  • Forgoing replacement account funding used for facilities, apparatus, and equipment.
  • Bankruptcy and fiscal issues usually regarding employment/retirement benefits.
  • Competing for funding with all other services, not just law enforcement.

For years, we have been encouraging long-range planning to meet the increasing demands for service. We do Standards of Cover and staffing studies, and we project future needs and response patterns to meet the public’s expectations. Today, and in the decade to follow, we may also need to concentrate on “adjusting” what the community wants vs. what it can afford to support in recurring years. “What can we sustain?” needs to be the question today. We are faced with managing the fiscal crisis, generally not resembling crises of the past, which we have learned to manage. This is today’s reality, and it comes with a multitude of challenges.

The goal of critical decision making in these times should be to maximize effectiveness. To accomplish this, our teams or project groups need certain “behavioral norms.” When it is your responsibility to lead teams and make decisions, how will your team measure up? Following are some components that can help you in making critical decisions.

Critical Decision Making: Behavioral Norms

  • Identify the desired/necessary behavioral norms of the team: what you expect from each member, the ground rules for the project, and how conflict and differences of opinion and ideas will be handled. The norms and behaviors need to be determined early, and team members need to know and understand them. Give some thought to how you will maintain relationships with the members should things get skewed. It is understood that the focus should be on the situation or problem being discussed, not the person making a suggestion or proposing a decision; but when the outcome has big stakes, it will take preestablished norms and behaviors to keep members focused and positive. Examples include involving all members in discussions, not discounting ideas just because the idea differs from your position, and determining how decisions will be “voted on.”
  • Ensure that your decision-making teams are “connected with” or are using behavioral norms necessary for today’s critical decision-making skills. Knowing the norms is significantly different from displaying and using them to make decisions. Knowledge of the norms is the first step, but practicing them to be effective is critical. It is similar to learning some new skill or behavior but never applying it. Most fire personnel have learned behavioral skills, but experience has shown that personnel do not always use those skills when issues are critical and they have a personal investment. Don’t assume that everyone has this behavioral knowledge and applies it. Knowledge does not necessarily translate into skills, abilities, and behavior. Senior fire service officers need to ensure that they have a clear understanding of the behavioral norms necessary to ensure success and effective decisions. Some examples are listed below.
  • When selecting members for the team or project, include an adequate cross-section of the stakeholders so that various levels of personnel and experience are represented. Include a member who can act as a “thoughtful” devil’s advocate.
  • Avoid tunnel vision. “We have always done it this way” is not a prudent approach. It prevents us from considering innovation, new technology, or challenging ideas. The member with the loudest voice or greatest exuberance should not be allowed to push the team in a direction that does not lead to the best course of action for the organization.
  • Ensure that all members are informed of the project and invited to give input. Don’t presume that everyone affected is informed.
  • Establish whether the items and ideas under discussion and the decisions made are considered confidential. Determine the “best right time” to release the information. Make all team members aware of any time restrictions or deadlines, and remind them of these conditions often.
  • Establish a process for resolving discrepancies and options for making decisions. When the team cannot come to a consensus, how will decisions be made?
  • Be inclusive of members, and encourage input and discussion of everyone’s ideas. Establish protocols that specify the type/level of input and how much each member can contribute.

Level of Input

Identify the level of input for team members. Not all meetings or projects call for the same level of input. We used to think that once you were at a certain hierarchy in the organization, your level of input remained constant. Today’s new reality suggests otherwise. The level of input ranges from giving information to you and autonomy or empowerment, with a few levels in between. Members need to know their level of decision making. Sometimes the level will vary greatly depending on the task or decision to be made.

It is critical to understand that, today, employees/teams are not given empowerment in all decisions. Sometimes, chiefs just need to provide information to the organization without seeking input. Employees must understand this, especially with today’s generation gap from firefighter to chief.

The importance of established behavioral norms when making critical decisions can be seen in the following examples.

  • During the President Kennedy years and the planning of the Bay of Pigs covert operation, a few key personnel voiced opposition to the operation. Their concerns were not given any weight, and in the end the mission was a failure. The next crisis and critical decision for President Kennedy involved the Cuban Missile Crisis. Learning from the previous experience, it was decided to use all the input from his advisors. The result was a successful changing of Soviet policy and the dismantling of the missiles.1
  • The Space Shuttle project planning involved testing seals in extreme temperatures. It was known that the seals could crack and leak dangerous fuel at a launch below normal temperatures. A scheduled launch occurred during a freak cold storm, and the personnel with the knowledge of the seal-operating temperatures did not mention their concerns. In fact, they were not encouraged to participate in discussions, and they remained silent for fear of being ridiculed. The result was a catastrophic failure and accident. (1)

Decision-Making Options for Teams and Members

Some behaviors can enhance the effectiveness of team decision making at times and yet can also be somewhat “optional.”

  • Providing informal information on the process and decisions can be necessary and powerful at times. The decision of when to use it can benefit the team, and it can send a torpedo as well. It seems that informal information flows are best when the “peer-to-peer” and constituent information sharing fails or you often hear, “I did not know that.” Use it sparingly if relationships are important. Another use of the informal flow of information is as reinforcement of the peer-to-peer flow after an “adequate” time is given for the formal process to work and to reinforce the necessary formal flow of information. Many times, chief officers use “newsletter-like updates” (e-mail, meeting with labor, even teleconferencing) to “back up” the formal chain of command briefings to ensure messages are understood (not all personnel learn the same way; some may be gone from work and may not have heard messages about important decisions from formal communications).
  • Should members come to meetings with decisions and proposals, or will they be generated during discussions? There will be times when members can best serve the decision-making process by bringing ideas and concepts that have already been talked about and have been “vetted out” to some level. Vetting ideas ahead of time can be beneficial when the time frame is short.
  • When should the manager or chief attend? There will be times when decision making is more productive and the decisions more effective when the chief is not in attendance. Sometimes chiefs stifle discussions.
  • Determine if a facilitator is going to be used ahead of time. Sometimes, a facilitator can be selected during the meeting or process; sometimes it is better if the issue is settled ahead of time. “Leaderless” discussions are best left for some promotional processes; they are not generally effective in critical decision making.
  • Determine whether setting agendas and meeting time limits ahead of time is important. Generally, knowing the agenda ahead of time promotes better planning and better use of members’ time.
  • When there are significant differences in ideas and making decisions is difficult, try asking, “Can you help me to understand your position?” “Why do you think it won’t work?” or “How do you see the outcome, and what would it take to get there?” Try to understand the other person’s perspective and ideas.
  • Remember that some of the best business decisions have been tangent discussions or ideas. Perhaps, give new and innovative ideas some discussion. Sticky notes resulted from mistakes with glue, and today’s cell phone ring tones were a by-product or tangent of another concept that the information technology industry was pursuing.

Sometimes, the decision made does not always result in the best outcome. When you have tried your best and you are responsible for errors, admit your mistakes and work diligently to resolve the issues and do better. If you have team members who are responsible for errors, work to get an understanding of why things did not work and a commitment to do better. Resolve mistakes as soon as feasible. Learn from ineffective decisions. Don’t let bad decisions and mistakes stand as the final outcome.


1. The Art of Critical Decision Making. “Michael A. Roberto, Bryant University. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Co., 2009.

PETER BRYAN has worked in public safety for 38 years in California, 28 of those years in public administration. He retired as chief of the Rancho Cucamonga, Monrovia, and Norco (CA) fire departments and was the interim chief for Hemet, Norco, and Wheatland. He is a California state fire marshal-certified fire chief and chief officer. He completed and implemented four strategic plans for improving services and managed the transition of the city-to-county fire services contract. He is an adjunct faculty member of California State University. He has presented at fire service conferences and association meetings. He has been published in Fire Engineering. He is a member of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers and the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He is a fire protection consultant.

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