How do you prepare someone to make decisions that could mean life or death for others? What type of training is the most effective in preparing incident commanders (ICs) for the split-second decisions they will have to face on the fireground? Unless we understand how decisions actually are made, we cannot answers these questions with any degree of certainty. Consider the following account of a house fire.

Heavy smoke and fire were showing from a two-story wood-frame building. The crew made entry and located the seat of the fire. They then opened up the nozzle on the flames showing in the corner of the living room. Nothing happened. The lieutenant had them reposition the line and try again. Still, the fire did not react to the water. At this point, the lieutenant noticed that the room had become considerably hotter and much “quieter.” Without knowing why, he ordered his troops out of the building. One minute after they had reassembled outside, the floor collapsed.

So what was it that made the lieutenant order his troops out right before the collapse? Well, first we need to understand more about decision making.


The above story is a true account documented in Rapid Decision Making on the Fire Ground, a study conducted by the U.S. Army Research Institute on the Behavioral and Social Sciences. The study was commissioned by the Army when scientists found that, in time-pressured situations, individuals were unable to use standard analytical models for decision making (models requiring that trainees go through a process of analytically evaluating all possible solutions, comparing the pros and cons of each option, and choosing the best one). There simply was not enough time to go through all of the steps. Because the fire service is a field in which critical, time-pressured decisions are frequent, it was chosen as the subject of the study.

In the study, the researchers interviewed 26 experienced firefighters (six lieutenants, four captains, and 16 chiefs) with an average of 23 years of experience. Each firefighter was asked to identify one incident that presented a particular “command challenge” or was “nonroutine” in some way. The interviewees chose a wide range of incidents–everything from auto rescues to oil tank farm fires.


The study produced some surprising findings: “In almost no case studied did a fire ground commander even report making a decision…in terms of comparing options.” Instead of examining the situation and then producing options, the commanders worked from a completely different mind-set.

It was found that all 26 commanders questioned work from what could be called a situational awareness or mental model of the fire. This is an accumulation of all of the previous fires of similar type they had seen. Once they recognize the type of incident, they implement the corresponding tactics. If, as was the case in the house fire documented above, they do not recognize the incident, they know something is not right. Yet, this is not as simple as “if `x` occurs, then do `y.`” It is a much more dynamic and changing model that involves simulation.

The fireground commander has a detailed simulation of possible operational actions and the likely reactions of the fire (which also suggests a very deep knowledge of the subject). Without that knowledge, the commander would not be able to read any subsequent clues and cues that might help determine whether or not his actions were correct.

The commander looks for a set of causes and effects as operations progress. For example, if an operation calls for a hoseline in the front door, the commander does not assume everything has gone all right once the crew has performed the operation. Instead, he continues to monitor the smoke, watching for a change in color that will tell him his crew was effective.

Varied experiences provide the foundation for mental models. These models of the actions and reactions of the fire, operations, building construction, and other factors lead to a complex situational awareness of various types of incidents. Once a trainee has acquired a thorough understanding of a specific type of event, he is one step closer to making rapid decisions on the fireground.

So what happened in that house fire? According to the study, a red flag went up in the lieutenant`s mind when the fire failed to respond in accordance with his mental model of similar fires. Once he sensed something was wrong, his awareness was heightened. When the fire became quieter, he knew that this was not a normal situation and he had better not take any chances.


Up until now, much of the training for the fireground has been procedural in nature. Stressing a thorough understanding of SOPs was considered the ideal way to train decision makers. A student would be given a situation during training or a test, he or she would follow the SOPs, and the incident would be solved. But this in no way gave the student the tools for rapid, tactical decision making at an incident. Fires and incidents do not always follow the SOPs.

Situational awareness should be the cornerstone of every training plan–which is why all of the training techniques I am about to discuss focus mainly on increasing one`s situational awareness.

The second driving concept behind the techniques is problem solving. Commanders must be encouraged to develop their own individualistic problem-solving techniques and learn to respond to challenges outside of simple reactive tactics. This can be accomplished by submerging these commanders into situations that do not fit neatly into accepted SOPs.

The first step in educating decision makers is to study past incidents. The military teaches classic battles to new commanders to help them understand the important principles of the battleground. The fire service likewise should develop in-depth studies of classic incidents to teach the important principles of the fireground. These incidents can be national or local in focus, but each should highlight specific principles to be taught to commanders. The incidents should be documented for a minute-by-minute evaluation of the decisions made, the factors surrounding that decision, and the incident status at the time.

The next step should take the students to a more interactive instructional media. The use of computer- or paper-based situational awareness training is an ideal transition. In this type of training, trainees initially receive the outline of a particular incident through a simple briefing. These incidents should be based on real incidents faced by other commanders to build an awareness of various situations. The students then are given multiple-choice tactical questions for each decision point in the incident. When the answers are revealed, the trainees will see not only the correct choices but also the fire`s reactions to each of their decisions.

As the students work through the lessons, they will have to apply not only training but judgment in making the proper decisions. Some of the decisions will not be clear-cut. If the students blindly follow procedures without taking into consideration the situation, they will suffer consequences in the lesson.

The next step after computer- or paper-based exercises is problem solving based in real time. (Real time means the fire or incident progresses at the rate it would in “real” life.) Crews given command of an incident must complete the task in real time.

Currently available slide-based simulations can be upgraded by including real-time exercises. Again, situations should be such that an IC who does not pay attention to the circumstances will suffer the consequences.

The emphasis, once again, is on situational awareness and problem solving. The student is taught about what the military calls “the friction of operations.” It takes time to carry out an order. While that order is being carried out, the situation can change. The commander must think ahead before the order is given. Where will the fire be when those units are in place? Once the operation has begun, the commander must monitor the situation to determine if his or her original order is still valid. Basing the exercises in real time adds realism to the training.

Finally, training can progress to full-field sessions with manned units. Given that these sessions are expensive to run, it is important that they be well thought out in advance. The incident chosen for the exercise should be complex enough to challenge not only the trainees but the other units taking part. Once an exercise begins, an event not covered under normal operating procedures should be thrown into the mix.

It will be up to the commander to react to this development, adapt to it, and anticipate how his actions will affect the operational goals he has set. Immediately following the exercise, a lengthy debriefing should be held–not a critique, a debriefing: a discussion of how the commander and his subordinates came to their decisions. What factors influenced them? Could it have been done another way? In other words, the emphasis is placed on teaching tactical problem solving, not simply on the proper procedures.

One last note: Problem solving should be emphasized at the individual and team levels.

Using research and imagination in conjunction with the training techniques I have discussed, any training program can be improved. The challenge is to provide relevant and realistic training; the goal is a more well-prepared commander. n


U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, 1988, Rapid Decision Making on the Fire Ground.

Baker, C., J. Cannon-Bowers, E. Salas, Do you see what I see? Instructional strategies for the tactical decision making teams, Proceedings of the 13th Interservice Industry Training System Conference: 214-220.

Bresee, J., M. Naber, Tactics as decision making: Issues in tactical training development, Proceedings of the 13th Interservice Industry Training Systems Conference: 227-231.

ROGER C. HUDER is a member of the Orlando (FL) Fire Department and a 20-year veteran of the fire service. For 212 years he was assigned to the Institute for Simulation and Training on a project to transfer military simulation and training technology to the fire service.

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