Developing Tactical Decision Games

By Brian Ward

The Gambler’s Fallacy is believing that luck will eventually come or that just this once you can beat the odds. To illustrate this concept in my officer development classes, I randomly select a student and ask him to pick a number. Then, I hand him one of the dice and tell him to roll the number. Do you know people in your department that use this very same method on the incident scene? Regardless of whether it is because of a lack of training or a lack of experience, the outcome can be the same if you are not lucky. The key here is to understand how to bridge this gap through building experience on the incident scene and effective training. Tactical decision games (TDGs) are one proven method for doing this.


Dr. Gary Klein devised TDGs after conducting research for the military on how to provide realistic training without losing lives (using real bullets) or taxing resources (spending too much money). He spent time with multiple fire departments because of the similarities between the battlefield and the fireground. The fireground also provided a high enough frequency of events where he could review the decisions made and then interview the incident commander (IC) afterward to determine how the IC developed his actions. After years of studying these decisions, good and bad, in the field, Klein developed a framework for training soldiers in low-hazard environments that would also yield highly effective training retention. The term “recognition primed decision making” (RPDM) was born out of this same research and was a driving factor behind the TDGs.

Klein developed the following model for the RPDM process:

  • Diagnose the situation (size-up).
  • Is the situation typical? (What is the relevant information?)
  • Recognize cues, clues, and expectancies.
  • Evaluate your actions mentally; will your action do what it is supposed to?
  • Make a decision.
  • Implement a course of action.
  • Evaluate your actions.
  • Repeat.

When developing training, there are two considerations from a fidelity standpoint, and each has a place in TDGs. The accuracy of the details in the training allows the student to feel as if the training is a real incident. Physical fidelity is constructing a prop or simulation to the exact replica of the actual environment. Consider the environment of conducting a live fire drill or a pilot in a highly realistic cockpit simulator. Psychological Fidelity is constructing a drill that uses brainpower more than muscle power; however, both can be integrated to work within the same TDGs. Here, you will see mental stressors, such as time limits, included in the training.

It is also very important to consider how our brains function as a novice and as an expert. Generally, novices usually work off the Law of Association, in which they associate items that relate to each other. The novice generally uses checklists for guidance. The expert uses cues and clues to determine the correct strategy or tactic. The expert may have the same checklist as the novice, but he uses it only as a reference and does not rely on it. The major difference is that the expert has much more experience so that if a situation turns into something different from what is on the checklist, the expert understands or has a “gut instinct” about which decision to make next. The novice may stumble at this point; however, there is hope for building everyone’s experiences while waiting for the next call.


In my officer development classes, I break the TDGs into five formats. Below is a brief description of these formats and how you can apply them in the station and at the fire academy. In the training session, we walk through a matrix that helps you to decide on which topic to train, how to determine the audience, and how to address the critical factors involved. This process helps the facilitator to provide a focused training path.

In some of these formats, time is introduced as a stress factor. Other stress factors include using a turnout coat and a helmet, wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus, and using a radio. As the facilitator, develop a script, questions, and benchmarks. Stay one step ahead of the students, and consider all of the possible avenues the students could take to mitigate the incident. Have a response for the students’ approaches.

Magazine Hot Seat

Use an incident depicted on a magazine cover or inside. Study it to see what the topic is and what the scenario is telling you-for example, about building construction, fire behavior, flow paths, tactics, and reading smoke. Sitting at the kitchen table, tell everyone what you are about to do so they are prepared.

Choose a student, and unveil the cover or page. Allow two to 10 seconds (depending on the person’s knowledge level; never try to embarrass anyone) for review, and then start rapidly firing your questions. As the firefighter answers one question, ask the next one without hesitating. Prepare your questions prior to the training session. Have four or five magazines available so that each crew member can be actively involved with a different situation. This method has only a nominal subscription cost involved. Ask your department to purchase the magazine. It is an easy lesson to develop.

The One-Page Lesson

This lesson involves one page with an incident photo and a few questions. Fire Engineering and I have teamed up to provide a one-page lesson every two weeks on under the Training Officer’s Toolbox. This is a no-cost item, but it involves locating good photos and developing answers for the post-training critique. The facilitator places the paper face down in front of the firefighter and tells him he has 30, 60, or 90 seconds to review the photo and answer the questions. The time depends on the complexity of the scenario and the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) of the audience.

This is also an excellent format for practicing and discussing situational awareness: (1) Identify the issue, (2) comprehend what it is, and (3) predict what is going to happen. In this example, the facilitator acts as the timekeeper and reviews the key points of the exercise. In class, I ask the students to discuss their answers so we can learn from each other and see if other answers agree or disagree. This is an excellent tool for training. The site provides multiple (and free) one-page lesson TDGs.

Go to the Whiteboard

In this TDG, the firefighters look in the opposite direction while I draw on the board the structure layout and landmarks (hydrants, streets, for example). Once the drawing is complete, I provide a dispatch to the firefighter and allow him 20 to 30 seconds to ask questions before I allow him to turn around. Once he turns around, it is “real time.” The firefighter is on scene with other apparatus/staffing on the way (base this on current department resources). The student should provide a size-up and start running through whichever acronym his department uses (SLICE-RS, RECEO-VS, COAL WAS WEALTH, for example).

As units/resources begin to arrive, which is usually about every 30 seconds, the stress level is high, and the firefighter must respond with an assignment. The facilitator must keep up with all assignments/reassignments because it is vital in the critique to determine if the “IC” kept up with resources. To make this TDG successful, you must prewrite an objective for the training-what are you trying to accomplish? Develop a dispatch, a script, or a timeline based on current resources, and judge your audience (the 30 seconds mentioned earlier could be 15 for the expert or 45 for the beginner). Students could be asked to use two-way radios or wear turnout gear to add realism and stress.

The Walk-Around

The approach is similar to that for the Go to the Whiteboard. However, this TDG requires a four-sided view of the structure, which can be done in two ways. The first is to take photos of structures in your first-in area or take a video of your walking around the structure so that it is real time and the student feels that unknown effect (adding stress) while viewing an overhead screen. You can use a photo from a walk-around that shows the structure on one side and the structure through a thermal imaging camera on the other side. This is very effective. The stress level goes up as the student has more to pay attention to. I use a PowerPoint® presentation with embedded videos to produce this training.

Using four-sided views of structures with smoke showing adds an extreme amount of realism. The same rules apply here as in the Whiteboard drill. Once the first slide is displayed, provide a dispatch to the firefighter, and other apparatus/staffing are on the way (based on current department resources). The student provides a size-up and starts running through whichever acronym the student’s department uses. As units/resources begin to arrive, which is usually about every 30 seconds, the stress level remains high, and the firefighter must respond with an assignment. The facilitator must keep up with all assignments/reassignments because it is vital that in the critique that you determine if the “IC” kept up with resources.

For the objective of the training, develop a dispatch, a script, or a timeline based on current resources, and know your audience. Students could be asked to use two-way radios or wear turnout gear to add realism and stress. The benefit to this drill is that it can be completely packaged and ready to go well before training day.

Active Simulation

Up to this point, everything has been no cost or of minimum expense. For the active simulation, I use Digital Combustion-Fire Studio software, which provides numerous options for developing stress on participants. In the grand scheme of things, for most organizations this is a small cost for a program you can use repeatedly over time. All of the same rules and principles used in Walk-Around and Go to the Whiteboard apply. However, the facilitator’s role becomes much more difficult; the facilitator must build the simulation using preloaded photos or those he took and uploaded. This individual needs to have some technical knowledge to assist in speeding up the learning curve for building simulations. The extra benefit here is that it allows you to add realism such as sound, video, and smoke and fire movement. The facilitator can also add options in case the student/firefighter makes a decision to vent a window or a firefighter ambiguously assigns a crew ventilation with no specific direction.

The key in all of these simulations is to place stress on the student using the TDG approach without creating hazards and without incurring training costs. There will never be a replacement for live/hands-on training; however, this type of training will provide slide trays and experiences from which the firefighter and officer can draw. As officers at your respective stations, I challenge you to study the research, learn how to develop meaningful training, and then put it to good use.


DeSimone, Randy L and Jon M Werner. (2012). Human Resource Development. Mason, OH. South-Western.

Klein, Gary. (1998). Sources of Power. Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press.

Klein, Gary. (2003). Power of Intuition. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Klein, Gary and Caroline E Zsambok. (1996). Naturalistic Decision Making. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ward, Brian J. (2014). Training Officer’s Desk Reference. Burlington, Mass: Jones and Bartlett Learning.

BRIAN WARD is chief of emergency operations for Georgia Pacific in Madison, Georgia. He is the author of Training Officer’s Toolbox (Fire Engineering) and managing editor for the Training Officer’s Desk Reference. Developing TDGs was presented during FDIC International 2016. He is a member of the Georgia Smoke Divers and the International Society of Fire Service instructors. He is working on his master’s degree in organizational development from Columbia Southern University. He is the founder of

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