The Useful Opposition of Preplanning and Premortems

Firefighters

By Brian A. Carr

Fire departments respond. This three-word sentence is so banal it’s almost not worth writing, but it illustrates how fire departments never really know what’s coming. When an event happens, departments muster resources and deploy trained personnel according to strategic patterns and tactical playbooks. Command staff adopts strategy and tactics based on information received at dispatch, processed during initial size-ups, and modified according to scene progression. This is the nature of the service, and until reliable predicative data analysis can pinpoint where, when, and what emergency will occur, fire department response will follow this model.

Experience and science have so far provided fire departments with a solid foundation for this model. Regression analysis of current fire statistics from the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) show negative trends in the number of fires, as well as in the financial loss due to fires.[1] Similar trends reveal themselves in data for deaths and injuries from fires.

Fires 2006-2015

(1)

Fire dollar loss 2006-2015

(2)

The fact is: experience matters, as do theory and science. But the opening sentence of this essay still remains true. Fire departments respond, reacting to the emergency that occurs.

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Preplanning helps, of course, and proactive departments routinely embrace the practice. Fire departments identify target hazards and classify construction types in response areas, gather necessary data, and compile plans for response ahead of any incident. This gives fire departments a leading edge and advantage against the unknown elements in emergency response. Preplanning is a trusted and tested method of maximizing firefighter safety and fireground strategy. Fire departments should never avoid development of preplans.

But preplans present complications. The risk of a planning fallacy is one.

First proposed as a phenomenon to describe how projects consume more resources than originally budgeted, planning fallacies arise from group settings and planning and often reveal underlying optimism biases. The Harvard Business Review puts it this way:

When forecasting the outcomes of risky projects, executives all too easily fall victim to what psychologists call the planning fallacy. In its grip, managers make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses, and probabilities. They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. They spin scenarios of success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, managers pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or on time—or to ever deliver the expected returns.[2]

A reason this occurs is hardly difficult to determine. After all, stakeholders in a project’s success don’t generally plan for failure. They plan for success, and in the process produce objectives that fit together seamlessly, work within controlled parameters, and follow paradigms that depend on existing or assumed resources. The role of chance and mishap is only marginally considered.
Fire department preplans are nothing if not public safety projects developed under the best of circumstances. Standards exist for conducting and completing them to assist in formulating strategies and tactics, as well as to support firefighter safety.[3] These standards are not detrimental. In fact, that the process follows a system is testament to the thoroughness of firefighting and fire prevention professionals. Preplanning gives the company officer or fire inspector the opportunity to scrutinize a location’s perimeter, access points, fire loads, hazards, and potential for complexity. Information is gathered under controlled conditions and the “building intelligence” supplies data on which to build safe, effective fireground operations. This means firefighters who respond to the area or structure when an emergency occurs arrive on scene with less unknowns to contend with. Arriving units can follow a plan of attack, implement tactics, and assign tasks to mitigate known hazards and obstacles during a fire event.

In some ways this systematic approach to preplanning can offset optimism bias. When confronted with obstacles, hazards, constricted working spaces, and water-supply challenges in a preplan, fire companies and inspectors can suggest distinct solutions to site-specific problems. Is there a lack of municipal water supply? Plan for relay pumping, tender shuttles, or both. Will entry be complicated? Ready the forcible entry team. Does the structure hold Tier II or substances on EPA’s List of Lists? Dispatch a hazmat unit with first alarm. Again, local response agencies will understand their hazards and challenges better than outside agencies, preplans help make this possible.

Despite these planning safeguards, however, fire departments repeatedly develop preplans in ways like their business executive counterparts. Data are parsed, resources needs projected, and hazards itemized. Optimism is the goal, and the command, lead, and succeed approach of firefighters is at risk of spinning “scenarios of success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations.” When the sandbox comes out, hand drawings are prepared, or drag-and-drop computer applications are used, company officers place their apparatus in optimal locations, deliver an effective training size-up, and assign tactics to initial and second-due companies without complication. The plan is reviewed, judged sound, and placed into service as part of the tactical playbook.

But the hard-edged conditions of response rarely conform to the ideals of theory. Friction is the related concept in war studies, encompassing “[c]ountless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee.” These “combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal.”[4] The fireground is not exempt from the complications of these minor incidents, whose eventuality always “makes the apparently easy so difficult.”[5]

Again, examples are too numerous to count, but every firefighter will recall episodes where the best laid plans simply failed because of an unforeseen detail. Sometimes the details are trivial—a misplaced tool slows a ready check at the door by a few seconds—whereas at other times they have greater impacts (a hose blows, a pump fails, the house so tidy on the outside hides a hoarder.) Friction adds up, and the actualized plan begins to deviate from the preplan. Sometimes the deviations mount and grow unmanageable. The preplan falters. New plans must be made on the spot.

Coping with friction and surprise of real-world response is a fact of life. Shouldn’t preplans reflect this? Fortunately, a strategy exists that not only strengthens preplanning but also systemically mitigates the worst elements of groupthink and optimism bias.

Known in many industries as a premortem, the strategy can be adopted by fire companies and inspectors without excessive additional training or budgetary demands. In fact, a premortem is simply another lens through which to view fire department response. Where the traditional preplan conforms to best practices for success, the premortem upends this thinking and assumes as its starting point a preplan’s failure.

But what’s the point? Again, optimism bias is key, and a premortem can counterbalance the unbridled assumption of success often hiding in preplans. Firefighters plan for action, tailoring strategies, tactics, and tasks to a structure’s layouts and known hazards. Preplans evolve based on what might go wrong, and answers to suspected challenges are supplied before an emergency occurs. From number of personnel needed to fight a fire within a structure to where to place apparatus during response, preplans are proactive tools designed to shape actions according to future projections. It is, in the end, a game of statistics played in an arena of chance.[6]

This assessment does not do away with preplans. Readiness is better than blindness in emergency response. That preplans deal with statistics summarizes important elements discussed earlier. These include:

  • While the chance of an emergency can be analyzed, it cannot be accurately predicted.
  • Real-world response to an incident always involves unforeseen problems. This is friction.
  • Planning is proactive and evolves according to assumption of thresholds a department must meet to make response effective, safe, and successful.

These elements are undercurrents to optimism inherent in human cognition and thinking about future events.[7] Firefighters are not exempt. Conducting premortems on preplans helps—but does not eradicate—optimism bias. The nuts-and-bolts are simple to adopt.

Fire companies and inspectors should compile and complete a preplan according to a department’s procedures. The plan is then provided to the team. Before finalizing it, team members of the company or inspection department are asked to assume that an incident has indeed occurred at the preplanned facility, that response was optimal and occurred according to the preplan’s guidance, and that the whole thing failed.

The next step involves additional team participation and requires each member to write down independently every reason they can think of that contributed to the plan’s failure. Reasons can certainly be numerous, but time allowed for members to consider them should be limited. A good time is five minutes, but company officers and team leaders can adjust this time according to the preplan’s complexity and/or number of participating team members.

Once time has elapsed, team members will take turns reading off a single reason why the preplan failed as it is written. This process proceeds through the group, with each member providing a different reason for failure. The company office (or designee) should record these reasons for discussion. At the end of the sessions, the company officer will have a list in which previously unforeseen reasons for failure can now be analyzed and addressed. The final step of the premortem involve incorporating these table-tops “lessons learned” back into the preplan. This could mean simply tweaking initial response tactics or a wholesale adjustment of strategy. Either way, the premortem exercise adds strength to the preplan.

Gary Klein writes in the Harvard Business Review that premortems differ from traditional “prelaunch risk analysis” by providing valuable “prospective hindsight.”[8] While a seemingly contradictory phrase, benefits gained from hindsight before an incident can only help define issues related to strategy, tactics, and safety.

It is well-known that firefighters are problem solvers. Challenges are invitations to success. This is simultaneously an effective character trait and an invitation to occasionally overreach. By adding premortems to the process of preplan adoption, fire departments can promote what is best in firefighting “can do” attitudes while safeguarding against some of optimism’s hidden problems.

REFERENCES

[1] Data and graphs from USFA, retrieved on February 23, 2018.

[2] Lovallo, D. & Kahneman, D. (July 2003). Delusions of Success: How Optimism Undermines Executives’ Decisions. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2003/07/delusions-of-success-how-optimism-undermines-executives-decisions. The article provides a useful review of optimism bias and includes topics for review on over exaggeration of skill, the illusion of control, and how planners minimize the role of luck.

[3] See, for example, Murphy, J. (January 2009). Are You Preplanning Your Buildings? Fire Engineering. Retrieved from  http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/print/volume-162/issue-1/features/are-you-preplanning-your-buildings.html and IFSTA’s Fire and Emergency Services Company Officer, 5th Edition, chapter 10.

[4] The quote is from Clausewitz’s On War, book 7, ed. and trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 119.

[5] Ibid., 121.

[6] See above comment about predicative analytics. Predicative analytics is essentially statistics modelled by rapid and (ideally) comprehensive data-crunching by computers.

[7] Sharot, T. (2011). The Optimism Bias. Current Biology, Volume 21 (23), 941-945. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2011.10.030.

[8] Klein, G. (September 2007). Performing a Project Premortem. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2007/09/performing-a-project-premortem.

Brian Carr is a captain and paramedic at Jackson Hole (WY) Fire/EMS, Station #1, A-shift. In addition to structural firefighting and hazardous materials response, Brian is interested in how strategic policy analysis and development can drive research, decision-making, and operations in contemporary fire departments.

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