Operational Decision Making

Operational Decision Making


The Unifying Link In Incident Management

Relying solely on the Incident Command System is not enough for today’s wide-ranging, large-scale incidents. It’s the management decision process that brings it all together.

TODAY’S FIRE SERVICE is changing into a technology management service. The types of incidents with which we are confronted are many. Citizens and elected officials expect the fire service to provide, in addition to fire and rescue operations, basic and advanced life support, natural and man-made disaster management, and many other services. As the diversity of the situations increases, the ability to manage them effectively and efficiently is often severely tested.

When faced with an uncommon, unfamiliar situation, decisive management can easily be compromised. Even when the Incident Command System is implemented, effective management of the operation may come into question. This brings up a vital distinction. The Incident Command System identifies management functions and responsibilities in order to command and control resources and will work for any type of incident, but it is only part of an overall management process.

In other words, the command system is a vehicle that is driven by the operational decisions made by the incident commander. Together, the ICS and operational decision-making process provide a unified incident management process that is viable for an incident of any magnitude.

Traditionally, the operational decision-making process involves a series of steps based upon structural or wildland firefighting. The basic incident priorities are life safety, incident stabilization, and property preservation (LIP). Based upon LIP, the process begins: size-up, strategic goals, tactical objectives, and tactical methods (or procedures). The process spirals in upon itself through the review process and leads back to size-up. This process works quite effectively for the “routine” fire incident.

However, in today’s world, officers are often faced with incidents that are so diverse and complex that there seems to be little or no commonality on which to base decisions. They are required to sort through tremendous volumes of often highly technical information ranging from engineering prints of large facilities to chemical data for hazardous-materials incidents. Such situations often threaten to overwhelm the decision maker’s ability to transform information Into strategic goals and tactical objectives. How can the information be sorted? What information is essential to know? What are the strategic goals, the tactical objectives, the tactical methods? How do we deal with this situation?

At the most fundamental level, the incident management process involves information analysis, comparison, and assessment of the incident situation; resource needs and availability; and strategic and tactical options and alternatives.

The whole process starts with the gathering of information (data). There are two specific types of information that must be gathered: physical data regarding the incident type, magnitude, complexity, and so on, and technical data regarding incident component characteristics, composition, structural details, and so on.


Once the basic information has been obtained, it is utilized by the incident commander to estimate the probable course of the incident. This estimation is accomplished through a series of predictions as to expected occurrences within the overall incident. Such estimation allows the 1C to anticipate actions and resources that may be necessary to manage the incident.

Now the incident commander can determine appropriate strategic goals; once they have been identified, he must assess tactical options and resources, that is, specify tactical options and the resources that are available or that are needed to meet the incident goals.

Once the assessment process is completed, the 1C plans and initiates specific actions based upon that assessment. After the plan has been initiated, he must continually evaluate the efficacy of the actions being utilized. If the plan is found to be ineffective due to some flaw or to the complexity of the operation, the incident commander must reevaluate the incident to correct the situation. Even when his plan seems to be working, reevaluation is essential to make certain that all elements are in order.

This simple, seven-step process can be identified and remembered by the mnemonic, GEDAPER, which stands for:

  • gather information;
  • estimate incident course;
  • determine appropriate strategic goals;
  • assess tactical options and resource requirements;
  • plan and initiate actions;
  • evaluate; and
  • reevaluate

In order to more fully understand each step of the process, we will examine each in more detail.


The information-gathering process is critical, for one simple reason: all subsequent steps in the process are based upon the information that is gathered. Without information, there is no way to develop strategic goals and tactical objectives, and if the IC comes away with insufficient or incorrect information, the strategic goals and tactical objectives that are chosen may be inappropriate, ineffective, and downright lethal.

The process of gathering specific incident information often starts prior to the receipt of the call, with preincident planning. Preplanning data on one’s first-due district is a combination of general familiarity with the area and specific target hazards. This is technical data, whether committed to memory or on paper (or computer), and is recalled at the time of the incident.

When an incident occurs, the information-gathering process swings into full gear with the input of specific physical data about the incident. Physical data is any fact, figure, or situation that is detected by the bodily senses, most commonly by sight and sound. Although the senses of smell and taste may come into play, the use of either requires direct exposure to some product of the incident, and thus can be extremely detrimental to the individual’s health.

At the time of dispatch, physical data, including at least the location and type of the incident, will start to confront the responders. This will trigger the recall of mentally and physically stored technical data. At a complex, major incident, responders may be faced with a rapidfire influx of physical data. So much information may confront officers that it becomes difficult to determine what is or is not important. At this point, it is very helpful to break the incident into components.

Most fire service incidents can be broken into three main information sectors. A fire incident requires information about the fire itself, the incident environment, and the fuel. A hazardousmaterials incident requires information about the product involved, the incident environment, and the container involved. An EMS incident involves information about the victim, the environment, and the injury. This is not to imply that these divisions of information are completely separate and independent; to the contrary, they interact with and impact upon each other. However, for purposes of incident command, it is very useful to categorize the information and thereby create a clearer field in which to make an accurate size-up and implement strategy and tactics.


Once the information is gathered, the incident commander will make a series of predictions as to the course of various aspects of the incident. If the 1C does not take such action, he will be in the unenviable position of playing catch-up in a critical-incident situation. Such reactive behavior can lead to disastrous results if, for example, insufficient resources are requested or if tactical operations do not consider reflex time. Some of the many factors to anticipate on the incident scene include:

  • the magnitude of the incident;
  • the spread of the fire or hazardous material;
  • the life hazards:
  • the mode of operations;
  • the impact upon exposures (including the environment);
  • safety considerations.

When these and all other predictions are considered together, the course of the incident has been estimated.

The steps of gathering information (both physical and technical) and estimating the course of the incident are traditionally lumped together and called size-up. It should be obvious that there is a lot more to the process of sizeup than is implied by the name.


Once the course of the incident has been predicted, the IC now must determine the appropriate strategic goals that will effect successful intervention. Specific strategic goals depend upon the type of incident. Structural firefighting has between five and eight specific strategic goals, depending upon the exact command system being used by the IC. Such goals normally include rescue, exposures, confinement, extinguishment, overhaul, ventilation, and salvage (Lehman’s RECEO VS). Hazardous-materials incidents will include between 7 and 10 goals, again depending on the command system being implemented. Such goals include isolation and evacuation, notification of assistance, product identification, determination of appropriate personal protective equipment and decontamination measures, spill control, leak control, and so on.

In order to better explain, consider the following example. You respond to a structural fire involving a large millframe factory with a heavy body of fire involving most of the structure. There are exposures on sides 2, 3, and 4. Under such circumstances, the 1C most commonly must predict that the volume of fire in the original fire building is so great that:

  1. The apparatus to provide the fire flow is unavailable.
  2. The needed fire flow is unavailable.
  3. The fire building is, for all intents and purposes, a write-off.
  4. A defensive mode of operation is the only appropriate approach.
  5. If the exposures are not addressed immediately, they will also be consumed.

  7. More resources (alarms) are needed to address the exposure problem.

The series of predictions has allowed the IC to estimate the course of this particular incident. In turn, this estimation allows the IC to determine the specific strategic goals. In this case, it should be obvious that extinguishment of the original fire building is not an appropriate strategic goal but, rather, that confinement and exposure protection are much more appropriate. Rescue is also not a primary goal in the original fire building (due to the degree of involvement) but may be the priority goal within the exposures.


Once the incident commander has determined the appropriate strategic goals for the particular incident, the specific tactical objectives and methods to meet those goals now become more apparent. Additionally, the resources needed to accomplish any of the specific tactical options must be considered. If there are no resources or the available resources are insufficient to accomplish a specific tactical option, the IC must either determine the method to acquire those resources or choose another option.

For example, during a wildland fire in a mature stand of mixed pine and fir trees, the IC has determined that confinement is one of the strategic goals. One of the tactical options that can be utilized to meet the goal of confinement is to cut a fire line along a ridge, using a bulldozer. It is predicted that the fire will reach the ridge in about 2½ hours with present conditions. The IC finds that the closest available dozer will take two hours to reach the ridge and require 45 minutes to cut the break. As such, the IC must consider an alternative tactical option due to the lack of a needed resource, the dozer.


As specific tactical options are identified as appropriate and attainable, a plan of action starts to develop. The IC coordinates a specific series of activities with which various groups of personnel will be tasked. In most cases, the plan of action is a mental plan. However, in complex or lengthy operations, a written plan is vitally important, especially if command will be transferred.

At this point, the Incident Command System starts to flex its muscle and swing into full gear. The ICS is one of the most effective and efficient methods available to implement a chosen plan of action. It provides the system through which the IC can direct and control all of the available resources necessary to achieve the strategic goals specified in the plan of action.


When the plan of action has been initiated, the incident commander must continually evaluate its effectiveness. As personnel perform their assigned functions, the IC will expect to see or hear reports of a positive impact on the situation. If there is a positive impact and the plan of action is producing the desired effect, the plan was appropriate. But if there is no positive impact or the desired effect is not happening, there is either a flaw in the plan or the plan may not have been able to account for probabilities of change in the incident itself. Flaws may often be traced to changes in the status of the incident itself, especially those of longer duration. In other cases, the flaw(s) may exist in one or more of the first four steps of the process. In any case, the flaws may be the result of insufficient, incorrect, or outdated information; inaccurate estimation of incident course; an inappropriate strategic goal; or the inaccurate assessment of tactical options and resource needs.


If the plan of action is not achieving the desired results or if the status of the incident changes, the IC must reevaluate the plan. This involves an examination of every step of the process, starting with the gathering of information. Was some vital piece of information missing? Was the estimate of incident course based upon some inaccurate or outdated information? Was the incident potential underestimated or overestimated? Were the strategic goals inappropriate, or were the tactical options chosen to meet those goals incorrect? Were resource needs greater than anticipated?

In any event, the incident commander may be faced with a very difficult task, indeed. Such situations often compromise the safety of operating personnel as well as the final outcome of the incident. Operating, command, and staff personnel often need to be consulted in order to identify the specific problem. The problem may simply be the result of insufficient feedback from operating personnel as to changes or a variation in the situation, and may be quickly addressed with only a brief consultation or communication.

Once the reevaluation process is completed, a modified version of the plan of action may be initiated. Again, the process of evaluation and reevaluation must be performed to assure that the modified plan is meeting its intended goals.

By this time, the readers may think that hours have elapsed and surely the “building has burned down.” This is not true. The first five or six steps are routinely followed by thousands of firefighters day in and day out. In everyday incidents, the first five steps often take less than a minute. Most of the steps are done so rapidly that most people who utilize them are unaware of what is involved.

However, in extraordinary incidents, the operation management process must be approached systematically. That system must work for all types of incidents. Emergency operation management is not an art form but, rather, a science. GEDAPER provides the incident commander with the scientific tool needed to concisely and systematically make decisions about any critical incident situation as part of the overall incident management process.

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