Recognition Primed Decision Making: Saving Precious Time for First-In Crews on the Fireground

When reportedly asked how he might save the world if given an hour, Albert Einstein replied: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”1 In other words, the plan over time yields action. The fireground time continuum, of course, offers no such luxury: On the fireground, time over the plan yields action. The fireground is a place where “genius” is measured in seconds and fractions of seconds whose aggregate amounts to lives saved or, at the very least, property preserved. Einstein’s notion of planning is effectively turned on its head, as time limits planning in the equation.

(1) Interior working crews will benefit greatly from minimized radio chatter. The ability of interior crews to communicate changes in working conditions and to alert the fireground to a Mayday is essential to safe operations. (Photos by author).

(1) Interior working crews will benefit greatly from minimized radio chatter. The ability of interior crews to communicate changes in working conditions and to alert the fireground to a Mayday is essential to safe operations. (Photos by author).

This article examines the Recognition Primed Decision-Making (RPD) model and the counterproductive modality of “painting a picture” of the fireground with on-scene reports and overly describing the tasks assigned. You need to look only to your own ranks for evidence of how on-scene reports might impact the incident. Listening to the scanner indicates variables on the fireground and the impact of those variables on the circumstances of the person operating on that scene. Presumably, every person who might issue orders or just speak on the radio employs intonation. The quality of tone is practiced because “clear, concise, and complete” radio communications are difficult to produce in emergent situations when adrenaline and outside interference are complicating the scene.

(2) An officer prepped with working expectations by his battalion will always carry the important tools or have a strong argument for altering those expectations.

(2) An officer prepped with working expectations by his battalion will always carry the important tools or have a strong argument for altering those expectations.

Tone Alters the Scene

“When the garbage man turns the corner and finds garbage, he doesn’t get excited. He expects to find garbage— he’s the garbage man!”—Late Lieutenant Andy Fredericks, Fire Department of New York

This statement is often quoted in trade magazines and at speaking/teaching engagements—and for all the right reasons: The man quoted is a giant in the trade. We should be impressed not by the word “excited” in this quote but by the word “expectation.” Any responders not “excited” by the possibilities that a working job offers must have had their senses dulled to a point where they are not engaged and, therefore, untrustworthy to mind themselves or any other person on the scene. If the emphasis is onexpectation,” you will, of course, duly appoint all diligence to the accomplishment of fireground tasks. Because fire should be routinely expected, speakers practice tone on the radio and often deliberately deliver the message in a slow, often monotone, fashion so that they might deliver requisite on-scene information while subduing their inner turmoil in response to what is unfolding before their eyes.

Tone is used to muffle the amplitude of the scene, thereby reducing the chaos unfolding and portioning it into pieces more readily digestible by inbound and on-scene companies. By extension, if the words used to “paint a picture” of the scene are too descriptive and long, they could change the impression that an inbound or an on-scene company might have.

My intent is not to inveigh current practices or to change “what works” at various levels within multiples of fire departments nationwide. The purpose of this article is to examine processes and to consider this question: Can on-scene reports and task assignments that are too wordy or overly descriptive alter the actions of inbound companies in their attempts to positively affect the evolving fireground?

Too Much Communication?

On-scene reports have probably existed for as long as orders could be shouted through speaking trumpets, and these accurate and ongoing reports are important components in the command function. However, is there a point at which there is too much communication? Daily around the nation, rambling, convoluted on-scene reports are delivered, dredging up the minutiae previously reserved for later stages in the firefight. Instructions for what have always been bread-and-butter tasks are now often issued over the airwaves in detail, outlining in almost step-by-step fashion tasks such as handline stretching, door control, and ventilation techniques. These instructions and notifications walk entirely over precious seconds of time on the fireground in which civilian lives (when rescue has been accomplished during a search) or firefighters’ lives (as interior crews are still active inside an immediately dangerous to life or health environment) may be hanging in the balance.

(3) Handline selection is a critical component of efficiently handling the fireground. Predetermined terms such as “large,” “medium,” and “small” to describe the fire could go a long way in ensuring that the proper size handline is chosen based on the initial report.

(3) Handline selection is a critical component of efficiently handling the fireground. Predetermined terms such as “large,” “medium,” and “small” to describe the fire could go a long way in ensuring that the proper size handline is chosen based on the initial report.

The Recognition Primed Decision-Making Model

The RPD model as described by Gary Klein and associates who pioneered research and study on the topic is a method for rapid decision making in which the person deciding on a course of action references past experiences in similar and sometimes identical scenarios to establish a feasible course of action. By its very nature, the RPD model is limited by the experience level of the decision maker and the data he can reference from memory.

If you extrapolate the term “primed” from the name of this model, you can assume that those recollections serve as a momentary jog of the memory, thereby sparking the initiation of orders that have worked to strong effect in the past. For the engineer at the pump panel, the primer is pulled until water is achieved in the pump; it would be counterproductive to continue to prime a pump in which water has adequately been charged. Perhaps this engineer’s reality could also hold true in the “priming” of on-scene and inbound resources on the fireground.

A standard dispatch relays information regarding event, location, brief conditions, and time. Once companies are established as inbound, further details are usually relayed, but because of the nature of time constraints and background interference in the form of stressors (both inside the dispatch center and exterior at the scene), this information is typically self-limiting. Largely, fire companies responding will begin to “paint their own picture” of the scene using broad strokes and referring to a previously established internal playbook—i.e., “If we are first due, we will need a supply line stretched, command established with on-scene report, task assignments for first-alarm companies, and so on.”

A typical on-scene report will draw from a relative “cookbook” of informational ingredients essential for a recipe for a well-prepared fireground. Included in the initial report are company name, assuming command and command name, and on-scene fire conditions (visible smoke/flame and from where), type of structure, and initial attack strategy. Brevity is key, as inbound companies need airtime to make their arrival known so that more vital fireground tasks can be positively effected.

If brevity is not enforced during the initial on-scene report, the incident commander (IC) risks two things. First, he could be missing vital communications from companies that have entered level one staging, preventing the crews already on the fireground from receiving important information such as which hydrant is being caught. The IC also may miss an earlier opportunity to assign a company to a vital fireground task such as rescue.

Second, RPD is not a tool for the IC only. As companies approach, they should be allowed to view the scene from their perspective. On small- to medium-size engine companies, that could be the addition of two to four sets of eyes, essentially the combined recallable data from two to four banks of experience.

Likewise, truck companies will see the rescue profile for what it is and will approach ventilation profiling with a completed view of the thing. It is less likely for a truck company to take a position in the yard with a handful of tools prescribed by a wordy on-scene report if they are instead allowed to compile their cache based on what they observe.

If the IC spends so much airtime announcing the details of a scene, that could shift the entirety of the scene to a limited view of only a singular perspective. Enlisting the combined input from all companies on the scene solicits a more comprehensive “macro view” of the scene.

This macro view of the fireground becomes increasingly important if the experience level of the IC is minimal. In their book “Naturalistic Decision Making,” Caroline E. Zsambok and Gary Klein write: “Recognition, which consists of critical cues, goals, expectations and a typical course of action, is contingent on being familiar with the situation. Conversely, searching for information is contingent on not being familiar with the situation.”

Most fire departments are nondiscriminatory as it pertains to promoting personnel based on experience level since there is no real gauge for such an intangible. The resultant effect of such promotional practices, however, could be that an IC in charge of a scene has no “Prime” because there is no “Recognition” of a previous similar experience. In this case, it should be beneficial for that IC to minimize the chatter on the radio, make assignments, and allow the experience on the scene become the experience that will “Prime” the next event of similar magnitude.

Describing the assigned tasks on a fireground is a form of micromanaging that implies several layers of distrust in modalities. If an IC is faced with fire issuing out of the division he is commanding and has already sized that fire over the radio using “large,” “medium,” or “small” terminology, it should then be unnecessary and, in fact, redundant to describe to a company assigned fire attack the size and type of line needed to attack that fire or to describe to a truck company the location and size of a vent opening for vertical ventilation. Directing the accomplishment of the task implies that the IC does not trust the abilities of the crew assigned to the task. The implication is that the IC is there to “save the working crew from itself.” This effort should be necessary only in the direst of circumstances.

In defense of the IC, that position is likely the most stressful on the fireground, involving simultaneous concern for lives already on the scene and the lives of those inbound and just arriving. An IC governing the scene with aplomb can depict the scene with brevity if he is confident in his inbound companies. There should be a balance. On one side is support for the vital functions of the fireground (rescue, exposures, and extinguishment) whose combined gravity shifts the scale in that direction as time is critical in executing these incident priorities. On the other side of the scale rest the tactical considerations whose weight is measured by the experience level of the crews the IC is commanding. For situations in which experience has not been earned, front-loaded training is irreplaceable. If we could sprinkle the time necessary to effectively train companies to a level of proficiency that mimics veteran field experience, we could tip the scales in favor of the firefighting crews and their usable tactics.

Scenario: “Macro View” Approach

A recent fire alarm in a commercial garage and machine shop in an industrial area of Oklahoma City validates the “macro view” approach to command and fire attack. The first-in engine made the block at the hydrant that was to supply the fire alarm: a black, turbulent header clearly visible at the rear and middle of a row of ordinary constructed industrial buildings with overhead doors. As the engine turned onto the block to approach the structure with supply from the address side, a civilian pulled up alongside the engine to inform them that the fire was burning in an alleyway to the rear of the structure. This new information, coupled with the obvious signs of heavy fire, indicated that the body of the fire was in the rear of the structure.

The engine company officer halted the supply stretch to recon this information. Simultaneously, the first-due battalion chief (BC) had made the scene and, because of routing from his firehouse, was at the rear of the structure and advised that heavy fire was showing. The first-due engine diverted the initial approach, opting instead to “lay in” down the alley to initiate fire attack. Command was announced and named by battalion, and the fire was sized as “large.” Since the fire was large and the structure type was commercial and industrial, the first-due company chose a 2½-inch hoseline as the initial attack line. The battalion chief based his selection on his experience and a well-planned modality he and the companies in his district had established.

All of this occurred off radio. The only announcement was that the hydrant was caught and to inform the second-due companies of the direction of the lay from the hydrant. The battalion moved to assume a spot on the address side of the fire building to direct second-due companies.

These events are not groundbreaking or innovative; many companies and fire departments operate in a similar fashion. However, they do illustrate efficiency. The battalion arriving had front-loaded his district with first-in knowledge—an “if this, then this” set of expectations—but he also allowed for his first-due officers’ intuitive approach. A great many orders were made on that alarm, and each order was conveyed over the radio with the confidence that each task had capable personnel to complete them. The fire was extinguished quickly and, more importantly, safely. There was no need for oververbalizing orders or assignments; the BC was in command of the fire alarm in its entirety with a minimum of on-scene communications.

There are too many possibilities at a fire alarm, and contingencies are constantly swirling. There is no verbal remedy for the physical fireground; action, not words, wins the day. RPD is obviously real and effective. It is important that the command of a fire alarm prime the inbound companies with on-scene reports and task assignments instead of inundating them with a deluge of words that could possibly “drown out” important scene priorities.



Michael G. Emillio is a lieutenant assigned to Engine 10 in the Plaza District for the Oklahoma City (OK) Fire Department (OKCFD), where he has been a member since 2002. He is a rescue technician with the OKCFD Task Force, a safety diver for the OKCFD Dive Team, an EMS instructor, and a fire instructor level 1. He is an EMT/paramedic with the Emergency Department of the Canadian Valley Hospital.

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