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Closing the Experience Gap Using Crisis Decision Training

Many think decision-making in crisis is essentially information management―that more information, presented in a better way, will result in a more-effective response. While more information is often (but not always!) helpful, it's not the only factor that affects successful decision-making.

Research confirms that crisis decision makers with experience to call on make better decisions faster than those who rely on information-management alone. The first-response community faces additional challenges, including:

  • The loss of veterans to retirement
  • The difference in expertise between novices and veterans
  • Regional and local differences in tactics

The result: an experience gap that will only grow. The best way to close this gap is to capture firefighting experiences and then apply them to teach the decision-making process most often used by effective decision makers in crisis environments.

Historically, training in the art of decision-making in crisis included studying the decisions of great leaders, especially military leaders. In the 1900s, there was an attempt to formalize the process of crisis decision-making through studying the application of logic, rational thinking and information management.

In the last 30 years, there has been an emerging understanding that special psychology is involved in decision-making during crisis. Humans are actually wired to think differently in such situations. This has led to research specifically on crisis decision-making and departures from conventional wisdom.

There are two basic decision-making methods: maximizing and satisficing.

Maximizing, or rational choice, is more of a business-decision model. This method is used when data and time are sufficient. Maximizing includes identifying options, characterizing them fully, ranking your options and then implementing the best option.

Satisficing is more of a naturalistic decision-making method. This method is used when time is limited and there's either an information flood or extremely limited data. Situation assessment is emphasized and the goal is to reach a good-enough solution. The idea is that a 90% solution now is better than a 100% solution later.

One satisficing decision-making method is the Recognition-primed Decision (RPD) model, originally published by Gary Klein. Klein researched the methods used by firefighters, the military, design engineers, offshore oil installation managers, commercial aviation pilots and other emergency responders. His research resulted in a model of naturalistic decision-making. He determined that RPD is the method most commonly used by experienced decision makers. The essence of RPD includes:

  1. Sizing up and recognizing the situation as typical or familiar
  2. Diagnosing and understanding
  3. Evaluating actions by imagining them, and then
  4. Implementing the best option

You can take the RPD process a step further by breaking it down into a six-step workflow AlphaTRAC has developed for experienced-based decision-making:

  1. Characterize – Rapidly size-up the scene.
  2. Recognize – Find a similar case from history.
  3. Analyze – Evaluate the case to see if it fits.
  4. Customize – Tailor the case to the current event.
  5. Dramatize – Rehearse the decision and actions mentally.
  6. Utilize – Put the decision into play.

Fire service leaders across the globe have a wealth of untapped stories about decisions made during a crisis. These experiences—including strategies, tactics and lessons learned—represent the foundation on which the RPD process can be applied.

Tapping into these experiences and lessons learned—wherever they're captured—and understanding how to apply this information to crisis situations today will help chief and company officers develop the skills they need to rapidly size up a crisis situation and make the best decisions possible.

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