What’s Holding Us Back? Recognition-Primed Decision-Making

By Kriss Garcia

“For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise.”
--Benjamin Franklin

This year, the organization known as the International Fire Instructors Workgroup (IFIW) met for its third time in Ottawa, Canada. Keeping to our original charter of a small yet focused group of scientists, engineers and fire practitioners, 15 professionals from nine different countries participated in a conference that focused on firefighter safety. One of the most professional and respected fire departments in the world, the Ottawa Fire Service (OFS), along with Peter McBride, the safety officer for the Ottawa Fire Service, and the Ottawa local government, hosted the conference this year.

Topics for Discussion
Each year, the IFIW meets with a concentrated focus or topic in mind. The first IFIW conference was held in Sweden in 2008. At this meeting, it was the intent of the group’s organizer, Dr. Stefan Svensson, to allow participants to get to know each other and share our individual passions within the fire service. The following year, the group met in Australia, where the discussion focused on how to preplan rather than just react to the challenges facing the international fire community with regard to tactical methods of dealing with structure fires.

This year, the group focused on firefighter safety. In the fire service, we hear firefighter safety talked about a lot, but I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the conference. Once the session began, rather than attempting to influence any of the conversation, I just listened, reflected and quietly observed, trying to digest the information about incidents where firefighters were injured or killed during interior operations. After the second day, whether intentional or not, the same theme kept resurfacing: All presenters were expounding on known and most oftentimes predicted problems or challenges however few offered specifics about how to prevent these injuries and deaths. It was as though the solutions were self evident yet they were never specified. This may have been due to the fact that identifying the specific reason some of these events happened, would have been, at least in part, an admission that things could have and should have been better.

During the IFIW meeting, the group came to the informal conclusion that the majority of firefighter deaths and injuries in the structure fire environment could be prevented if firefighters ventilated the structure, wore their SCBA and deployed hoselines for protection. To put it in broader terms, most of the operational concerns regarding the challenges of structure fires involve a lack of command and control and/or a lack of adequate ventilation. Photo Cary Ulrich

A study completed by the NFPA states that fires that occurred in 1970 wouldn’t progress to flashover in approximately 14 minutes. That same fire today goes to flashover in approximately 5 minutes. Not only is the ever increasing synthetic fire loading in today's fires very different, but the construction and renovation methods are also drastically different, with geometry replacing mass. Photo Mike Coppola

Solutions, to these problems however, were not formally identified during the presentations. Rather, the group would meet informally at the end of each day to socialize and hypothesize about how to meet the identified challenges involved with firefighter safety. So at the close of each day, I would make my way among the various groups of professionals from Hong Kong, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Australia and other nations, and ask: “Is [preventing the majority of firefighter deaths and injuries in the structure fire environment] as simple as ventilating the structure, wearing SCBAs and having hoseline for protection?” More often than not, the answer was yes. In more general or broad terms, it seemed apparent to me that most of the operational concerns regarding the challenges of structure fires involved a lack of command and control and/or a lack of adequate ventilation.

Slow to Change
During this conference, we had fewer tactical “evangelists” and more tactical “scientists” presenting. Yet even when a topic is empirically proven, such as the challenges of the conventional ventilation profile offered by Steven Kerber from Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL), we have our doubts and don’t believe what we hear and see because it challenges our decades of experience. It seems as though we naturally justify our prejudices and seldom consider how new or different information and research could challenge, compete and potentially complement our own position.

The theory of why the fire service is so slow—or even hostile—toward change was touched upon by one noted physiologist who, although he never mentioned it other than in passing and during side conversations with me, pointed out that our ability to make decisions is based more on our personal experiences and related emotions rather than the knowledge we may get from other practitioners or scientists. This begins to explain why the fire service is so entrenched in its strategies and tactics—we take them personally. After all, they’ve been around for more than 200 years.

But almost everything else that we interact with in our work environment as firefighters has changed. Our workplace is nothing like the workplace of our forefathers, such as Massey Shore or Benjamin Franklin, who perfected many of these tactics. In fact, in just the past 30 years, our workplace has changed dramatically.

Environmental Changes Demand Tactical Changes
A study completed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) states that fires that occurred in 1970 wouldn’t progress to flashover in approximately 14 minutes. That same fire today goes to flashover in approximately 5 minutes. (Note: These times are taken from the moment of smoke detector activation to the moment of room flashover.) Not only is the ever-increasing synthetic fire loading in today's fires very different, but the construction and renovation methods are also drastically different, with geometry replacing mass.

The atmosphere generated by today’s synthetics creates such lethal conditions that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) refers to our structure fire environment as a “soup of carcinogens.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) calls it an environment that’s immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH). In fact, several of the chemicals found in today’s products of combustion—acrolein, phosgene and cyanide—were used as chemical weapons in World War I. When extreme heat is added to these and other products of combustion, such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, formaldehyde, benzene, styrene and soot, to mention a few, we’re not only working in an atmosphere of immediate hazards, we’re also working in an environment that has long-term health implications, as identified by our staggering cancer rates. Considering various types of cancers, statistics show that our profession’s cancer rates are well above the national average.

Given these facts, the fire service in general has not made appreciable advances or modifications to our strategies or tactics. We still send firefighters to blindly search atmospheres that simply cannot be survived by someone not wearing full PPE. We even utilize tactics (e.g., attempting fire control without the benefit of ventilation) that distribute this lethal environment throughout areas of the fire building that might have been survivable before our tactics were implemented. We also routinely position firefighters inside buildings that are being destroyed by the extreme heat without the protection of a hoseline. The idea that we can continue to operate like this must be challenged, especially when often times what we’re doing could be identified as body recovery.

Recognition-Primed Decision-Making
So why are we so slow to accept change? What’s really driving our dedication to outdated strategies and tactics? After 4 days of listening to some of the world’s most knowledgeable scientists and most experienced fire practitioners, the answer started to be distilled to a single reason: experiential-based decision-making, or as Dr. Gary Klein refers to it, recognition-primed decision-making (RPDM).

Basically, RPDM says that when you’re faced with a problem, especially one that occurs infrequently yet has high risks associated with it, your brain automatically seeks experienced-based solutions. To do otherwise or to switch to a more scientific means of solving problems isn’t easy. In fact, solving the problem in any way that’s not based upon your experience may not even be possible for many of us.

As a result, we’ve been solving the structure fire problem the same way for more than 100 years, which is such a large amount of time that changing our methods now will of course be very difficult. Adding to the problem is the fact that for the past 30 years, today’s incident commanders have all used the same general fire attack strategy to solve the structure fire problem. But with fewer and fewer fires occurring these days, we have less and less experience to draw from when making appropriate experienced-based decisions.

Driving the Point Home
At the end of the 5-day conference, although it was obvious that problems exist with regard to structure fire tactics and strategies, it was just as obvious that some members in the audience (not members of the IFIW) tended to be a little defensive and protective regarding their favorite fire attack solution The point: It takes extreme individual effort to educate and train on other means of solving our current fire problem. It takes a planned and methodical effort for someone to seek what may be an unconventional solution rather than just sticking with a tactic that’s comfortable to them. The good news is that the IFIW is full individuals who are willing to make this effort.

To drive this point home, Jerry Tracy, a retired battalion chief from the FDNY, was quick to add that all structure fires cannot and should not be attacked in the same manner. He pointed out that the ventilation solutions his department successfully incorporates are based upon turn-of-the-century, ordinary if not heavy timber-constructed tenements that are not destroyed by fire in minutes. These buildings are much more compartmental, which helps control rapid fire spread and built with more mass than geometry which is much safer for our firefighters to operate in and on.

How to Enact Change
As long as we don’t experience a life-changing event while operating at a structure fire, we aren’t likely to incorporate a new attack strategy or new solutions into our repartee. When push comes to shove and we see an aggressive fire event unfolding in front of us, we’ll most likely impose experience-based solutions. If you choose a solution that isn’t experienced-based, you’ll feel anxious and nervous. That’s a given.

But knowing that, we need to change what we’re doing is also a given. Therefore, we need to totally immerse ourselves into determining what changes need to be made and identify how best to make them. We have to seek knowledge and then reinforce our theoretical solutions with realistic live-fire training.

Table-top scenarios, case study evolution and simulations will also be necessary to condition our decision-making processes. Why do we to undergo these exercises? Consider a fighter pilot who just joined the U.S. Air Force. They don’t start out by flying multi-million-dollar jets. Rather, they start with education, then move to simulations and training with simpler aircraft before being placed in situations where lives depend on their ability to rapidly solve problems.

After these steps at conditioning ourselves to use less conventional solutions, we should then be able to attempt a new tactical approach in a simple and controlled fashion. Following this, we must communicate and study our successes as much as, if not more than, the fires that don’t go as well as we’d like.

Get Uncomfortable
To support this change in strategy/tactics, the IFIW should serve as a representation of the international fire service community. Most of us realize that a change is needed. What is harder for us to realize is that we may not have all the answers and that we need to jettison our pride and adherence to tradition and seek out the uncomfortable.

What I mean by this is that we mustn’t try to convince anyone of any particular preference we have regarding a particular type of fire attack. We must put aside our personal biases and seek out the most uncomfortable, polar opposite position to our own and embrace it for a year. In other words, we must try to convince ourselves that someone else’s position regarding the safest fire attack methodology has merit. In fact, we should start out by telling ourselves that our individual preferences are incorrect, thereby opening ourselves to criticism, welcoming challenge, embracing change and understanding that none of us has all the answers. We must also believe that together, the IFIW does have answers, and if nurtured correctly, we can transfer the international fire community over to the safest and most effective fire attack methodology to date.

The best way to learn about someone else’s position is to walk in their shoes. To facilitate that process, the IFIW is looking to produce a journal that accepts no outside commercial influence, advertising or support. Potential authors can submit an article defending their position or preference, but they must also submit a counterpoint to their position. The idea for the journal is still in development, but the IFIW is committed to seeing it through to fruition.

Looking Ahead
In 2011 the IFIW will meet in Indianapolis; however, in 2012, the IFIW is going back to its roots: Sweden. In the next 2 years, the group will look at the progress it’s made thus far and determine its next step. One question remains: Is this group going to be yet another group that simply identifies problems, or is this group going to be the one that identifies and constantly tracks solutions based upon empirical and partial data? If the latter is the intent, this group should continue to work together to offer and implement changes to the international fire community by seeking differences not allies.

Kriss Garcia has retired from Salt Lake City Fire Department after 26 years most recently as a battalion chief. Garcia has recently taken a position as fire chief for the City of American Fork, also in Utah. An instructor for the National Fire Academy, he is a voting member of the Air Movement Control Association standard-review committee and a member of the NFPA 1021 Technical Committee. Garcia is also an original member of the IFIW.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Comment by Billy Schmidt on December 2, 2010 at 9:57am
Thanks Kriss for highlighting our need for continuous dialogue, including the most important part, listening to others. It is uncomfortable, must must be done. I agree with your point that individual effort is required to educate and train ourselves, and it needs good planning to actually make it happen. You're right, we talk a lot, but don't follow up well. Another great field of study to add to RPDM is the OODA Loop, a decision-making process developed by an Air Force fighter pilot that enhances our ability to successfully respond to unexpected, chaotic events. The IFIW sounds interesting and I plan to research it more. Thanks.............. Billy
Comment by Keith Tyson on December 1, 2010 at 10:27pm
I find it amazing that as much as we NOW KNOW about the toxicity and carcinogens involved in firefighting that we still have members going into fires without SCBAs, certainly doing overhaul with out them, not cleaning our gear often enough, or not taking showers ASAP afterward to wash the chemicals off that we are absorbing thru our skins!
Worse yet, we write NFPA articles, 1500 and 1851, yet we fail to either make them a MANDATE or apparently have any enforcement behind them. YET, we would shut down businesses for failing to have the proper exhaust systems in them, but think nothing of poisioning ourselves within the stations!
And yes I am a cancer survivor, as far to many of my brothers and sisters are, but worse yet, even more are dying of it!
35%, OVER ONE THIRD, of all the known deaths on my department to date are due to CANCER!!
Second leading cause @19%... cardiac, yet we still preach that cardiac is the number one killer??
Third leading cause, @8% each are suicide and MVA's which are tied!
Yet we have members who will not listen from those of us that have been there, seen that and done that!

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