On this episode we discuss how to make decisions in dynamically changing environments and the importance of using situational awareness as the foundation for making good decisions under stress. It is the decisions that first responders make, while operating in high stress, high consequence, time compressed environments (using situational awareness) that drive successful or unsuccessful outcomes.
Length: 28 minutes
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There is a belief out there, among decision researchers, that decisions are best made when the decision maker follows a rational, analytical, non-emotional process. Thankfully, such a process has long been defined and taught. The steps for this, widely held good decision making process (often termed the Traditional Decision Making process), include:
1. Define the problem.
2. Identify decision criteria.
3. Allocate weights and measures to the various criteria
4. Develop some alternatives to consider.
5. Evaluate the various alternatives.
6. Select the best (or highest ranked) alternative.
7. Evaluate the effectiveness of the decision
This is a very solid decision making model. If you want to buy a house, or a car, or make a strategic decision in your business, follow this model. However, before you copy this list, laminate it, and put it in the pocket of your turnout coat there’s something you should know. This model doesn’t work well at emergency scenes!
To understand why this model does not work well, let’s take a brief look at your brain anatomy and function. The human brain has two halves. These halves are formally known as hemispheres.
Your left brain is your rational brain. The neurons of your left brain are your resident expert analytical problem solvers. If you’re great at math, enjoy using spreadsheets and generally believe every detail needs to be planned out to the Nth degree, every thing has a proper place and life needs to be orderly – you are a predominately left-brained person.
Your right brain is your creative brain. The neurons of your right brain are your resident free-spirit, happy-go-lucky neurons. If you’re great with art, music, making vacation plans on the fly (or better yet just getting in the car and going with no plan at all), your living space is far less than orderly (ok… it’s downright messy) – you are predominately a right-brained person.
A person can be equally left and right brained as well. Just like someone can be ambidextrous – equally left handed and right handed – a person can also have equally strong left and right brain functions where neither dominates. (Note: There is no correlation between being left/right brain dominant and left/right handed. For example, if you’re left-brained and left-handed, that is purely coincidental).
Both hemispheres are used in the process of making good and bad decisions. In fact, it would not be possible to “turn off” the influence of either side of your brain. However, there is something that can influence brain behavior and impact the way you think, decide and act. That “something” is stress. And more specifically, stress related to fear. And even more specifically, fear related to threats that endanger your survival.
Brain function changes as a result of stress, caused fear, in the presence of threats to survival. This is precisely the environment in which first responders operate. It is important to understand your stressed brain doesn’t function the same was as your non-stressed brain. This means you will think, and act, differently when you are under incident scene stress when compared to how you think and act while in a relaxed environment.
It also means the way in which you make decisions changes too, mostly because of changes in brain function. When you experience threat-related stress, your brain knows it and sends out alert messages. The body then reacts to the messages by releasing chemicals that prepare you biologically, emotionally, psychologically and physically to deal with the threat.
The way you deal with threats, including how you make decisions, is engrained in your DNA. Dating all the way back to the early existence of our species, the brain has been learning (and remembering) how to make decisions in high-stress, high-consequence environments. And believe me, our cave-dwelling ancestors were living with a lot of stress and consequence.
One occurrence of flawed situational awareness and Ugg could become lunch for a sabre-tooth tiger. That’s threat-related stress at its worst. Through millions of years of evolution, our species learned how to make good decisions and survive (we can all be thankful for that). Those same “hereditary instincts” for how to make split-second decisions are within you.
One of the things that happens when all those chemicals get released in your brain is your brain function changes. Your rational left brain becomes less active and your intuitive right brain picks up the slack. In fact, in a high-stress, high-consequence decision making environment, your right brain dominates. And this is where the previously mentioned decision making model falls apart. That model is based on rational, analytical, non-emotional, facts that drive the decision. These are all left brain functions.
Under stress, the right brain dominates and the decision making becomes more creative, intuitive and, much to the chagrin of some who would prefer otherwise, emotional. Yes, high-stress, high-consequence decisions are highly influenced by emotions. In fact, very strong arguments (supported by research), support that all decisions,regardless of stress and consequence, are influenced heavily by emotions.
If the traditional, rational, analytical decision making process does not work well under stress, then how are decisions made? They are made using a dynamic, intuitive process that taps into the power of the right brain.
The body of research that supports intuitive decision making by firefighters was started over 25 years ago when a researcher named Gary Klein was working on a project to help the military improve decision making on battlefields. Klein’s work uncovered a new model for decision making in high-stress, high-consequence, dynamically changing environments. He called it the Recognition-Primed Decision Making process. I have taken the liberty of adapting Klein’s findings to help first responders understand how to improve incident scene decision making. Here are the steps of the dynamic decision making process:
1. Conduct a rapid size-up.
2. Focus on the most relevant information.
3. Recognize “typical” ways you would deal with the situation.
4. Run options in your mind.
5. Form expectations about outcomes.
6. Detect unusual problems and seek explanation for odd things.
7. Make a plan and put the decision into action.
Let’s look at each step of the dynamic decision making process to see how firefighters can use it to help improve decision making at incident scenes.
Conduct a rapid size-up
In a dynamic environment where things are changing fast, the size-up needs to be quick. When I am discussing this with firefighters, some believe the incident scene size-up must be quick because the situation requires rapid action to prevent further damage or loss of life.
And, while this may be true in many instances, it is not the reason the decision making process demands a rapid size-up. It is because the speed at which things are changing can cause the decision maker to get overwhelmed with information.
Remember, under stress the rational brain isn’t functioning as well and it is the rational brain that processes information – volumes of information, complex information and detailed information is not your friend under stress. In fact, it can be detrimental to decision making.
When the brain cannot figure out what is going on it can, essentially, lock up and you may not be able to make a decision at all. This is sometimes referred to as analysis paralysis. It happens when the brain is trying so hard to process and analyze volumes of information that it becomes paralyzed.
A rapid size up ensures the decision maker is only taking a snapshot of information. This helps prevent the brain from getting overloaded. In a dynamically changing environment, the longer you wait, the more information there is to comprehend.
This is not to say the size-up should be somehow shortcut or incomplete. A 360-degree size-up, gathering critical information to form situational awareness is imperative to making a good decision.
Focus on the most relevant information
In a dynamically changing, complex environment (like a structure fire) there may be dozens, if not hundreds of pieces of information coming at you. The problem is, your brain cannot process all that information.
The capacity of your short-term (sometimes called working) memory is about seven pieces of unrelated information. Not dozens. Not hundreds. Seven. If you try to remember more, you will forget. But what will you forget?
People who do not understand how the brain functions under stress believe the least important information will be forgotten and the most important information will be retained. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Under stress the brain is not very good at prioritizing important from unimportant information. Further, when lots of information is flooding into your brain you have little conscious control over what you will remember or forget.
It is entirely possible that the most important thing(s) you need to remember get forgotten and the least important thing(s) get remembered. This is just the opposite of what you’d want to happen. What is most likely to stick in your short-term memory is information that is familiar to you (based on past training and experience) and information that triggers some emotional response or has some emotional connection with your past experiences.
If those things are among the most important, you’ll remember them. If they’re not very important, you’ll still remember them. The best thing you can do to manage the limitations of your short-term memory is write the important things down on paper. That way, if your brain gets overloaded and starts shedding important information, you’ve captured it in writing.
Recognize “typical” ways you would deal with the situation
As you gain experience, you learn what to expect at emergency scenes. As you prepare for and respond to an emergency, you’re gathering and processing information shared with you by the dispatcher.
As you form mental images in your mind about the call you are responding to, you think back to past training and experiences of similar calls. This helps you prepare, in advance of arrival, to form some expectations of what you should see.
This process allows you to quickly assess and compare the current event to past experiences and it can speed up the processing of information and decision making. Experts can do this process very well.
Novices, however, struggle here because they do not have enough training or experience to know what they should expect to see. This is where training and experience can really pay off in incident scene decision making.
Run options in your mind
In this step of the decision making process you think about what may be your best course of action. Then, prior to implementing it, you run the action plan through in your head. You are running a mental simulation of the action. You are imagining what will happen if you take that action.
If, during the mental simulation you find flaws in your plan, scrap it. Come up with a new plan and run another mental simulation of the new plan. You’ll do this as many times as you need to in order to come up with a plan that has a good (safe) outcome. Sometimes this may be the first plan that comes into your mind. Other times you may have to run two or three simulations until you come up with one you are confident will work.
Form expectations about outcomes
In this step of the dynamic decision making process you think about what the successful outcome(s) will look like. In this step, you are looking at the end result – the successful outcome. In a fire scenario, that might mean you’ll see white smoke replacing black smoke and the flames will be gone. While this step seems so elementary, do not underestimate its importance.
If things are not going well at the fire, the white smoke will not replace the black smoke and the flames will not go away. Beginning the fire decision making process with the end in mind allows you to visualize the benchmarks that indicate success.
As you work through the fire, you’ll be able to harken back to this visualization of the successful outcome and realize, with clarity, whether or not you are moving in the direction of success or in the direction of failure.
When thinking in the mindset of end results, always be sure to put this expectation on a timeline. For example, if you expect black smoke to turn white and the fire to go out, it will, always, with complete certainty do so. How can I be so sure? Every fire will, eventually, run out of fuel and self-extinguish. Setting a timeline allows you to manage the role your people play in this expectation.
For example, when you send firefighters inside a structure fire you cannot leave them in there for an infinite period of time. A building on fire is weakening under the heat of the fire. Gravity is pushing down on the building, trying to make it fall down.
Eventually, if the fire is not extinguished, gravity will win and the building will fall down. When you set time expectations, you think about how long you can leave your firefighters in that dangerous, weakening building before you pull them out.
Detect unusual problems and seek explanation for odd things
In this step of the decision making process, you take time to identify and comprehend unexpected or unusual things. Regardless of how much training or experience you have, any call can present unusual or unexpected things. When this happens, the decision making process slows down because it is more difficult and time consuming to understand unusual things.
When faced with novel events (first-time experiences), do not rush the decision. Do not dismiss the unusual as coincidental. Rather, try to understand why the unusual things are happening. If something happens you did not expect, try to seek an explanation as to how that something unexpected occurred.
Look for weak signals. Weak signals are small signs that indicate unusual things are happening and are precursors to unexpected outcomes. They can be easy to overlook, especially in the presence of strong signals – big signs that indicate unusual and atypical things are happening.
Make a plan and put the decision into action
This is the final step of the dynamic decision making process. Here, you lock on to your plan of action and get to work. Up to this point, the entire process was mental. This is the step where the physical implementation of the decision occurs. Following the process helps in the formation of an action plan that is based on gathering and understanding what is happening while making accurate predications about future events.
There is no coincidence to the goal of dynamic decision making and the definition of situational awareness I offered in the May 2013 issue.
Situational awareness is a first responder’s ability to capture cues and clues (think of gathering up jigsaw puzzle pieces) from what is happening around you… then being able to put those clues and cues together to mean something (think of assembling some of the puzzled pieces to start forming a picture)… then being able to predict future events as a result of what you have captured and the meaning you gave to it (think of looking a partially completed jigsaw puzzle and making predictions about what the completed picture will look like).
If you are going to make good decisions in high-stress, high-consequence, time-compressed, dynamically changing environments consider including this process into your training and then practice it at emergency scenes. You’ll find it helps you make better decisions and, when coupled with strong situational awareness, it will help you see the bad things coming… in time to change the outcome.
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