Crew Resource Management - Part 6: Critical Decision Making

Dennis L. Rubin suggests that for firefighters, officers and chiefs looking for a way to eliminate human error from operations, “CRM is just what the doctor ordered.”


After more than 30 years of utilization, the incident command system (ICS) has become a way of life for most North American fire and rescue agencies. Some departments and members are better at applying the command-and-control process than others, but all in all ICS has become an industry standard...


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After more than 30 years of utilization, the incident command system (ICS) has become a way of life for most North American fire and rescue agencies. Some departments and members are better at applying the command-and-control process than others, but all in all ICS has become an industry standard.

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Photo courtesy of Norfolk Department of Fire & Paramedical Services
The safety officer becomes the remote "eyes and ears" of the commander and is a principal player of the command team.

NIOSH, NFPA and all other regulatory groups are very clear in their message: the use of the ICS is not optional. When this process first evolved from the California FIRESCOPE project and Phoenix Fire Ground Command program, ICS had the potential of being a pivotal/historical change in how we do business.

ICS could have ended up as a "flash in the pan" or hitting the "round file" in due time, but history reflects that our business took to ICS like ducks to water. It would be unimaginable to turn our backs on a process that has tremendously enhanced firefighter safety while allowing fire departments to be more effective in solving our customers' emergencies. What a huge, positive impact that the ICS/IMS has had on our members and customers when used properly and consistently.

On behalf of our industry, thanks to Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini and the FIRESCOPE cities for having the vision and conviction to make such a sweeping, positive operational impact. With celebration and acknowledgement, it is now time to look to the future and be a part of molding the next organizational change. I am convinced that the next logical step in the firefighter safety and customer service journey is crew resource management (CRM) applied to the incident management system.

What Is CRM?

CRM is not a new command system, so relax, and don't get nervous. It is not a "flash in the pan" either. With more than 20 years of use in the airline industry, CRM has "paid its dues." If you are looking for a way to eliminate human error from your operations, do read on and pay attention because CRM is just what the doctor ordered.

On Dec. 28, 1978, a commercial airliner needlessly and tragically crashed in Portland, OR. Essentially, the captain of the aircraft did not heed the cautions and warnings expressed by the experienced members of his flight crew. They told the captain that the aircraft did not have enough fuel to compensate for a problem with the landing gear.

The case study that I cited here was the crash of United Airlines Flight 173. The plane ran out of fuel six miles from the airport, resulting in 10 fatalities and 23 injuries. As the emotional stress and pressure increase in the cockpit of that DC-8 aircraft, several critical decisions were made that turned out to be disastrous. The CRM program was developed in response to and as a direct result of the collection of human errors that happened aboard United 173 that fateful day.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) led the way to fully develop and implement the comprehensive crew resource management system in response to the last critical element, human error, in preventing commercial aviation crashes. When this human factors performance enhancement system was offered up in 1979, it was called "Cockpit Resource Management." After 23 years of use, six major revisions and a name change, "Crew Resource Management" is one of the best human factors engineering and performance enhancement programs available.

CRM Components

By way of a brief review of the CRM program, the foundation principle is that "to err is human." A formal system of critical checks and balances must be placed into motion to eliminate, or at least reduce the likelihood of, human error. CRM recognizes that humans are prone to making errors and compensates for this fact by adding a second set of eyes, ears and additional brainpower. The design allows for redundancy on the flight line (cockpit) using a "challenge and confirm" mentality to get the decision right the first time every time. It just makes good sense that two heads are better than one when it comes to making critical decisions.

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