"Natural" Decision Making for Incident Commanders

After years of study, the academic world has identified numerous ways that individuals can make decisions. For the fire service, there are two ways in which we typically make decisions without consciously knowing it sometimes. The “Natural” (also...


After years of study, the academic world has identified numerous ways that individuals can make decisions. For the fire service, there are two ways in which we typically make decisions without consciously knowing it sometimes. The “Natural” (also known as Recognition Prime Decision Making (RPD)) and the “Classical” Decision Making methods are the two predominant methods we utilize.

RPD is the ability to quickly determine the problem, find a solution and institute that solution based on previous experiences. We as fireground commanders use our previous experiences to determine our strategy and tactics at those fires we are currently commanding. Classical Decision Making entails the decision maker identifying the problem, analyzing the problem, generating possible solutions, determining the pros and cons of those solutions, identifying the best possible solution, garnering input from outside sources to determine the success of the solution and then implementing the solution. This method requires additional time and more resources than RPD and can delay actions on the fireground, possibly creating a loss of time, property and lives. Make no mistake though; both decision-making models have a place within the fire service. The subject of this article will be the RPD method.

How You Arrive At Decisions

RPD is a process in which people use their experiences in the form of a repertoire of patterns.These patterns identify the most relevant cues, provide expectancies, identify goals and suggest types of reactions in these situations. What this means to the fireground commander and company officers is when a quick decision is needed, they quickly search for a solution from previous experiences, find the closest match, run a mental simulation of what the outcome should look like, make any adjustments to that solution and implement the solution.

It is no secret that fireground commanders have to make quick decisions with a limited amount of knowledge about the situation and then institute that solution. What is interesting is that in one study, almost unanimously, all the experienced fireground commanders interviewed believed there were alternative actions to the one they chose; however, they never considered those options during the fireground operations. For the RPD model to be effective, those making decisions must have previous experience and education from which to draw solutions. These aspects grow as ones career, experiences and education increase.

An example of RPD being used on the fire scene looks like this:

Battalion Chief (BC) 1 has arrived on the scene of a three-story, wood-frame, single-family dwelling with heavy smoke showing from the 3rd floor of side B. The BC has already formulated a mental simulation of an engine advancing an attack line through the entry door on side A, ascending the interior stairway to the 3rd floor, where they, with the assistance of a truck company, will advance into the room on fire, knock down the fire, ventilate and clear the structure on a primary survey for occupants.

Based on the BC’s previous experiences as a firefighter and company officer, they formulate the steps that will occur to get to the point of fire attack and extinguishment. What has to be accounted for in the RPD model to maintain its relevancy is situation assessment. Situation assessment provides a continual flow of information to the BC in which they can update the strategy and tactics they are utilizing formed from RPD.

There are generally four aspects of situation assessment that support this model of decision making:

  1. 1. understanding the types of goals that can be reasonably accomplished in that situation;
  2. increasing the recognition of cues that are important within the context of the situation;
  3. forming expectations that can serve as a check on accuracy of the situation assessment; and
  4. identify the typical actions to take.      
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