Riding the Right-Front Seat: Making Decisions

One critical element in your preparation to be an effective incident commander comes from the world of management, where you must be able to weigh facts, evaluate circumstances and make effective decisions. This column provides the means for you to learn about problem solving and decision making.

Many people assume making a decision is simple. It is and it isn’t. Understanding the process is your first task, then you must practice the process. Then you will face situations that compel you to make a decision.

A decision is the choice of an action in response to a problem. We define “problem,” in this case, as a deficiency in our needs that occurs in a given situation under a specified set of circumstances. To be classified as decision making, you must be required to make a choice. If there is no choice, there can be, by definition, no decision.

The unfortunate problem that many people face is that the lack of a choice causes them to want to find a choice. This creates a problem, and then these people are happy. To help you improve your decision-making capabilities, we will examine the process of making a decision. We will look at each of the steps and then help you to understand their use.

There are two types of decisions you will be called on to handle. The first is the routine decision. These are simple matters that tend to be periodic and repetitious, and have fairly certain outcomes. Many common fireground decisions fall into this category. For example, there should be no question as to whether we will use the Incident Management System (IMS). This has been selected as the best way to operate. More than four decades of research exist to verify this fact. In many jurisdictions, its use is mandated by government edict. Other decisions that are normally pre-made for us include:

• Which units respond to which types of incidents?

• When is a rescue company dispatched to a working fire?

• How many pumpers and how many aerial ladders are due to respond to a target hazard in your community?

This is just a short list. Undoubtedly you can come up with a great many more. The object here is to make things as easy as possible for your troops by arming them with pre-made decisions, or general operating guidelines (GOGs). Just add fire and water and you have a decision.


Brainstorming ideas

An excellent way to create these guidelines and pre-made decisions comes through brainstorming. This freewheeling process can generate many solutions to a problem, but it is done in such a way as to discuss ideas for these solutions without imposing judgments on people. You do not want to turn them off with criticism.

You and your people are encouraged to present your thoughts as you get them. You are discouraged from making fun of anyone’s ideas. All ideas are written down and used in the process. Many times, ideas build one upon the other. What one person perceives as a silly suggestion may be turned into the best idea possible through group interaction.

The keys to effective brainstorming are simple, but ignore them at your peril:

• No criticism

• Freewheeling discussion

• Quantity of ideas

• Combination of ideas and improvement

• Write down ideas so they are not lost

Once you become good at brainstorming, you can apply these same skills to the creation of a set of GOGs. These will be available to handle your most commonly encountered fireground problems. In this way, your personnel can be prepared to respond to future problems by having guidelines available to them beforehand.

1. Define the actual problem. Be sure that what you are looking at is the actual problem and not a symptom of the problem. Be sure you are treating the pinched nerve that is causing the headache and not just taking aspirin for the symptoms.

2. Collect information that will assist you with developing solutions. During a fire, such information as wind speed and direction, smoke color and flame conditions can give you clues to the problems you may face. In this way, you can prepare for solving problems that have these matters as elements.

3. Generate alternative options. As you look at a large fire on a windy day, use our fireground size-up method. The “What have I got?” question leads you to the following alternatives:

• Should we use an aggressive interior attack?

• Should we work to keep it to the block of origin?

• Should we use an aggressive interior attack and move in?

• Should we use a blitz attack from the outside and the think about moving in?

4. Evaluate the alternative options. By looking at the fire and considering your options, you will become more practical as time passes. Unfortunately, at a fire you cannot let a lot of time pass, because of the destruction that is ongoing during the decision process. Many people get hung up at this phase. They are so busy pondering all of the possibilities that they never make a decision.

5. Pick one. Get off the dime and select an alternative.

6. DO IT!

7. Check your feedback to see how the decision is working.

The object here is to evaluate the success of your choice. If it is getting the job done for you, then your decision is correct. If it does not solve your problem, choose another alternative and see how things go. If none of the alternatives work, you may have to start the process over from the beginning.


Bad decisions

Regardless of our intentions, bad decisions occur from time to time. Why is this the case? Many times, people charged with making decisions do not trust the people who work with them. It also could be that they have not trained their subordinates to make decisions or ever let them develop as leaders.

In any case, they ignore what people have to say and make all decisions themselves. They ignore data that does not confirm their way of thinking. Bad decisions can result from this myopic view of life. Rather than soliciting advice and opinions, these people rely on their own preferences. They presume they have seen and experienced everything. This type of thinking can lead to serious consequences.

Some people make decisions based strictly on tradition. These are the people who live by the motto, “We’ve always done it that way.” These are the people who want to use a 1¾-inch hoseline for every type of fire, from a trash can to a warehouse. This is not a good way to operate.

Worst of all are the people who have not learned from the bad decisions they made in the past. They feel that if they keep trying the same decision over and over, it will eventually be the right one. People can be killed in this fashion. Some people truly never do learn from their mistakes.

Absorb the meaning of what it takes to make a decision. Work at making decisions. You will get better with practice.