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by the NFCC

Behavioural marker systems

A behavioural marker system is a set of critical non-technical skills associated with effective and safe performance. The main skills are underpinned by sub-skills that are illustrated by typical behaviours – known as behavioural markers. The primary aim of using a behavioural marker system is to enhance safety and to assist individuals, teams and organisations to achieve the highest levels of performance.

Behavioural marker systems are widely used throughout high-reliability organisations and industries to assess the performance of non-technical skills (from this point forward referred to as command skills) by safety critical personnel and teams. Typically, such systems also include:

  • A rating scale to measure the performance of command skills
  • Documentation for recording behavioural observations and providing feedback
  • A methodology for using the system

In 2017, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) commissioned Cardiff University to develop a behavioural marker system for UK fire and rescue service incident commanders to measure their command skills performance. The figure below illustrates the tailored set of command skills for incident commanders that form the basis of THe INcident Command Skills (THINCS) behavioural maker system.

Figure: Command skills forming the THINCS behavioural marker system for incident commanders

These command skills were identified by earlier research conducted by Cardiff University with the support of the NFCC. Several converging research methods were used to identify them including, a survey of UK incident command training managers and interviews with incident commanders. Subject matter expert workshops defined, refined and agreed the final set of skills.

The following figure shows the definitions of one of the THINCS command skills and its sub-skills.

Figure: Definitions of the effective decision-making and planning command skill and its sub-skills from the THINCS

The THINCS behavioural marker system was developed under the auspices of the National Command and Control Users Group (NCCUG) and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It was designed based on established criteria which stipulate that its behaviours should:

  • Have a causal link to performance
  • Be observable
  • Be discrete
  • Have a hierarchical structure
  • Follow the rule of parsimony – contain the minimum number of skills and sub skills
  • Be simple to understand
  • Be written using workplace terminology

A small group of subject matter experts, representing the four levels of command, were drawn from a range of fire and rescue services to participate in a series of workshops. The workshops produced the behavioural marker system including its rating scale, method of use and documentation.

The figure below depicts the set of behavioural markers for the intuitive decision-making sub-skill within the THINCS system. Often the poor practice behaviours are the opposite of the good, but this is not exclusively the case and they do not represent an exhaustive list.

Figure: Typical behavioural markers for the intuitive decision-making sub-skill within the THINCS behavioural maker system for i

Good behavioural marker systems produce valid, reliable assessments of performance and are able to differentiate between levels of performance. They should also be regarded by the intended users as valid and usable to ensure it will be used. An evaluation of the THINCS system identified that it was reliable, comprehensive and straightforward to use.

Feedback from the evaluation led to the development of an app funded by a grant from the ESRC. The THINCS app automates many of the manual processes of the paper-based system and makes the assessment process more efficient. In particular, the app is capable of generating and sending performance data to a database via an administrator.

For more information see Development of a behavioural marker system for incident command in the UK fire and rescue service: THINCS.

The THINCS behavioural marker system and its app are free to the UK fire and rescue service. It is issued under licence from Cardiff University who also provide free training. For more information refer to THe INcident Command Skills (THINCS) system: a users’ guide for UK fire and rescue service.

Behavioural makers systems were originally designed to ensure that the learning from command skills training programmes, such as crew resource management in the aviation industry, transferred into the workplace. This was deemed essential to ensure that command skills were being appropriately practiced by safety-critical personnel to reduce occurrences of human error and improve safety.

Specially trained personnel, often referred to as ‘raters’, use the system to:

  • Observe an incident commander
  • Record behavioural observations against sub–skills
  • Review and rate the performance
  • Determine what feedback to provide
  • Record data in a database

Behavioural marker systems can be used at operations, in training and assessments, and permit command skills training to be evaluated. Further, they may be a feature of safety management and can be used for research.

The THINCS behavioural marker system provides a common command skills vocabulary for use within training, operations and policy. It enables performance databases to be developed that can determine normative practice and prioritise training needs; compare different groups within an organisation; and provide performance feedback at individual, team and organisational levels. Behavioural marker system performance data may be correlated with other, safety-related data such as incident outcomes and accident investigations, for example to highlight reductions in human error and improvements in safety. As such they can create innovative relationships with safety, training and operations to enhance performance.

Behavioural marker systems are not designed to capture every aspect of performance and behaviour because of the limited occurrence of some behaviours within a workplace, even if they are important, for example, negotiation. Further, there are human factors and limitations associated with the performance of raters. For example, they can become distracted, overloaded or biased whilst observing an incident commander. Ideally, raters need to be experienced and knowledgeable in their field and be interested in human factors.

The combination of trained raters and a domain-specific behavioural marker system can deliver consistent, reliable, evidence-based assessments.

The implementation of a behavioural marker system into an organisation will need to be carefully managed. For example, a phased introduction to develop confidence and expertise in raters and those to be rated. The application of a behavioural marker system should be sensitive to the developmental stage and professional role of individuals, and to the maturity of the organisational culture. For example, consideration should be given whether or not to use the system for formative and summative assessments, or in training and operational environments.

Behavioural marker systems should not be regarded as static. For example, systems need to evolve as operational circumstances change due to the introduction of new equipment or revised regulations, or if a greater insight is attained about the human factors associated with the workplace.