Decision making is a fundamental command skill which can have far-reaching consequences. Decision making, like any complex skill, needs practice and understanding. Fire and rescue services should ensure they prepare incident commanders. They should be given ample opportunity to practice and develop this critical skill.
The ability to make sound decisions based on the elements that make up an incident, as well as an accurate overall interpretation of the incident is a fundamental building block. It leads to assertive, effective and safe incident command.
There are a number of processes that incident commanders may use to reach decisions. They can be broadly grouped into two main categories. These are:
- Intuitive decision-making, which may include conditioned processes and recognition primed decision-making
- Analytical decision-making, which may include rule selection, option comparison and creating new solutions
Further information can be found in The Foundation for Incident Command.
Analytical decision-making takes more time and mental effort than intuitive processes and can be more susceptible to the effects of excessive pressures that reduce the capacity for mental processing.
A decision trap can be described as a thought process that can lead to an incorrect decision being made, which may result in the situation becoming worse.
There are a number of decision traps that may make decisions in the operational context less effective. Decision makers should be aware of these and should apply decision controls to guard against unintended consequences. Further information can be found in The Foundation for Incident Command.
It is the responsibility of fire and rescue services to ensure that they adequately train, develop and support incident commanders in their decision-making processes and capabilities.
Incident commanders make decisions throughout an incident. The decisions they make involve:
- Identifying problems
- Assessing risk
- Identifying and prioritising objectives
- Deciding tactical priorities
- Developing and communicating a plan
- Actively monitoring
These processes apply to all decision makers on the incident ground. They have equal relevance from a firefighter wearing breathing apparatus to an incident commander developing their plan. It is critical that everybody is aware of the processes that drive their decision-making. Fire and rescue services should ensure that decision makers understand the factors that influence which process they are likely to adopt and the pitfalls associated with each.
Decision Control Process (DCP)
The Decision Control Process provides a method to support decision-making at an incident. This aims to take account of the natural decision processes a person might employ in an operational context. It seeks to support decision makers in a practical way to avoid unintended consequences arising from decision traps.
The Decision Control Process is scalable. It can be applied to basic decisions made on the incident ground for a task or problem. It can also scale up for use in planning the resolution of an entire incident. It complements the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP) Joint Decision Model for multi-agency decision-making, particularly for assessing risk and developing a working strategy.
This process consists of four stages. These are:
- Decision controls
Figure 1: Decision control process
For an animated version of this diagram, click here
Commanders base their decisions on the way they interpret a situation. Good situational awareness is key to understanding the situation in a coherent way. It helps to predict likely developments. By assessing the situation, a decision maker can understand the current characteristics and details of an incident and consider the desired end state.
Decision makers should continually be assessing the situation to support an accurate awareness. They should gather relevant information whilst making the best use of the time available. Though this list is not exhaustive, they should consider:
- Incident information
- Resource information
- Risk information
Incident commanders should identify the resources currently available and those likely to be required to deliver a safe and effective incident plan. Appropriate internal and external resources should be requested via fire control in a timely way; fire control should be regularly updated on availability and predicted length of deployment. The time from request to arrival should be considered when developing incident plans and available resources should be deployed effectively at all times.
When requesting resources, the following should be considered:
- Specialist skills and expertise
- Tactical and specialist advisers
- Police, ambulance and other category 1 and 2 responders
- National Resilience Fire Control
- Relief crews
- Voluntary sector groups
After assessing the situation, the decision maker should form a plan. They should understand the current situation and their desired outcome. From this they can identify their objectives and develop an incident plan.
This list is not exhaustive but the plan may consider:
- What are the incident objectives and goals?
- What are the tactical priorities?
- What are the operational tactics?
Decision controls are designed to help guard against decision traps that might occur as a result of the type of decision process people naturally adopt. Before moving to the action phase, decision makers should use decision controls as a rapid mental check and as part of their briefing to crews.
Decision controls are a rapid mental check that asks:
- Why am I doing this?
- To what goals does this link?
- What is my rationale?
- What do I think will happen?
- Anticipate the likely outcome of the action, in particular the impact on the objective and other activities
- How will the incident change as a result of these actions, what cues do I expect to see?
- Is the benefit proportional to the risk?
- Consider whether the benefits of proposed actions justify the risks that would be accepted
This involves implementing the decisions that have been made. Wherever feasible, decision controls should be applied before this phase, or as soon as possible afterwards. This applies whether decision makers move to Action from Plan or directly from Situation assessment. The two elements of this phase are:
- Communicate the outcomes of the decision effectively by issuing instructions and sharing risk-critical information. It may also involve the provision of updates on the situation, on progress, or other information about what is happening at an incident.
- Control how the activities are implemented to achieve the desired outcomes. Consider delegating responsibility where this will help increase or maintain control.
The commander should be actively monitoring and evaluating the situation, including progress being achieved against that expected. This ensures that their situational awareness remains accurate. They should consider whether their tactics or incident plans are suitable, sufficient and safe; they should consider and question any areas of uncertainty, especially where they have made assumptions. Operational assurance arrangements can aid commanders in maintaining accurate situational awareness.
The Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP) Joint Decision Model is a process that blue light responders have agreed to use at multi-agency incidents, as illustrated below.
Figure 2: JESIP Joint Decision Model
The diagram below shows how the Decision Control Process supports the JESIP Joint Decision Model; in particular, the element of 'assessing risk and developing a working strategy'. It helps to feed plans into the Joint Decision Model and can be used as a process to plan and implement activities to achieve the fire and rescue objectives that have been agreed collectively using the Joint Decision Model.
Figure 3: How the Decision Control Process supports the JESIP Joint Decision Model
For an animated version of this diagram, click here.