Fire Command Concept
Over many years of experience accumulated through attending, fighting, investigating and researching building fires, one thing that stands out is the commonality of time-lined impacts of fire command decision making. It has been said earlier that Incident response data demonstrates that a large percentage of fires become worse following fire service
arrival, before control is ever achieved.
In the author’s study of 5,401 UK building fires representing all building fires over a three-year period (2009-2012), where firefighters required breathing apparatus and deployed water hose-lines to deal with developing fires, 47% of fires spread beyond the compartment of origin and 30% of these spread to involve upper floor levels before control was achieved. In another study in London, 25% of building fires became worse following fire service arrival prior to the fires being extinguished.
Some situations demonstrated key strategic and tactical omissions or errors occurring in the earliest stages of firefighting where command decision making had the greatest impact on incident outcomes. It was in the first sixty seconds where critical actions or decisions could have made the biggest difference in locating and saving trapped occupants. It was in the first five minutes where the deployment plan established a path of ‘no immediate return’ that may have impacted greatly on the success of the entire firefighting operation.
The fire-ground is extremely dynamic and decisions are often made under great duress with each specific situation presenting a diverse range of challenges and outcomes. It was noted that in some situations firefighters were deployed to an apparent point of ‘no return’, for fear of losing ground on the spread of fire through a building, even though their resources were not supported and their exposure to risk was rapidly escalating.
It is here that the ‘error chain’ can be broken by a second arriving commander fresh onto the scene. It may be at this critical point within the first twelve minutes of an initial response arriving on-scene that a command decision to ‘pull out’ and regroup for re-deployment might have saved multiples of firefighter lives.
On the subject of decision-making processes, Dr Gary Klein has investigated the subject of recognition primed decisions (RPD). According to Klein, ‘fire-ground commanders will make 80 per cent of their decisions in less than one minute’218. It was discovered that emergency-scene decision-making relies heavily on experience, especially when the fire-ground commander is faced with a time-pressure situation. The RPD decision- making model combines two ways of developing a decision; the first is recognizing which course of action makes sense and the second is evaluating the course of action through imagination to evaluate if the actions of the decision make sense.
The RPD paradigm of decision-making applies to fire-ground command because decisions on the fire-ground are under time pressure conditions and experience of the fire commander plays a large part in determining if the appropriate decision will be made.
However, some key points of guidance here from Arthur Perlini, Professor of Psychology at Algoma University, Canada, when discussing his work in fire commander’s decision making, based on ‘gut feeling’ and a strong sense of past experience:
- Less informed leaders fall victim to ‘pattern matching’ …
- There are tendencies to compare each new situation with old patterns, without
- paying attention to the actual individual needed cognitive efforts.
- There is also a tendency for people to over emphasise recent events rather than a
- combination of all experience in total.
- There is greater recollection of instances that confirm beliefs, and therefore an over-estimation of the likelihood of an event repeating itself.
- Many are prone to see patterns that don’t actually exist.
It should be our objective to provide buildings that support ‘safe’ occupation for both firefighters and occupants in those early stages of a building fire. It must also be a primary aim of firefighters that we implement actions and tactics that reduce a fires heat release or rate of fire spread as soon as we arrive on-scene. This strategic objective alone may save even more lives.
Fire Command Concept written by Paul Grimwood, eurofirefighter.com