Decision Making

Decision making is an essential skill, often in a time critical environment, which is crucial to performance and safety.

Making decisions can involve using a systematic method of problem solving or can be an informal and quick mental process that relies on experience and practice to quickly interpret the situation and apply the best fix. Your approach to decision making will depend on the type of situation, its complexity and the implications of your decision.

Not all decisions are made by one person, consensus decision making amongst a team is a valid method of decision making, but not always practical when time is a critical factor.

The steps that are usually followed are:

  • Gather information about the situation and develop your perception
  • Recognise the problem or change required
  • Gather information before making a decision. Ask questions such as: who, what, where, when and why; also consider who will be affected by the decision and how
  • Cross check information sources for agreement
  • Identify alternatives/contingencies so that possible solutions may be explored
  • Evaluate the alternatives including the consequences of decisions in an effort to enhance the decision-making process and provide the rationale for decision alternatives all within the time afforded to the situation
  • Select the most logical solution and implement it
  • Observe the required change to the environment and re-assess until the situation is resolved

Decision Making in an Emergency

An emergency situation is likely to differ to situations that are handled on a routine basis. Research (Hesketh et al, 2002) suggests that experts can perform these tasks well, because they have an extensive body of experience and examples that they can draw upon, as well as the ability to engage in a 'mental simulation' of events, in order to make an appropriate decision. This concept is called 'recognition primed decision making' or using ‘memory slides’. The key conclusion from this concept is that decision makers in emergency situations need to have an extensive body of knowledge and experience to draw upon in order to recall the appropriate action, adapt and respond.

As a member working at an advanced level, you need to have confidence in and a realistic opinion of, your experience and knowledge base and your ability to make decisions in stressful situations. Your decisions may affect the incident and your safety and that of your fellow team members. If you feel that your body of experience and knowledge is lacking, talk to your brigade training officer or captain to identify some of the opportunities that exist to help rectify the situation. This could involve a variety of options including participation in training or mentoring opportunities.

In emergency situations you may have to make decisions with limited or poor information. Sometimes you will have to go with the most likely best option or face the consequences of not making a decision.

Decision-making Tools

As the environment may often be stressful, organisations develop decision-making tools or prompts to assist their staff to make decisions. Examples of these tools are:

  • Policies: Useful for strategic decision making in relation to planned activities
  • Standard operating procedures: Useful for tactical decision making
  • 'LACES': Useful prompts for decision making
  • 'Watch out’ situations: Useful benchmarks for decision making

You need to think about the future and plan ahead. This involves looking at a situation, thinking about the different courses the situation can take (for a fire, this means predicting fire behaviour) and working out alternative strategies (contingency planning). 'If this happens, then I will...’ This decision-making process is called 'Dynamic Risk Assessment’.

Dynamic Risk Assessment, should be carried out regularly by all members working at incidents or in other dynamic environments. Whether you are working autonomously or as part of a team in an emergency situation, you need to remain vigilant of your surroundings and continually reassess your work objectives versus the situation and the likely outcomes, and apply changes to strategies or tactics based on the risks associated with the task at any given time.

A useful prompt for decision making and an aid for DRA is the LACES checklist. 

There is a slightly different LACES Checklist for officers in charge (e.g. Crew Leaders)