Control Measure Knowledge

Decision-making is essential to the development and implementation of an incident plan. Incident plans are formed out of a number of decisions beyond deciding what will be done, including how it will be done, in what order, with what and who will do it.

Decision-making is a fundamental command skill which can have far-reaching consequences. The ability to make sound decisions, based on the characteristics of an incident which can be dynamic and time-pressured, requires an accurate, overall interpretation of the situation. Sound decisions lead to assertive, effective and safe incident command.

If an incident commander is unable to make sound decisions this will affect all aspects of their command, for example:

  • Health and safety
  • Incident management
  • Confidence and trust in their leadership
  • Situational awareness
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Teamwork
  • Interoperability: co-operation, co-ordination and communication
  • Confidence
  • Personal resilience

Decision-making, like any complex skill, needs practice and understanding. Fire and rescue services should ensure they prepare incident commanders, by providing ample opportunity for them to practice and develop this critical skill.

Incident commanders make decisions in relation to a wide variety of issues throughout an incident. These include:

  • Identifying problems
  • Assessing risks
  • Identifying and prioritising objectives
  • Deciding tactical priorities
  • Developing and communicating a plan
  • Active monitoring

It is important to acknowledge that decision-making processes and traps apply to all decision makers on the incident ground. They have equal relevance from a breathing apparatus wearer to an incident commander developing their plan.

Decision-making does not only happen at the incident ground; decisions are also made in the fire control room and by other agencies. It is critical that all decision makers are aware of this and the impact that each can have on the other.

Decision-making strategies

There are a number of decision-making processes that incident commanders may use to reach decisions. They can be broadly grouped into two main strategies:

  • 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

The difference between the two main types is the time and effort it takes to make a decision. Intuitive decision-making is fast and invoked without consciously thinking. It may be driven by cues and clues that can automatically and directly trigger a decision or response. Analytical decision-making is consciously done and takes time and effort to do, as it involves developing and comparing a number of options based on knowledge, understanding and past experience of the situation.

Decision traps

Decisions made by incident commanders may be subjected to a number of decision traps. A decision trap can be described as an errant thought process that can lead to an incorrect decision being made; this may result in a situation worsening. The intuitive decision-making process is subject to biases; this process can be affected by stress that can impair a number of thought processes.

Uncertainty is a primary stressor for incident commanders of which there are two main types:

  • Intra-incident uncertainty: uncontrollable characteristics of the incident; sources of uncertainty can include:
    • Too much information
    • Insufficient information
  • Extra-incident uncertainty: characteristics of the command system beyond the incident and outside of the control of the commander; sources of uncertainty can include:
    • Insufficient depth of understanding about the roles of others
    • Limited provision of information about inter-agency arrangements

Decision inertia is one type of decision trap; incident commander uncertainty has been linked to this redundant deliberation to decide to take action or not because of anticipated negative consequences.

There are a number of other types of decision traps that may make decisions in the operational context less effective, including when:

  • A decision does not fit with the objectives, tactical priorities or incident plan
  • A decision is made on the basis of part of the situation, such as a cue or a goal, while not taking account of the overall picture
  • A decision is based on the wrong interpretation
  • There is decision aversion
  • There has been a failure to actively monitor and review the situation

Further information on the decision-making categories, decision traps and decision inertia can be found in Incident command: Knowledge, skills and competence.

Decision control process

Incident commanders and the command team are accountable for the decisions they make. They should be able to provide reasoned justifications for what they did and why. This is supported by the use of the decision control process (DCP). The process also assists incident commanders to mitigate against the likelihood of falling into a decision trap.

The DCP 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 JESIP Joint Decision Model for multi-agency decision-making, particularly for assessing risk and developing a working strategy.

Evidence from incidents shows that decisions are not always made in a linear way, as represented in other decision-making models. The DCP recognises this to support practical decision-making at an incident.

Under some circumstances, decision makers will respond rapidly and directly to an element of the situation, moving from situation assessment to action. This may happen when a cue prompts an intuitive decision. The DCP takes account of the way people naturally make rapid decisions. It presents some safeguards against potential decision traps. It also accounts for the slower and more reflective analytical type decision processes where plans are explicitly formulated.

The way an individual will make a decision may not be consciously selected. It depends on a number of factors related to the incident, perceived and actual time pressures, and the command role adopted. For example, a senior commander planning the resolution of a large-scale incident may be more likely to reach a decision using an analytical process. However, a commander who is first in attendance at an incident where there is a threat to life is less likely to use this type of process and more likely to use intuitive decision-making.

The process consists of four stages that are actively monitored. These are:

  • Situation; incident intelligence
  • Plan; based on situational awareness
  • Decision controls; rapid mental check that decision is appropriate and safe
  • Action; implementation of plan

Figure: Decision control process

Incident commanders should actively monitor and evaluate the situation and ensure their plan remains suitable and is making progress in accordance with expectations. Operational assurance arrangements can aid commanders in maintaining accurate situational awareness and confidence in their plan.


Commanders base their decisions on the way they interpret a situation. Good situational awareness is key to understanding the situation in a coherent way, and helps to predict likely developments. By assessing the situation, the incident commander can understand the current characteristics and details of an incident and consider the desired end state.

Commanders 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, including:

  • Incident information:
    • The current situation
    • What led to the current situation
    • How the situation might develop
  • Resource information:
    • The available resources
    • The resources required to deal with the current situation
    • What resources will be required, based on the expectations of how the incident will develop
  • Risk information
    • The hazards
    • Who is at risk
    • What is at risk
    • What control measures can be used
    • What the potential benefits of a course of action are

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 the fire control room in a timely way; fire control rooms 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, incident commanders should consider:

  • Personnel
  • Appliances
  • Equipment
  • Time and location of their arrival
  • Specialist skills and expertise
  • Tactical and specialist advisers
  • Police, ambulance and other Category 1 and Category 2 organisations
  • National Resilience capabilities
  • Relief crews
  • Voluntary sector groups

There are also technological resources that can directly support situational awareness and assist with decision-making, including:

  • Robots
  • Drones (classified as a type of unmanned aircraft system by the Civil Aviation Authority)
  • Specialist software

For specific incident types, early requests for specialist advice or assistance may be advantageous. For further information refer to Specialist resources.


After assessing the situation, the commander 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.

The incident plan may include:

  • The incident objectives and goals
  • The tactical priorities
  • The operational tactics, including operational procedures and operational discretion
  • How personnel are going to achieve the operational tactics
  • Whether specialist assistance will be required
  • What equipment will be required
  • The location for the operational tactics to take place
  • The expected outcome and timings
  • Contingency arrangements

The incident plan should be regularly reviewed and updated based on active monitoring of how effective it is delivering the expected outcomes. Active monitoring should be used to evaluate the situation to ensure the plan remains suitable and is making progress in accordance with expectations.

The incident plan should be adapted in accordance with changes to the situation if there are unexpected developments in the incident.

Decision controls

The decision controls represent a safety mechanism to guard against decision traps within the decision control process. They build in reflective thinking ahead of decisions being made and get incident commanders to ensure they understand:

  • Why they want to make the decision
    • The goals it links to
    • The rationale
  • What they expect to happen
    • Anticipate the likely outcome of the action, in particular the impact on the objective and other activities
    • How the incident will change as a result of the action
    • What cues are expected
  • Whether the benefits are proportional to the risks
    • 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; this may also involve providing 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; This may require delegating responsibility where this will help increase or maintain control

Active monitoring

The incident commander should be actively monitoring and evaluating the situation, including progress being achieved against what is expected, to ensure their situational awareness remains accurate.

Incident commanders 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 incident commanders in maintaining accurate situational awareness. For further information refer to Corporate Guidance for operational activity: Operational audits.

Progress information should be considered, including:

  • Actual progress; what progress has actually been made
  • Expected progress; how does this compare to the expected progress
  • Predicted progress; what further progress is predicted
  • Comparison of what happened to what was envisaged to happen; what is now predicted

Operational discretion

Operational discretion involves the use of professional judgement to make decisions in relation to incidents that are extremely unusual and not reasonably foreseeable, or a combination of circumstances that have not been predicted. Most situations that incident commanders are faced with are not unique and are foreseeable. In resolving an incident, commanders use their own experience and knowledge of guidance, together with that of the command team and personnel.

Operational discretion relates to unusual circumstances where strictly following an operational procedure would be a barrier to resolving an incident, or where there is no procedure that adequately deals with the incident. Incident commanders need to appreciate that such circumstances may lead to increased stressful working conditions for them and other personnel. Incident commanders need to be sufficiently aware of operational procedures, the skills and qualities of personnel, and the capability of the available resources.

Policies and procedures should be written in such a way as to give incident commanders a safe system of work for foreseeable situations. This is best achieved by avoiding the use of rigid procedures and adopting a more flexible approach. The ability to apply flexible guidance relies on the training of personnel and commanders in the application of safe systems of work and the ability to identify hazards and select suitable control measures.

For further information refer to the Incident command: Knowledge, skills and competence – Operational discretion.

Outcomes which may justify applying operational discretion include:

  • Saving human life
  • Taking decisive action to prevent an incident escalating
  • Incidents where taking no action may lead others to put themselves in danger

To resolve incidents of this type, commanders should draw heavily upon their previous operational experience and knowledge and the decision control process. Incident commanders need to recognise and share the fact that they might not know what to do. As a result, they will need to make use of all available resources as they may have the right knowledge and expertise to assist with problem-solving or other types of assistance. Resources may include personnel, responders from other agencies, outside organisations or members of the public.

The incident commander should be certain that in their opinion the potential benefit of taking unusual, unorthodox or innovative action justifies the risk. It is important for incident commanders to apply operational discretion for the minimum time necessary and only until they have achieved their objective.

Incident commanders should recognise that they, other personnel and responders may be working in heightened stressful conditions if operational discretion is applied.

Fire and rescue services should consider having systems in place that take account of the unique circumstances confronted by incident commanders to enable them to record the reasons and rationale for their decision to apply operational discretion where it was relevant. The level of detail should reflect the complexity or severity of the incident, and any lessons learned.

Fire and rescue services should foster an organisational and operational culture that encourages and empowers the appropriate use of operational discretion. The aim should be to instil confidence in incident commanders to share their experiences, and to value the lessons learned. Services should ensure that all personnel understand why it may be appropriate for operational discretion to be applied by an incident commander.

Fire and rescue services should develop their incident commanders by testing their personal resilience and decision-making under pressure; appropriately using both command skills is essential when applying operational discretion.

The application of operational discretion may assist with local, regional or national learning; for further information refer to National Operational Learning: Good practice guide for fire and rescue services. Incident commanders should be prepared to participate in reviews of operational policies and procedures following the application of operational discretion.

Joint decision-making

Decision-making at an incident ground may also be carried out by other responders. At multi-agency incidents the JESIP Joint Decision Model is the process that emergency responders have agreed to use for joint decision-making.

In addition to the fire and rescue service decision control process, the joint decision model aims to determine:

  • If there is a common understanding and position on the situation and response held by the multi-agency team of commanders
  • If the collective decision is fit for purpose for each of the commanders

Figure: JESIP joint decision model

The decision control process support the JESIP joint decision model. Commanders use the decision control process to develop their incident plan, which will then be shared with other agencies when applying the joint decision model. Agencies will jointly agree the multi-agency objectives, with each having an understanding of their role in achieving these.

These multi-agency objectives will need to be translated into actions and incorporated in each service’s incident response plan. Fire incident commanders will consider these collective objectives, and consider the tactical priorities and operational tactics required, integrating them into their incident plan using the decision control process.

Decision logs

Incident commanders and the command team are accountable for the decisions they make. They should be able to provide reasons for what they did and why. Appropriate records should be kept at incidents to log key events, critical decisions and the thinking behind the actions taken.

A decision log should record actions which influence the incident plan, even if there is uncertainty over how important a decision might turn out to be.

The method of recording and amount of detail will depend on the size and scale of the incident. For smaller incidents it may be enough to use informative messages, tactical modes and records made in notebooks. Records, such as formal decision logs, should be more detailed for large or complex incidents.

A decision log provides:

  • An accurate, ‘at the time’, record of decisions made, including those where no action is taken
  • An audit trail of decisions, along with the reasons for making them based on the information available at the time
  • A record of new information or changes in the situation
  • A record of risk-critical information from other services or agencies
  • A way of helping the handover between commanders

It is important to record the rationale behind each decision. This will help those who may examine the decision-making process in the future. A decision log is not designed to record every action taken; however if there is any uncertainty over how important a decision might turn out to be, it should be recorded.

If this information is not recorded, post-incident debriefs will not have a decision-making audit trail to review. This may limit the lessons learned from an incident and may not provide effective feedback to aid operational improvement. Decision logs may also form part of the evidence in the event of an investigation.

Decision logs should not be confused with an individual’s contemporaneous notes.

Further information may be found in Incident command: Knowledge, skills and competence: Decision-making.

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