Decision-making

Control Measure Knowledge

This control measure should be read in conjunction with Decision-making

Fire control commanders need to be able to make sound decisions based on the elements of individual incidents. They also need to make an accurate overall interpretation of the activity in the control room.

Decision-making is essential to the development and implementation of plans in fire control. The fire control environment can be fast-moving with competing demands from multiple incidents and situations, which requires simultaneous decision-making processes. Plans are formed from multiple decisions about what will be done, how it will be done, in what order and who will do it.

Decision-making is a fundamental command skill that can have far-reaching consequences. The ability to make sound decisions based on the characteristics of an event or situation that can be dynamic and time-pressured requires an accurate interpretation of the overall situation. Sound decisions lead to assertive, effective and safe command of the fire control function. Sound decision-making will support positive outcomes in all aspects of fire control command, including:

  • Health and safety
  • The management of fire control activities
  • Incident management
  • Confidence and trust in 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 fire control commanders and fire control personnel by providing opportunities for them to practice and develop this critical skill. The inclusion of fire control commanders and their teams in fire service exercises will support this learning and development through practical application.

Fire control commanders make decisions on a wide variety of issues throughout all aspects of fire control activity, including:

  • 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. Decision-making happens in fire control, at the incident ground and at other agencies. It is critical that all decision makers are aware of this and understand the impact that each can have on the others.

Decision-making strategies

Fire control commanders may use several decision-making processes, which can be grouped into two main types:

  • 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 does not require conscious thinking. It may be driven by cues and clues that can trigger a decision or response automatically. Analytical decision-making is conscious and takes time and effort as it involves developing and comparing the options based on knowledge, understanding and experience of the situation.

Decision traps

Fire control commanders’ decisions may be subject to decision traps. A decision trap is an errant thought process that can lead to an incorrect decision being made, which may result in a situation worsening. The intuitive decision-making process is subject to biases; the process can also be affected by stress, which can impair thought processes.

There are two main types of uncertainty, which can be a source of stress for fire control commanders:

  • Intra-incident uncertainty: uncontrollable characteristics of an incident or situation; sources of uncertainty include:
    • Too much information
    • Insufficient information
  • Extra-incident uncertainty: characteristics of the command system not related to the incident or situation and beyond the fire control commander’s control; sources of uncertainty include:
    • Insufficient depth of understanding about the roles of others
    • Limited provision of information about inter-agency arrangements

One type of decision trap is decision inertia. It happens when a decision maker struggles to decide on what action to take when all options could have negative consequences.

There are several other types of decision traps that may make decisions in fire control less effective, including when:

  • A decision does not fit with the objectives, tactical priorities or fire control plans
  • A decision is made on one part of the situation, such as a cue or a goal, without considering the overall situation
  • A decision is based on a wrong interpretation
  • There is decision aversion
  • Failing to actively monitor and review the situation

Decision control process

Fire control personnel are responsible for the decisions they make. They should be able to justify what they did and why, supported by the decision control process (DCP). The DCP helps to reduce the likelihood of falling into a decision trap.

The DCP is scalable. It can be applied to basic decisions made for a task or problem and it can be scaled up for planning the response and support to multiple incidents. It complements the JESIP Joint Decision Model for multi-agency decision-making, particularly for assessing risk and developing a working strategy.

Evidence 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 in the fire control environment.

Under some circumstances, decision makers will respond rapidly and directly to an element of a situation, moving from situation assessment to action. This may happen when a cue prompts an intuitive decision. The DCP acknowledges how people naturally make rapid decisions and offers some safeguards against potential decision traps. The DCP also covers slower, more reflective analytical decision processes in which plans are formulated.

Individuals make decisions based on multiple factors related to the situation, perceived and actual time pressures, and the command role adopted. Therefore, decisions are not necessarily consciously selected. 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. Time constraints and the type of calls being received will impact the way fire control personnel may reach decisions. For example, initial mobilising decisions need to be made rapidly and often with limited information. However, when deciding what action to take to meet relief personnel requirements or operational cover moves, more time can be taken to reach decisions and to put appropriate plans in place.

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: JESIP Decision Control Process

Fire control commanders should actively monitor and evaluate the situation to ensure their plan remains suitable and is making progress towards expectations.

Situation

All commanders base their decisions on their interpretation of a situation. Good situational awareness is key to understanding the situation coherently and to predict likely developments. By assessing the situation, the fire control commander can understand the current characteristics and details of an incident, event or situation and consider the desired outcome.

Fire control commanders should continually assess the situation to support accurate awareness, reviewing their plan and the information used to formulate it. They should gather relevant information while 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 expectations of how the situation 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

To deliver the fire control function safely and effectively, fire control commanders should identify the fire control resources currently available to them and those likely to be required. Appropriate methods to increase the capacity of the control room should be considered, implemented and managed promptly. The time it will take for additional fire control personnel to arrive or for the implementation of alternative call handling arrangements should be considered when developing plans. Available resources should always be managed effectively. For more information refer to Hazard – Overwhelmed emergency call handling capacity.

Technological resources can support situational awareness and assist with decision-making, including specialist software available via weather forecasting services, environmental and government agencies.

For specific incidents, events or situations, early identification of the need for specialist advice or assistance may be advantageous.

Plan

After assessing the situation, the fire control commander should consider the plans needed. The fire control commander can identify their objectives and develop a plan from their understanding of the current situation and the factors affecting fire control activity.

Their plans may include:

  • The objectives and goals for the incident, event or situation
  • The priorities of the fire control function
  • The call handling resources available
  • The levels of skills and experience of fire control personnel
  • Welfare arrangements for fire control personnel
  • Information received from operational incidents
  • How personnel are going to achieve the priorities
  • Whether specialist assistance will be required
  • What equipment or additional processes will be required
  • The expected outcome and timings
  • Contingency arrangements

Plans should be reviewed regularly and updated based on active monitoring of how effectively objectives are being met. Active monitoring should be used to evaluate the situation to ensure plans remain suitable and are making progress towards expectations.

Plans should be adapted in accordance with changes if there are unexpected developments in the incident, event or situation, or in the overall fire control activity.

Planning and review should be done in conjunction with the incident commander and command support officers to ensure that it is understood whether incident ground requirements are being met.

Decision controls

Decision controls represent a safety mechanism to guard against decision traps in the decision control process. They build in reflective thinking ahead of decisions being made and support fire control commanders in ensuring 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, event or situation will change because of the action
    • What cues are expected
  • How the benefits compare to the risks:
    • Consider whether the benefits of proposed actions justify the risks

Action

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 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 if it will help to increase or maintain control

Active monitoring

Fire control personnel should actively monitor and evaluate the situation, including progress being achieved, to ensure their situational awareness remains accurate. The fire control commander should ensure this takes place and that situational awareness is shared.

Fire control commanders should consider whether their plans are suitable, sufficient and safe; they should consider and question any areas of uncertainty, especially any assumptions they have made. An active monitoring process by fire control commanders and their teams is essential to aid situational awareness during ongoing incidents.

Progress information should be considered, including:

  • Actual progress; what progress has 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; what is now predicted

Operational audits in fire control may be a source of information for learning within the fire control function and in the wider fire and rescue service. However, to be effective, audits should be conducted by personnel with understanding and experience of the fire control environment and who are trained to assess and monitor the performance of others. Due to the limitations of available personnel in fire control, operational assurance activities may not be feasible during incidents, however they should be considered during incident management where possible.

For more information refer to Corporate guidance for operational activity – Operational audits.

Dynamic mobilising

Dynamic mobilising describes the use of professional judgement by fire control personnel when deciding on the level of response to mobilise to an incident based on the information received. It is defined as ‘the ability to achieve the best match between incident need and resources available at the earliest opportunity to ensure those in need receive a safe and appropriate service’.

Fire and rescue services should be aware that the term ‘dynamic mobilising’ may also be adopted by suppliers of mobilising systems. In that context it may describe technologies that use automatic vehicle location systems to identify and propose a resource for mobilisation. That meaning is different from the meaning of the term in this guidance.

Fire and rescue services will decide in advance on the appropriate level of response for each incident type that they anticipate attending. The level of response will be decided by task analysis or similar methodology that assesses the number and type of resources required for the safe resolution of incidents. This information will then be used to calculate the pre-determined attendance proposed by the mobilising system. It is therefore essential that this process is considered when applying dynamic mobilising techniques. It is also essential that fire control personnel understand the process and select the most appropriate incident type based on the type of call and the information gathered. This will form the basis of their risk assessment when deciding on the level of response to be mobilised.

Dynamic mobilising enables fire control personnel to use all available information at the point of call to decide upon the most appropriate response according to the risk. As more information is obtained from callers and other responding agencies, the fire control commander should assess the situation and amend the level of response or pre-determined attendance and initial mobilising actions if necessary. Continuous assessment and accurate situational awareness are essential to ensure the most appropriate response.

Most of the situations that fire control personnel face are common and predictable. In managing incidents, fire control commanders use pre-determined attendances, response plans and action plans and their own experience and knowledge of guidance, together with that of fire control personnel and the operational command team. Fire and rescue services should ensure that fire control personnel are sufficiently aware of policies and procedures, and the capability of the available resources.

In all situations where dynamic mobilising strategies are used it is essential that the rationale for the decision and any subsequent decisions and actions are recorded in the incident log. Associated actions will depend upon the nature of the incident and the management arrangements of the fire and rescue service. This may include informing the fire control commander or another appropriate supervisory manager, team member or duty officer.

Fire control personnel may also consider reallocating resources already en route to an incident when a new incident type is of a higher priority. In this situation it is essential that the resource is replaced and that the incident log is completed with the decision-making rationale and any other associated actions taken, such as informing the fire control commander, another supervisory manager or team member.

When overseeing the implementation of dynamic mobilising strategies, the fire control commander should consider:

  • The levels of skill and experience of the fire control personnel mobilising resources
  • The supervision needs of fire control personnel
  • The location of available resources
  • The travel time of resources to the incident
  • Access to the incident
  • Any additional or conflicting information received from emergency callers
  • The availability and location of specialist equipment
  • The need for specialist skills and expertise
  • Tactical and other specialist advisers
  • Police, ambulance and other Category 1 and Category 2 emergency responders

Operational discretion

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. When incidents occur for which no policy exists and that require fire control personnel to make innovative or unorthodox decisions, it is essential that the decision-making rationale is recorded and all appropriate actions are taken.

These actions may include:

  • Informing the fire control manager
  • Informing the incident commander
  • Informing other officers, such as duty officers, responsible for operational events
  • Recording the decision-making rationale
  • Recording all resulting actions

Fire and rescue services should foster an organisational and operational culture that encourages and empowers the appropriate use of dynamic mobilising strategies and operational discretion in fire control. The aim should be to instil confidence in fire control commanders to share their experiences and to value the lessons learned.

Fire and rescue services should develop their fire control personnel by testing their personal resilience and decision-making under pressure; using both of these command skills appropriately is essential when applying dynamic mobilising strategies and operational discretion.

The application of dynamic mobilising strategies and operational discretion may assist with local, regional or national learning; for more information refer to National Operational Learning – Good practice guide for fire and rescue services. Fire control commanders should be prepared to participate in reviews of policies and procedures following the use of operational discretion.

Joint decision-making

Other emergency responders may also use joint decision-making during incidents. 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 (DCP) supports the JESIP joint decision model. Commanders use the DCP 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 DCP.

The JESIP Control Room Supporting Principles provide the framework for the sharing of situational awareness between control rooms, and the mechanism for establishing multi-agency interoperable voice communications. Once established, multi-agency talk groups or other methods such as conference calls will allow responding commanders and control rooms to share situational awareness and the decisions made.

Decision logs

It is essential that fire and rescue services consider how to record the decisions made in fire control.

It is the role of fire control personnel to record all actions taken and decisions made in fire control in connection with the incidents managed. The electronic incident log generated by the mobilising system is one record of actions and decisions, however fire and rescue services may consider using alternative methods during, for example, business continuity events or where immediate access to electronic systems is not available.

Electronic incident logs generated by mobilising systems should be maintained and updated, recording key events and actions in addition to all messages and routine incident activity. The electronic incident log is a way of maintaining an accurate time-stamped record of the actions taken by fire control personnel, however this should be considered when recording decisions and decision-making rationale. The time the decision was taken, and by whom, should also be recorded.

Fire and rescue services may consider the configuration of the incident narrative log to provide methods for inputting information that identifies the type of message. This will aid information management during an incident and provide a clear record to review in the post-incident phase.

The incident log should record all the decisions that might influence an incident, including decisions that seem unimportant. It is also important to record the rationale behind each decision and the context in which it was made, as it can be very difficult to recall the context later. This will help review of the decision-making process in the future.

The entries to the incident log must include:

  • The time that a decision was taken
  • A description of the decision and the rationale behind it
  • A description of other options that were available and why they were discounted
  • The name of the person or people making the decision; if it was a shared decision, the names of all involved should be included
  • Resulting actions, including who the decision was shared with or communicated to

The incident log provides:

  • An accurate, ‘at the time’ record of decisions made, including those where no action was 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 the actions taken relating to the incident
  • A record of risk-critical information from other services or agencies
  • A way of helping the handover between fire control personnel

To support the recording of decision-making rationale during larger or more complex incidents, fire and rescue services may consider providing fire control commanders with suitable technology such as body-worn cameras or voice recorders. Fire and rescue services may also consider using voice recording methods included within fire control mobilising systems to allow fire control personnel to record their decision-making rationale. Information from such devices may then be retained and accessed in line with current legislation and the fire and rescue service’s own data retention and information management policies. Fire and rescue services may also consider providing fire control personnel with additional loggist training to help them identify and record the decisions made.

The information recorded in incident and decision logs and voice recording systems provides post-incident debriefs with a decision-making audit trail to review, enabling lessons to be learned from an incident and providing effective feedback to aid operational improvement.

Following their involvement in a major incident, or because of the nature of an emergency call and the circumstances of the situation, fire control commanders or fire control personnel may need to provide evidence at formal inquiries or legal proceedings. It is therefore vital that all material relating to an incident, including audio recordings, handwritten notes and records of debriefs, are retained in accordance with current legislation and the fire and rescue service’s data retention policies.

All incident and decision logs and audio recordings, including material relating to other incidents ongoing at the time, will be admissible as evidence in any subsequent criminal, judge- or coroner-led process. Care should therefore be taken to ensure that appropriate language is used and that accounts are written in such a way that they can be understood later.

More information regarding attendance at coroner’s court, public inquiry or the equivalent can be found in:

Strategic Actions

Tactical Actions