The majority of calls for fire and rescue agencies will continue to be based on small, manageable accidents; medical emergencies; natural disasters; and industrial and other fire-related events. However, with the advent of terrorist events, incident managers must be more aware of the potential for a planned attack on a civilian target made to appear as a routine fire department response.
More than 80% of terrorist events involve explosives. We have witnessed the results of various parties using improvised explosive devices to cause terror and further their respective political causes. In the recent attack in Madrid, it was reported that multiple unexploded secondary devices were placed to target emergency responders and increase the havoc and chaos of the response effort. This was neither the first — nor will it be the last — incident where this tactic was used.
In transitioning from the normal repertoire of emergencies, prudent chief fire officers would be well-advised to review the current thinking on critical decision-making. The initial decision to go or stand fast can result in solving the problem or decimating the response resources.
Gary Klein, Ph.D., the chief scientist and chairman of Klein Associates, coined the Recognition-Primed Decision Model. In this model, the experienced decision-maker matches cues from the situation at hand with experienced patterns from an earlier incident. Based on this cue recognition and incident signature, the decision-maker is primed to develop a mental simulation of a possible course of action. An experienced practitioner will recall a similar incident, operation or tactical activity that can be used or modified to address the situation at hand.
The notion that a formal, rational analysis, inventory and decision-selection process (such as Plans A, B and C with an evaluation of the merits and liabilities of each one) is conducted at every emergency incident by an experienced incident commander or emergency practitioner is false.
In more than 20 years of research, Klein and his associates have shown that experienced decision-makers typically will execute a quick and efficient course of action rather than work on the development of a perfect solution, which too often is executed too late. This process of recognizing incident cues, signatures or patterns; matching the pattern with a mental simulation of a successful course of action, typically based on experience and training; and rapidly executing that plan, is recognition-primed decision-making.
Experienced emergency practitioners frequently use the RPD process to make go/no-go decisions. Most experienced fireground commanders regularly make excellent split-second decisions every day to go interior, open the roof, evacuate, or skip the closest exposure and start defensive operations on other exposures with impressive results. Are there concerns about putting such faith in the intuition of the decision-makers? In this business, as in others, there are always concerns because the stakes of a bad decision are so high.
Klein relates some instances where a wrong pattern or cue or the inappropriate mental simulation lead to an unfavorable outcome. Decision-makers need to be alert for omissions or aberrations that suggest an incident is not routine. The level of complacency that exists in the minds of many emergency responders must be overcome. What all chief fire officers need to develop is the faith and courage to trust their intuition and experience when a new cue or incident signature appears and suggests a terrorist event.
For example, a fire commander who responds to the terrorist bombing of an occupied structure sees a familiar building type and manageable fire extent, so intuitively orders an aggressive interior fire attack. The commander may lose the first- and second-alarm complement to a secondary device if he or she has not considered the new terrorist-incident signature.
In this event, the new cues that immediately call for a no-go might be the extent of explosion-related damage visible on the initial size-up. Collapse of glass-curtain construction may not be as severe in the accidentally caused fire scenario. If the involved building is on the local terrorism watch-list, that may dictate a change in plan. These buildings may include stadiums; houses of worship; civic, state and federal buildings; high-rises; and family-planning clinics.
Another situational cue is when the experienced incident practitioner finds no mental simulation to match the scenario at hand. When deployed with's USAR teams to New York City on Sept. 12, 2001, I found myself walking down Broadway toward Church Street and the World Trade Center complex. No traffic, no noise, no pedestrians in the middle of the day in Manhattan and everything covered in the ash/dust mixture suggested a low situational awareness episode. These cues were totally foreign to my experience and training. I needed more information before I could order anyone to do anything. In matching the patterns and cues with courses of action, I described this phenomenon as the “no slide in the slide tray” moment.
When recognized by a chief officer, that moment can be of great value. It differentiates between those emergency activities that one can do intuitively and instinctively and those where the situational awareness is so low that it wouldn't be prudent to deploy resources into conditions that can't be assumed safe.
In the routine firefighting scenario, we are comfortable deploying companies to the interior and even above the fire to confine, extinguish and ventilate based on the conditions on arrival. In regards to our experience and training, the situational awareness is high.
In the suspected terrorist event where cues suggested a fire scenario, we are confronted with the situational awareness being low. In this mode, our default response is to issue a no-go for interior operations, instead focusing on multiple exterior operations. The first priority is improving situational awareness to support command and control. We assign multiple companies to perform reconnaissance. Next, we focus on life safety activities. For example, to prevent further injury, isolate by-standers and deny them entry. Establish hot, warm and cold zones to help avoid injury in case of a secondary collapse, initiate and support self-evacuation to avoid secondary devices, and employ the MCI EMS process to limit casualties.
Stabilizing the incident also will go a long way to keep your people safe. Unified command will help improve coordination, while perimeter security will not only safeguard the scene, but aid in accountability as well. Keep the public safe as well by forming a joint information center to reduce public panic.
There are two critical decision points where chief fire officers can have the most profound effect on the successful management of a terrorist event. The first-arriving chief officer reaches that decision point if he or she recognizes immediately after the initial size-up that escalation potential is high. This point will dictate whether the response will manage the commander or the commander will manage the response. All incidents start at the deficient resource stage until the first-arriving complement arrives on scene.
When the first-arriving officer makes the decision to augment or reinforce the initial assigned response, it's a confession that the potential for escalation is high. At this point the fireground commander must assess if the situational awareness is high or low.
In a terrorist event with low situational awareness, the commander can't successfully use the RPD model. There isn't enough experience, training, education or information available to do so, so the consultative decision model must be used. The CDM involves improving situational awareness by gathering more experienced practitioners in a unified command mode and using a more formal, rational and analytical decision-making process. In the United States, the process is called the National Incident Management System. The development of an incident action plan and the unified command process will be the default consultative decision model. (See “Future Funds Need NIMS,” in News & Trends.)
The second, and equally important, decision point is when the senior-arriving chief officer receives a briefing from the initial incident commander. This is the point where a bad plan can be aborted and a new plan instituted. Many senior officers will support a bad plan that they would not otherwise execute for fear of embarrassing the first commander, appearing unreasonable to the first command staff, or fear of the “skunk factor,” the cost associated with changing a plan in mid-execution. But senior officers have the responsibility and authority to improve the command function as early as possible for the good of the entire operation.
Preparing for terrorism is an activity that we will become more and more adept at in the future. Working on our ability to make sound and safe decisions is a prudent investment for the future of our local organization and those we are sworn to serve. For an in depth look at terrorism versus firefighters, check out the April American Heat on FETN.
John Linstrom is the education consultant for FETN. He served more than 20 years in fire departments in California and Texas before retiring with the rank of assistant chief. Linstrom is a National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer graduate and adjunct instructor. In addition, he's a member of the Federal Mass-Fatalities Recovery Team and California Task Force 6.