Blog by Brian Ward
Officer with Gwinnett County Fire Department in Georgia
The International Association of Fire Chiefs describes Crew Resource Management (CRM) as the effective management of all available resources to mitigate a situation while minimizing errors, improving safety and increasing performance. Five factors have been identified as major components in dealing with accidents. These same five factors make up the core of CRM. They include situational awareness, communication, decision making skills, teamwork, and safety barriers.
The first and arguably the most important component is situational awareness. Everything on an emergency incident functions and revolves around situational awareness, including our decision making on the fireground. Situational awareness is commonly referred to as the Big Picture. It also encompasses more than just the Big Picture.
In Gary Klein and Caroline E. Zsamboks Naturalistic Decision Making, situational awareness is broken down into three levels:
Level 1: Perception of the Elements in the Environment
Level 2: Comprehension of the Situation
Level 3: Projection of Future Status
For the fire service this translates to how we perceive incidents, being able to understand incidents and how factors are interrelated in accomplishing our goals and forecasting future factors of an incident.
If situational awareness is not the most important key to handling an incident, then it most certainly is communication. Without effective communication, nothing will be accomplished. The IAFC describes communication as the cornerstone of CRM. There are six keys areas to communication: sender, receiver, message, medium, filters and feedback. Its best to use face-to-face communication when possible, but radio is the only option most of the time. Regardless of the method, the six key areas must be understood and used in order for communication to work and the job to be completed. Within these six key areas there are several other items that need to be addressed. The first is simply being clear and concise. Say what you mean and give enough detail, but don’t overload the individuals working memory space.
Below is a prime example from Gary Klein’s Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions on how even great leaders can make a communication mistake:
During World War II, Winston Churchill gave the order to not engage with warships that were larger and that could destroy their individual ships. What he meant was do not try and take on ships larger than theirs and lose. Consequently, one of his admirals had surrounded an enemy warship but let it go because it was larger and he did not want any trouble with his superiors. This was not the intent of Churchill’s letter to the admiral, but because of unclear communication, it happened. That same warship went on to destroy some of Britain’s ships, playing a significant role against the British during the war.
Situational awareness is vital to how we make decisions. One recent study examining military fighter pilots showed their decisions were directly based on how they perceived situations. They may have made the right call for their perception of the incident, but they didn’t perceive the situation correctly, so they failed.
In essence, having a strong background in situational awareness can help us make decisions within our limited scope of time. In conjunction with situational awareness, our incident commanders need accurate information relayed back to them to establish strategies and tactics. Once this has occurred, the leader can make a sound decision that will have a positive outcome on the incident.
In recent studies in the field of Naturalistic Decision Making, making decisions in a natural setting (real-life environment) has brought forward several considerations for training to be designed around, including mental simulation, pattern matching, story building and the power of intuition.
Each of these plays a part in how our brain relates to what is in front of us and how we make decisions. Nothing can replace on-scene experience, but that is not always something we can control. With this information, we have found the need for more training.
Using scenario-based or tactical decision games is a great way for a firefighter to begin to build patterns and stories of how to operate at an incident, without actually being on scene to learn. Mental simulation and intuition will only come once we show a complete understanding of how one factor relates to the next even when it’s not directly in front of us.
How often do we actually train or perform as a team? How often do we actually examine what we do as a team that makes us function effectively or fail? As firefighters we train constantly to function as part of a team; however, do we always carry that to the field?
When a team has worked together and has bonded, it functions smoothly. One key in reaching this goal is communicating suggestions and concerns to other team members. Mutual respect among team members is essential for it to excel.
Barriers or Safety Nets
Barriers or safety nets are put in place so that when we make a mistake, something is there to catch us. No matter who we are, how much training or education we have received, how much experience we’ve gained, or how many awards we have garnered, at some point we are going to make a mistake. The key is to understand our weaknesses and to avoid repeating the same mistake.
Barriers can come in the many different forms. Some of the obvious ones are SOPs/SOGs, effective training, core competency books, updated equipment and increased use of technology. Other barriers could include establishing Incident Safety Officers on all scenes, establishing RIC teams with proper resources and staffing, providing acting and company officers training, and offering drivers training programs.
One other area that can be of great benefit is the use of checklists and worksheets to help the officers on scene such as Incident Commander, Safety Officer, Rehab Group Supervisor and RIC Group Team Leader. Checklists can help remind the officers of the tasks to be completed, benchmarks, safety concerns and crew locations. However, with all great things there are downfalls.
We still have not found a way to checklist or talk a fire out. It’s important to remember that the checklist is only as effective as the expertise of the individual using it. We must still train and educate the same as before and still allow officers the discretion to change the plan of the checklist as they see fit. Each of these key areas has a place in every fire stations training schedule. The ability to understand how to correlate and implement these components into our training will translate to increased efficiency and safety on the fire ground.
About the Author
Brian Ward is an engineer/acting officer with Gwinnett County Fire Department in Georgia. He is a past training officer, chairman of the Metro Atlanta Training Officers and currently serves on the Honeywell Advisory Council. He is a State of Georgia Advocate for Everyone Goes Home and the Membership Task Force Co-Chair and Live Fire Instructor for ISFSI. Brian was recently awarded the National Seal of Excellence from the NFFF/EGH.